Friday, April 7, 2017

Don't Let the Food Trucks Fool You, A's are Still Fisher's

Opening Day at the old ballyard in Oakland brought something entirely foreign to the Athletics' loyal fans, hardy as weeds and equally abused. After years, in fact with the glorious exception of the Haas affair, the gloomy, loveless marriage between the team and "The Town" seemed to have suddenly improved. The A's woke up and decided to love the city they are with. Oh, happy days! Right?

The A's 2016 offseason was rather compelling drama. First, minority owner and majority mouthpiece Lew Wolff announced an intention to sell his stake -- he the much derided Moses, always aiming to take the team to anywhere other than Oakland -- Fremont! San Jose!

Then, alerted via ship-to-shore radio as he traversed the Mediterranean on his yacht blissfully aware that he even owned a baseball team, silent uber-majority owner John Fisher -- he of the Gap family threads and wealth -- heard the team's distress call and sailed into the bay to restore order. Needing a first lieutenant, Fisher tapped Dave Kaval. Kaval, a (successful) mini-Moses in the stadium world, helped bring about a new facility for Fisher and Wolff's San Jose Earthquakes.

Kaval is where the story gets interesting. After years of deteriorating relationships with Oakland, open flirtations with San Jose and a decidedly underwhelming community presence, Kaval saw the light coming from the Sunny Side of the Bay and became born again in his and the team's passion for Oakland.

Kaval, named team president, off-the-bat announced that he was holding "office hours" for fans to come and offer suggestions for improving the fan experience. The good vibes led to a relocated FanFest gracing Jack London Square as opposed to being shoehorned into Oracle Arena. A savior has arrived!

There can be no doubt that the A's have installed a charismatic, smooth-talking president. And, some of the moves -- food trucks, christening the field after Rickey Henderson and the "#RootedInOakland" campaign -- are easy, feel-good lay-ups that any competent owner should have done. But, Kaval is not an equity ownership member. He's a public face for a team without one -- as Fisher is virtually invisible.

The buck really stops with Fisher, but he isn't speaking. It's easy to forget that the new collective bargaining agreement removes the A's revenue-sharing carve-out. This revenue is a big deal and will be completely gone in 2020.

While no one knows for sure if the estimates are accurate, Forbes listed the A's operating income at $32.7M in 2016. Given that they took home more than $30M in revenue sharing least year, it isn't hard to see how the team might become a more challenging investment for Fisher.

The cynic says that Kaval is making the team appear more attractive to potential suitors. Given the, until-now, chronic community disinterest by the team's ownership group, it's not unreasonable to think that the perceived value of the team in the eye's of potential suitors is depressed. It's important to remember that prices paid for franchises are not based on profitability or some kind of hard grounding. They are wildly inflated ego chases, fueled by prestige and scarcity.

Another cynical way of looking at the A's feel-good moves is that they are working to drum-up community support for a new ballpark. This is possible, but generally only used when a team is looking for public subsidies. As the Raiders just illustrated, none are coming in today's political environment in Oakland. Also, unlike the Raiders, the A's new ballpark has always been presented as a fully-funded private venture.

Could it be that John Fisher just realized what a middling fan experience the team offered and set out to change things? Unlikely. The A's have been very public about their need to remain profitable at all times and have embodied, in their myriad trades and salary dumps, the essence of a business-first operation. They are all about the dollars.

For A's fans, who for years derided and loathed the skinflint, leave-town Wolff, to turn around and embrace Kaval and say all is forgiven is to be incredibly short-sighted. The non-team performance improvements are much-needed and welcome, but this is not the start of a new era.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

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