In 1989, Oakland Athletics home games were attended by 2,667,225 people–in the American League, only the Toronto Blue Jays, who were opening up their brand new stadium then known as SkyDome, turned more fans through the turnstiles. Entering the 1990s, Oakland was not only packing fans into their stadium, but they were loading up with star talent–in 1991, the Athletics had a payroll of nearly $37 million, the highest in Major League Baseball. They were not merely a good team and a profitable team but an iconic one, with a roster including such talents as Dennis Eckersley and Rickey Henderson, plus the legendary “Bash Brothers” of José Canseco and Mark McGwire.
The 2020 United States Census showed Oakland at a historically high population, with the San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland combined statistical area remaining at #5 among the nation’s most populous areas. There is no logical reason that a city like Oakland is now losing its third major professional sports team in less than four years.
Of course, one of these relocations was simply across the Bay Area to San Francisco, for a Golden State Warriors franchise which has never donned Oakland’s name. But the Oakland Raiders, having already experienced relocation to Los Angeles in the 1980s before they returned in 1995, left for the 2020 season to Las Vegas, the city to which the Oakland Athletics now intend to build a stadium, per team president Dave Kaval in news originally reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
The Warriors were largely victims of their own success–that the Warriors became the defining NBA team of their generation alongside “whichever one LeBron James happens to be on at this moment” made what was already a rabid fan base expanded, and largely more affluent, and largely more concentrated in San Francisco. The Raiders were largely the victim of Al Davis’s mortality–his failson Mark applied heat on Oakland almost immediately (though it’s not as though Al is renowned for his loyalty to Oakland, either)–and despite the Raiders openly trying to leave Oakland, the crumbling Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum still was the home to over 57,000 fans per game from 2016-2018, before attendance dipped to 52,549 in their lame duck final season of 2019.
The Oakland Athletics brought over two million fans to home games as recently as 2014–even as attendance dipped as the team began to struggle, they were never historically bad at bringing fans to the ballpark. In 2019, the final pre-pandemic season, the Athletics outdrew seven MLB teams, including over 6,000 more fans per game than the Tampa Bay Rays team that defeated them in the 2019 Wild Card Game, a sell-out which will likely be the final game played in front of fans in the history of the Oakland Coliseum. Attendance hit its lowest mark since 1979 in 2021, but pandemic restrictions played a major part in this. But in 2022, attendance cratered without the assistance of a newly discovered once-in-a-century contagion–the Athletics tallied 787,902 fans. And this was by design.
The Oakland Athletics have spent a generation trying to convince civic leaders in the Bay Area to build them, or at the very least give them some money for, a new stadium, often outside of Oakland but at least close enough that such a change in venue would not be labeled a relocation (as is the case with the Warriors). And despite a perfectly viable 2021 team, one which missed the postseason but finished a respectable 86-76, the Oakland Athletics organization, entering the final season of legendary general manager/president of baseball operations Billy Beane, tore their core down to its studs. Of the team’s five best players in 2021 by Wins Above Replacement, only one would remain on the roster for Opening Day 2022–Matt Olson, Chris Bassitt, Matt Chapman, and Sean Manaea would be traded for low-cost prospects, while the fifth player, Frankie Montas, would be dealt at the trade deadline to the New York Yankees, the hyper-wealthy team which was consistently outdrawn by the Oakland Athletics in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Athletics were predictably miserable in 2022, finished 60-102 under first-year manager Mark Kotsay (previous manager Bob Melvin, who had spent 11 years in Oakland, was essentially just permitted to take over in San Diego; needless to say, the first-time manager Kotsay came a bit cheaper), and got worse in the off-season: the team’s best position player, Sean Murphy, was sent to Atlanta in a three-team trade in which the next-best player somehow went to Milwaukee, and the team’s best pitcher, Cole Irvin, was traded to the Baltimore Orioles for an infielder, Darell Hernaiz, who spent most of 2022 in high-A.
I have repeatedly compared to the relocation of the St. Louis Rams to Los Angeles to the premise of the 1989 baseball comedy Major League, in which a cheapskate owner, hoping to relocate the Cleveland then-Indians to Miami, intentionally makes her team terrible in order to drive down attendance and justify the move, but for everything the Rams did to drive away fans (and HOO BOY THERE WERE A LOT OF THOSE THINGS), they at least maintained a relatively competitive payroll. The 2023 Oakland Athletics, who currently sit at 3-16, have a payroll of just over $60 million–their two highest paid players are Trevor May, a 33 year-old journeyman relief pitcher, and Aledmys Díaz, the former St. Louis Cardinals shortstop who was most recently a utility player for the Houston Astros.
