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  • Writer's pictureDavid Sack

Oakland A's Gamble That in Vegas They'll Find Winning Hand that Lures Fans to Stands

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When the Oakland Athletics signed a binding purchase agreement for land to construct a new ballpark in Las Vegas last month, it kicked off the MLB franchise’s plans for an unceremonious exit from Oakland, the city they’ve called home since 1968.

With the franchise pivoting to a new ballpark site in Las Vegas less than a month later, and still needing to come to a concrete agreement with state and local officials on a plan to build a stadium (essentially, they need to decide who’s paying for it), the A’s’ departure from the East Bay is far from solidified. But the franchise’s fan relations moves over the past couple of years would have you think it’s a done deal.

It feels like a lifetime ago when 54,005 fans packed the RingCentral Coliseum to watch the A’s host the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL Wild Card Game in 2019. Though the 97-win juggernaut lost in a heartbreaker, 1-0, there was no doubt that the city still held the team in high regard. This packed house occurred in spite of its low payroll and crumbling coliseum, which 10 years ago saw its sewer system flood into the A’s coaches’ bathrooms.

After fielding respectable teams in both the 2020 and 2021 seasons, the A’s essentially ditched fan relations in Oakland. Despite slashing its payroll to a league-low $32M, per The Baseball Cube, the team substantially raised ticket prices prior to the 2022 season.

The A’s’ remaining fans in Oakland have left little doubt of their feelings. The team averages a tick more than 10,000 paid attendees per game, the lowest in MLB. Fans are protesting, displaying signs during games calling for team owner John Fisher to sell the team, and planning a reverse boycott in June, filling the stadium for a game to show that their supposed lack of support of the team isn’t why the A’s are leaving.

While it’s no secret how Oakland’s baseball fans feel, the far more interesting discussion centers around the team’s potential future fanbase in Las Vegas. How do these future Las Vegas A’s fans feel about baseball’s biggest laughingstock becoming the city’s first taste of big league baseball?

A look back in history may provide a glimpse. While not necessarily the butt of national jokes in the same way as the Oakland A’s, the then Baltimore Colts left their fans similarly burned with their overnight loading of a Mayflower moving truck headed for Indianapolis. In fact, Maryland’s governor at the time, Harry Hughes, signed an eminent domain bill attempting to seize the Colts from its owner, Robert Irsay.

But the Colts were well received in Indianapolis with its mayor at the time, William Hudnut, holding an impromptu press conference the next morning to proclaim that, ''The Colts are coming to Indianapolis.” And though the team stumbled in its first three seasons in Indy, failing to make the postseason in any of them, the team averaged a sell out in its first year, and averaged more than 55,000 fans per home game during the two subsequent seasons.

To this day, the Colts have been successful in Central Indiana. Led by legendary quarterback Peyton Manning, the Colts won their first championship in Indianapolis in 2007, defeating the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. Just a year later, the team opened Lucas Oil Stadium. The gleaming 70,000-seat facility, which features a retractable roof and sits squarely in Downtown Indy, is evidence of the team’s ongoing foothold in the city.

So will the A’s be able to turn a new leaf and refresh their reputation upon a potential move to Las Vegas? A key difference between the A’s of today and the Colts of the 1980s is that the team successfully convinced the public that Baltimore, and its local and state governments, were responsible for the move over failed negotiations around funding of a new stadium. As Hudnut told the Baltimore Sun in 2004, “I always say that Baltimore lost the Colts. We didn’t steal them.”

That’s not the case in Oakland in 2023. The city has seemingly negotiated in earnest with the franchise, discussing various options to keep the A’s in Oakland. Negotiations around the most recently proposed stadium site in the city, at Howard Terminal, seemed to be going well until the team missed a deadline to finalize its plan. This stretched negotiations into this year, something A’s president Dave Kaval had previously warned would “all but doom our efforts in Oakland.”

Seemingly a part of its strategic plans to leave Oakland, the A’s have bottomed out, by choice. Only time will tell if what happens in Oakland stays there.

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