Thursday, July 31, 2008

Fremont in Flux

Remember those neat renderings of the A's future home, Cisco Field? Well, they may never get off the drawing board:

Each move that has sent away a familiar face and brought in an untested one, A's executives have said, has been done with the future in mind.

But where that future will take place remains in as much question as ever, especially after owner Lew Wolff told Bay Area News Group he is unsure if the team's attempt to build a state-of-the-art ballpark in Fremont will succeed.

"I don't know. I honestly don't," Wolff said Wednesday when asked if Cisco Field will come to fruition. "But say it doesn't. We're still under a lot of pressure to get a park that is our own. That isn't going to go away. So my hope is that we'll find a way to make it happen. It has not been as easy as I thought it would be" . . .

. . . Wolff acknowledged that [Cisco Field] is closer to limbo than it is reality. Wolff said the team continues to wait for environmental impact reports to be finished and that the need to satisfy several constituencies has slowed the progress. The A's had planned to open their Fremont park in 2011, but that date was pushed back to 2012 in April.

"It is now in flux," Wolff said. "All I can say is we're working hard every day, because our options if we fail, we really haven't thought about those options."
Here are some options: Portland, Las Vegas, Charlotte . . .

Or maybe not. Really, we have probably reached the point where there simply aren't any easy-answer destinations for a team looking to relocate. Potential relocation cities are either too small or too poor, or too unwilling to pony up public funds (yay!) or else are too close to an existing team and the A's are thus (illegally) prevented from moving there.

Upshot: if Wolff can't figure out how to jump through the regulatory hoops that seem to be standing between the A's and Fremont, they may be in Oakland for a long, long time.

Good seats still available.


Drew said...

I might not understand the situation, but from the way I look at it I don't know how much I agree with the statement that it's illegal for MLB to block a franchise move, or even that it's wrong. I think the right way to think about MLB is that MLB is the company, and each team is a franchise (that's probably why they call them that), just like McDonald's, for example. McDonald's (the corporation) has right of approval on the location of any new McDonald's (I can't open one next door to a current restaurant) and it seems MLB has earned the right to do the same. It's only if you think of each TEAM as a corporation, and MLB as a product that they sell, that it becomes problematic to think a team can't move. Perhaps I don't understand the business arrangement, but that's how I've always thought about it, and that's why I've never had a problem with that sort of thing.

Craig Calcaterra said...

Legally, it's not set up that way, Drew. From the famous decision -- FEDERAL BASEBALL CLUB V. NATIONAL LEAGUE, 259 U. S. 200 (1922)-- which recognized the antitrust exemption:

"The defendants are the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs and the American League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, unincorporated associations, composed respectively of groups of eight incorporated baseball clubs, joined as defendants"

It is my understanding that it is still arranged that way. Teams are individual companies, affiliated under an umbrella organization known as Major League Baseball. It's not unlike several competing widget manufacturers united under a trade association.

The legal basis of the exemption from antitrust laws WAS NOT that the teams aren't separate businesses. If it were, it would be a simple case, in which the court would have said that the competition-promoting Sherman Act didn't apply because these are not businesses in competition. That's not what happned. What happened was that the court said that, though they are separate businesses, their business does not invoke interstate commerce, and thus the Sherman Act does not apply. That's a dubious holding, but it was the holding all the same.

Modern leagues (WNBA, MLS) have avoided all of this by making a point to specifically organize as a single, unified company, as it were, with each team constituting a separare operating division, which basically approximates what you describe. Baseball has not done so, nor do I believe it can -- either technically or practically speaking -- going forward.

drew said...

Ah, well that explains it. I always figured the term "Franchise" meant something. I guess it does in other sports, but not Major League Baseball. On the other hand, with all the revenue sharing and front office approvals, does baseball meaningfully operate in a different fashion, or is it all legal mumbo jumbo?

Mac said...

Well, if the Canadian dollar keeps beating up the US dollar, Montreal and Vancouver are going to start looking like attractive destinations again.

Alex said...

Have they considered just building a new park in Oakland? I've been to McAfee and it's awful. Probably the worst park I've been to, and that includes RFK and FulCo. Is there a football team that plays there or something?

Moving across the country (or even across the northern border) isn't such a bad idea. Charlotte, VA Beach...honestly, the southeast could use more teams. In fact, I've heard VA Beach is the biggest metro area in the coutry without a major sports franchise. Oh well, I'm sure they'll wind up doing what's best for nobody.

Roger Moore said...