Apologists for sports owners, of which there are countless, will cite low attendance in Oakland as a cause for lack of revenue (though, not for nothing, the two most highly attended games in which the Athletics have played this season were in Oakland–road trips to Tampa Bay and Baltimore will do that for you), but the opposite is true–the lack of commitment of the Oakland Athletics to building a competitive baseball team has driven fans away from the stadium. Teams received more than $110 million per season from shared league revenue–while this alone is not enough to field a highly competitive team, it is easily enough to field a team giving more effort than the Athletics.
Once the Athletics move to Las Vegas, the metropolitan area will become the smallest CSA in the North America with three big four sports teams (supplanting Pittsburgh), and thanks to efforts from the NBA to expand to Las Vegas, it will likely replace Denver as the smallest to have all four fairly soon. The manifestation of Las Vegas, a market barely populous enough that having one team is sensible, into the hot destination for new teams is a reflection of how sports in 2023 markets itself–Las Vegas is a thriving market for the NHL and NFL not because of a massive local following but as a vacation destination for visiting fans (having attended a Blues at Golden Knights game, I will admit to being part of the problem), and the Las Vegas Athletics will likely do fairly well attendance-wise because, frankly, there are more fans who want to travel to Las Vegas, a city for which entertainment and tourism is nearly the entire economy, than Oakland.
And this is why, even if one does not have an ounce of empathy for the fans of Oakland, this should be worrying. Because the trend, though nothing new, has come to fruition for the first time in decades in baseball–owners will extort their home municipalities and will take retribution against those who do not pay to play. This is particularly dire for those fans in smaller markets–in MLB’s smallest current market, Milwaukee, the Brewers organization is claiming to need $428 million in repairs over the next two decades for American Family Field (of note, the current stadium is barely 20 years old and, though I have not been to it recently, is by most accounts perfectly fine). Across the state in Kansas City, baseball’s third smallest market, the Royals have aggressively lobbied for a downtown stadium to replace Kauffman Stadium, which sits barely within the city limits in a massive sports complex with little viable entertainment nearby outside of tailgating. Ranked fifth in terms of smallest markets, at least until Las Vegas enters the chat, is St. Louis.
I’ve written before that St. Louis losing the Cardinals at some point in the future is a possibility, and I think most people think I am joking or being hyperbolic for effect, but I promise you that it is not that. Relocating the Cardinals from St. Louis is not going to happen in the near future, in all likelihood, but that it could ever happen is not substantially more ridiculous than that the Oakland Athletics, a banner franchise just three decades ago, would skip town. Those who experienced the relocation of the Rams can already accurately predict the justifications and should be able to predict that plenty of fans of other teams, those with no incentive to support relocations, will view the exodus as the end result of the sins of the city, because if billionaires were able to unilaterally move what are effectively perceived as public trusts to new cities because the cities placed a higher priority of funding education or basic public services over investing in private businesses, well, how could any of us sleep at night knowing that?
For all of the obnoxious Best Fans in Baseball debates, whether that term is being used as a sincere honorific or as a slur, the actual best fans in baseball live in Oakland–there just aren’t as many as there are fans of more successful teams. Oaklanders are showing up to a decaying stadium, an ugly relic of a bygone era of stadium which was designed to be shared with a now-absent NFL team, a stadium in which literal possums are taking up residence, and loudly cheering on a team run by people who are going out of their way to assure that they do not show up to the stadium. St. Louisans freak out (and in a vacuum, I don’t even think they are wrong to freak out) about mid-eighties win totals when the Cardinals have not had a losing record since 2007. Oakland Athletics fans are being left with the appalling choice of supporting an aggressively evil company or giving in to the inevitability that said company is placing upon them. And what is happening to them is vile.
2 thoughts on “What happened in Oakland can happen anywhere”
Bravo! Thank you for this.
Yes, this can happen anywhere. Wanna know what needs to happen in St Louis? They need to get two starting pitchers and a new GM. It’s clear that the front office is making Mgmt calls from “Up On High,” our team is ridiculously lopsided between having what could be the best top to bottom lineup and the most embarrassing pitching staff in StL history. Are they TRYING to set an MLB record for giving up RBI’s after two strikes? MO Has Got To Go. End of story. End of an Error. The league is littered with 25-35 year-old former Cardinals who are doing better away from than under him. The Ozuna trade alone is reason for unceremonious dismissal. Who can watch this team without shedding a tear right now? Not me.