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A's Debate Oakland vs. San Jose For New Park

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Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

A view outside the Coliseum before Opening Day on April 6.

The San Francisco 49ers will hold a ceremonial groundbreaking for their new stadium Thursday. It's been years in the making, and one of the most controversial decisions the team made was to leave the city they're named for and locate almost 40 miles away, in Santa Clara. And they're not the only local sports franchise looking to head south. The owners of the Oakland A's would like them to become the San Jose A's.  

These relocations are inspired not so much by the fan base or the availability of land, but by the proximity to corporations who are an increasingly important source of revenue.  Baseball is changing from an escape from the workday world, to an extension of the office. Jeffrey August works in network engineering for Facebook. "I get asked to come to meetings that include a Giants game probably at least once a month during the baseball season," said August. "Since 2006, I think I've been to a total of two meetings at the Oakland Coliseum," he said.

This is distressing to August, a lifelong A's fan.  He's also editor-at-large for the blog, which has been following the twists and turns of the A's stadium quest for the last seven years.  August says the A's organization is way behind in terms of catering to business clients. "You don't attract corporations to come without some kind of corporate marketing arm," said August. "But other than a phone number to call and order tickets, I don’t see the A’s doing it. I don't see the A's out at a lot of events that you do see the Giants at, for instance." Even if the Coliseum's seats were filled with ordinary fans every night (which they're not) all ticket buyers are not created equal.

John Vrooman is a sports economist on the faculty of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He says corporate clients are the most important ticket buyers. "It's true for the Sharks, it's true for the Warriors, it's true for the Raiders, and it's going be true for the Athletics," Vrooman said. Corporate clients are valuable in sports because they commit to -- and pay for -- their season tickets and luxury suites months, or even years, in advance.  And those sales don't depend on how well the team is playing, who the opponents are, or the weather at game time. 

When Jeffrey August did a series of blog posts comparing the prospects for various stadium locations, he found proximity to the corporate market was San Jose's major competitive advantage. "Preselling tickets, getting corporations to sponsor sections of the stadium and put up signage... on almost every other measure, it's pretty even between Oakland and San Jose," August said.

Baseball fans usually don't like to think of the game as a business. But Chris Dobbins says the romantic and the economic view aren't incompatible. Dobbins sits on the board that oversees the Oakland Coliseum.  He's also part of Save Oakland Sports, a group which recently formed to try and keep the A's in Oakland, as well as the Raiders and the Warriors. "The economic reality is that for all of us fans in the bleachers yelling and screaming, the owners need the corporate money, the people buying the suites and high-priced suites as well."

Oakland advocates point out that the Coliseum has something no other stadium in the Bay Area has: its own BART station and its own Amtrak station.  Dobbins says the freeway access to the site is also unparalleled. "But on the flip side, that's almost a hindrance,” Dobbins said. "Because people don't see the beauty of Oakland; they just come in, go right to the Coliseum, and come out. There's no restaurants around there, there's no shopping."

To change that, Oakland's conceived a huge project -- a new ballpark for the A's, a separate football stadium for the Raiders, a new basketball arena for the Golden State Warriors, and more, on 750 acres between the Coliseum BART station and the Oakland Airport. The concept's called Coliseum City. Oakland Assistant City Administrator Fred Blackwell explained the plan at a press conference last month: "It combines sports facilities with more commercial, more hospitality, and more entertainment uses. And the reason why that is important is because those are the kinds of things that are financeable in the private market," said Blackwell. "We anticipate being able to substantially leverage private investment and debt in order to make that project move forward."

Critics say Coliseum City is just a pipe dream that has no chance to succeed, that will just delay the inevitable loss of the teams.  But economist John Vrooman says don't write the East Bay off. "Oakland is just living the classic life cycle of an American city," he said. "And it doesn't end in death. It ends in rebirth. And the city evolves, and constantly, like a phoenix, it just comes back up from the ashes," said Vrooman. "This would be a good spot for it to happen."

Whether a new ballpark eventually happens in Oakland, San Jose, or someplace else, the long period of inaction has been costly -- for the A's owners, for the team's fans, and for the Bay Area as a whole.  Peter Allen of San Jose is a Giants fan, but nevertheless, he recently wrote an open letter asking Giants owners to drop their objections to the A's moving south. "Because if it was in the best interests of baseball and the game and the sport and the fans," Allen said, "this would already be a done deal and we'd already have construction going on downtown, and we'd have people working," said Allen. "At a time when 11 percent of Silicon Valley is out of work, and 30 percent unemployment in the construction trades, we'd have people working on the stadium."

Major League Baseball owners have a meeting scheduled next month. The A's are reportedly trying to get their issue on the agenda. If MLB gave its approval, the next steps for San Jose would be acquiring the last pieces of land and holding a public referendum.  Oakland already owns most of the Coliseum site and doesn't need a vote, but it's behind in terms of design and financing. In either city, Opening Day in a new ballpark is 2016, at the earliest.

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