IANAL, but my impression is that Federal Baseball was in line with other rulings of the period. The Supreme Court at that time had a very narrow view of the Interstate Commerce clause; their approach was that it applied only to trade that crossed state lines. The argument was that individual games were purely in-state affairs. Any inter-state aspects of the games- travel and arrangements for the games- were incidental. That meant that baseball didn't constitute inter-state commerce and couldn't be regulated by the Federal government.

I don't agree with their conclusion, but it wasn't out of step with other rulings of the period. The Court at that time had a very narrow reading of the Interstate Commerce clause. They thought it was restricted to businesses involved in actual shipping of goods across state lines.

Craig Calcaterra said...

It's certainly the case that the commerce clause was read much more narrowly then than it would later be read (it wasn't until the Wickard case in 1942 that it was read to apply to anything that merely -- barely -- affects interstate commerce, as opposed to things having to actually be interstate commerce).

Still, there were cases which applied the clause to things outside the actual shipping of goods across state lines prior to the baseball case on the basis that they had an effect on "the current of commerce" (i.e. conditions in meatpacking plants, etc.).

I also think that there was some hanky panky with that case in that Holmes either had some friend or some interest in baseball at the time that now we would consider to be a conflict of interest but which was overlooked at the time (it escapes me right now). This may have colored my impressions of the validity of the decision for its own sake.

No matter the case, if that case came before the court today, baseball would certainly fall under the clause by virture of the three prongs of the Lopez test in which Rehnquist wrote that Congress had the power to regulate:

(1) the channels of commerce;

(2) the instrumentalities of commerce, or persons or things in interstate commerce, even if the threat comes from intrastate activities; and

(3) action that substantially affects interstate commerce, in relation to a broad regulatory scheme

Baseball, as a $6B industry whose product is broadcast around the world and whose facilities are funded by governmental entities and blah, blah, blah, would certainly fall under #3.

(Not that anyone is disagreeing with that notion now. At least I don't think).

Anonymous said...


Well, we always sort of knew that Fremont would be a tough proposition, the same way that Santa Clara is proving tough for the 49'ers.

From a demographic point of view, until the real estate crash the East Bay (Oakland) was the fastest growing part of the Bay Area. While the Giants own territorial rights to San Jose, probably the natural resting place for the A's.

Being squeezed out of the Peninsula is a problem as the Giants can no longer fill their gorgeous stadium, and are thus loathe to allow any "poaching" of the fan base by the A's. The Peninsula is wealthier and the has been more resisitant to economic flux than East Bay.

The situation here is not too different than South Florida. There are a ton of baseball savvy fans who would love a second beautiful stadium to attend games in. There are a lot of places (Alameda, Fremont, Oakland itself) that could house a stadium. But the CA economy is so weak right now there will be no public funding for a new stadium. Plus, let's not forget the favorable terms that Al Davis has on the Coliseum where the A's and the Raiders play. So no new construction on that site.

The A's are squeezed, no question about it, but management's actions (raising ticket prices and parking fees while putting a AAA product on the field) are not helping. And there is the suspicion that all the revenue sharing money is going into their pockets. Thus while they say they are working hard, it feels like they are making a nice profit off the team, just like their predecessors.

Maybe it's too comfortable in Oakland as is.

Pete Toms said...

I wonder if the environmental assessments spin is a red herring. The Fremont ballpark is only one piece of a massive real estate development. Big problems with credit markets and the economy are hurting these projects. See Cards ballpark village ( or absence of one ) for another example.

Kritical Man said...

I was surprised at how dramatic and positive a difference it made when they decided to close off the top level of the Coliseum. The whole place really does have a different vibe. Still, it's a football stadium and always will be. There's no fake rocks, or fountains, or slides, or shrubbery and I actually sort of like that. It's just baseball. There's nothing else to see or do but watch the game.

As for the comment about ticket prices, going to an A's game is really quite a deal if you compare it to going across the Bay to a Giants game or down south to the even pricier Dodgers. They have $2 tickets every Wednesday. A lot of people complain about not being able to take their family to a game because of prohibitive prices, but you can actually get in the door and have a place to sit for cheap. No - they're not good seats, but still. A standing room only ticket for a Giants game is $20. That's pronounced "20-frickin'-dollars!!!" To stand.

All of that being said, the idea of relocating the team to the no-man's-land of Fremont, on a site that is not walkable to BART, has always struck me as ridiculous. I can't imagine they would attract greater attendance by moving farther away from their fan base. Traffic in the bay area is *horrible* and unless they change evening game times to 8:30pm, or make public trans completely accessible, people aren't going to go.

As I recall, a certain Maryland-based franchise owner tried to stop a formerly-Canadian team from relocating to his backyard. Didn't he claim he had rights to the DC area too? Is the San Jose-SF Giants territory issue any different?