Monday, April 24, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, April 20, 2023 -- "Las Vegas Mayb-A's"


This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for 25 years.

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Late last night, the A’s announced the purchase of a plot of land west of the Las Vegas Strip, and their intent to build a $1.5 billion ballpark on the site by 2027. It’s the latest, and most aggressive, tactic in the team’s long fight to get a replacement for the 56-year-old Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.

The need for a ballpark to replace the Coliseum isn’t in question, but the A’s have persisted in asking not just for a ballpark, but for an entire development around it. From May 11, 2021:

“The Coliseum itself needs to be replaced. The Coliseum site, however, does not. There’s a BART stop there, there is freeway access, there is plenty of space for parking and even some space for development. The conditions are more or less the same as what the Mets faced in the 2000s, out at Willets Point in Queens. The Mets built a new ballpark next door and turned the old one into a parking lot. The Yankees, in an urban residential neighborhood and hemmed in by a river, did much the same. If it’s just about building a new ballpark, then the model is there for the A’s.

“A’s owner John Fisher doesn’t want that. He wants what Liberty Media has in Cobb County, what Sam Ricketts has commandeered in Wrigleyville. He wants a new stadium, to be sure, but he wants it as a secondary piece to a larger real-estate development that will print money no matter what the baseball team does. Fisher’s position isn’t new. This is the dream now: Turn the baseball team not into a champion, but into the center of a development.”

The size of the lot in Las Vegas relative to the footprint of a 35,000-seat stadium makes clear that Fisher can get the development he wants in Nevada. Yankee Stadium sits on about 12 acres. The newest ballpark in baseball, Globe Life Field in Arlington, Tex., sits on 13. The A’s just bought 49 acres. This isn’t about Oakland, the larger market, the fans, the baseball team...this isn’t a baseball story at all. It’s about a rich guy who wants to get richer by getting some government to build him a concrete-and-steel ATM using taxpayer money.

That’s not new, of course. What’s new is Fisher’s insistence on moving to a place much smaller than the one he’s leaving. As of 2021, Las Vegas was the 25th-largest city in America. In a baseball context, that doesn’t seem too bad -- it’s wedged between Boston and Detroit. It’s larger than Oakland by about 50%, larger than Tampa and Cleveland. It’s growing, too, up from 31st in 2011.

The size of a city, though, isn’t as important as the size of an overall market, defined by how many people from the region you can get to come to games or reach on television. Oakland, as judged by Nielsen, is part of a three-city market that’s the tenth-largest in the country, with more than 2.5 million TV homes. We’ve come to think of Oakland as a “small market” team, but even MLB stopped doing that for a while -- the A’s were briefly phased out as a revenue-sharing recipient because they don’t play in a small market. They share a very large one, certainly larger than Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is the 40th-largest media market in the country. For baseball purposes, Las Vegas is Hot Milwaukee.

Smallest Baseball Markets

               TV Homes
Baltimore     1,149,000
San Diego     1,107,000
Kansas City   1,020,000
Cincinnati      954,000
Milwaukee       900,000
Las Vegas       870,000

Source: Sports Media Watch

I’ve written many times about the paradox of San Diego, which is one of the ten biggest cities in America while also being one of the smallest sports markets. The Padres have a foreign country to the south, an ocean to the west, a desert to the east and two baseball teams to the north. They make it work because the city is big and, of late, they’re the only game in town.

Las Vegas is about 80% the size of San Diego and is surrounded by a desert to the south, a desert to the west, a desert to the east, and a desert to the north. The secondary and tertiary markets for the Las Vegas A’s consist of nine armadillos and the population of Baker, Calif. (602).

With the caveat that local television revenue is a fraught topic at the moment, we can estimate that a Las Vegas baseball team would have, under the current model, some of the lowest local-TV revenues in the sport. Even when that model changes, a Las Vegas franchise would be yet another small-market team demanding revenue-sharing payouts from the true drivers of baseball’s overall revenue. There is no math that makes a Las Vegas baseball franchise a big TV revenue generator.

The supporters of a Las Vegas baseball team will point to the Las Vegas Knights, an NHL expansion franchise that opened play in 2016. The Knights have consistently maxed out T-Mobile Arena, just behind the Park MGM hotel on the Strip, averaging about 750,000 tickets sold a year. That figure would place them last in MLB for total attendance, of course, and their average of 18,000 or so a game would be in the bottom ten. The Knights do draw beyond T-Mobile’s listed capacity, so you can perhaps infer some demand they’re not capturing that an A’s team in a 35,000-seat ballpark would. Let’s be generous and say it’s 25% more. That gets a baseball team to 22,500 a game, and about 1.8 million a year. Now you’re into the top 20, but below the top half, around where the Twins and Diamondbacks live.

Mind you, the Knights have advantages that will be hard, even impossible, to replicate. They were the first major sports team in town, one the city embraced fully for that reason. They were an expansion team, and not another town’s leftovers. They were the most successful expansion franchise ever, in fact, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in their first season. No one is smart enough to know for sure how good the 2027 A’s will be, but I’ll take “not in the World Series” for the limit. The success of the Las Vegas Knights just isn’t a good model for what the Las Vegas A’s will experience.

With any Vegas franchise, there’s an idea that attendance will be propped up by tourists building trips around their team. The Knights do get their share of this, largely Canadians coming down in the winter. Can you spot the key words in that sentence? Las Vegas makes for a lovely vacation when it’s -11 degrees in Moosejaw in January. It’s less attractive in August, when it’s 110 degrees in Nevada. Twenty percent of the Knights’ home slate this season came against Canadian teams between October 10 and March 28.

This isn’t to say that literally no one will go to Las Vegas to see their team play. It is to say that it won’t happen in large enough numbers to be a serious factor in the success of the franchise, and it’s something that will fade quickly as an attraction. I’d add that unlike the Raiders, who some Californians still support enough to travel to Las Vegas to watch, the A’s have well chased off any vestiges of fan support that might follow them across state lines.

For those who do attend, it’s going to be a sterile ballpark experience because any retractable roof will have to be closed for most of the season. It’s 78 degrees in Vegas today, three weeks into the baseball season, and it will be 88 next weekend. Per this video from Fox, the four warm-weather parks with retractable roofs (Miami, Houston, Texas, Arizona) had them closed 86% of the time in 2021. That would mean 11 home games a year with outdoor baseball. If I live in Pittsburgh, in Chicago, in Baltimore, and I want to watch baseball, the experience is going to be a lot more enjoyable at home than in Las Vegas. If I live in Los Angeles or Orange County or San Diego and I want to head to Vegas for the weekend, I’m not using three hours of it to see the Dodgers or Angels or Padres. If I want to plan a ballpark road trip in the summer, I’m avoiding domes, not targeting them.

Finally, there is the long-term problem: water. California, Arizona, and Nevada are already fighting over draws from the Colorado River, and there’s no chance those fights die down in the near term. Las Vegas is considering capping water usage -- the word they are avoiding is “rationing” -- for its residents. It’s not certain that the desert Southwest, including Las Vegas, is going to be able to support its population growth for the next 30 years.

In the Newsletter Slack today, the conversation about the A’s announcement eventually morphed into one about poker. I thought that was appropriate, because the A’s buying this land is a semi-bluff on the turn. The A’s are making a big bet with what may or may not be the best hand, and they can win either if their opponent folds now -- giving the A’s what they want in Oakland -- or later when the hand is complete. The hand, though, isn’t over. Oakland will respond now, and then we’ll have another round of betting. If the A’s do end up in Las Vegas, that’s a loss, not a win, for everyone but John Fisher.

In the short term, this is another blow to a fan base that has been beaten up for a decade. The A’s have done everything short of placing snipers on the roof to keep fans away, and they may finally have succeeded in running attendance and interest down to nothing. The A’s were in the playoffs three years ago and in a battle for a playoff spot 19 months ago. Today, they’re a ghost franchise, non-competitive and drawing nobody to the park. What happens when they officially sign the papers to leave Oakland? What’s the reason for anyone there to support the team? Craig Calcaterra raised a good point today:

“As it stands now the team is supposed to finish this season in Oakland and play there three more seasons before heading to the desert. One can only hope that everyone realizes how awkward that is and that they just pick up and move now and play in some temporary location to save everyone the indignities of more bad baseball in a vermin-ridden stadium with empty seats.”

The A’s are set up to be a laughingstock for the next few years, and it’s entirely the doing of owner John Fisher. A’s fans, and baseball as a whole, deserve better than this.