Oakland A's reportedly moving to Las Vegas: Who is to blame?
The Oakland Athletics have started the process of moving to Las Vegas, leaving countless bitter, angry and disappointed fans in their wake.
This is far from the first time the team has moved. The club originated in Philadelphia in 1901 and stayed there until 1954, when its lack of success paired with its status as an also-ran in the city (thanks to the Philadelphia Phillies) caused it to move to Kansas City, where it was the only team. In 1968, the A's relocated to Oakland, where they've been ever since.
But not for much longer.
When a sports team betrays its fan base by moving, fans want someone to blame. Well, fortunately for them, Yahoo Sports has constructed a blame list, organized from most deserving blame to least. If you're confused about whom to blame for your unhappy feelings, read on for the answer.
Athletics owner John Fisher and former co-owner Lewis Wolff
When someone blames the A's for this regrettable mess, they're really talking about team owner John Fisher. He controls the purse strings and, therefore, the overall direction of the team. There's no doubt that he shoulders a considerable part of the blame for this situation.
And not just because he signs the checks — he and former co-owner Lewis Wolff waged a years-long campaign to move the A's out of Oakland, strangling the team with artificial financial ceilings and failing to make upgrades on the crumbling (and sewage-filled) Oakland Coliseum while pocketing decades of TV fees, revenue sharing and MLB payouts.
The A's are synonymous with Moneyball, which began the "trend" of incorporating advanced statistics and metrics in player evaluation to find hidden gems and players with upside in the castoff bin. But do you remember why the A's needed to do that? Because the A's owners at the time gave former general manager Billy Beane very little money with which to build a team. In 2005, three years after the A's Moneyball season, Fisher and Wolff bought the team. (Fisher bought Wolff's share of the franchise and became sole owner in 2016.) Only they didn't change anything. As payrolls rose across baseball, the A's barely budged, not even keeping up with inflation.
Commissioner Rob Manfred has said Fisher wants to win, but there is zero evidence of that. The Athletics have never had a payroll over $100 million. In 2023, when the Mets, Yankees, Dodgers, Padres and Phillies are running payrolls north of $200 million, the A's payroll is just under $57 million. They're also one of just three MLB teams that have never given out a contract over $100 million. They've traded away pretty much every star player they've ever had, and in 2021, they even traded their manager to the San Diego Padres, which is pretty much the biggest white flag move a franchise can make.
What happened to all the money that could've been spent on payroll? Fisher and Wolff certainly didn't spend it on stadium repairs and upgrades. The Coliseum has been literally crumbling for years. Raw sewage backed up into the visitor's clubhouse in 2013 and in 2016. On April 15, 2023, the Mets broadcast crew had to call the game from an alternate location in the ballpark because the visitor's TV booth was occupied by a possum who had taken up residence and soiled the premises.
Fisher and Wolff have wanted to move the team out of the Coliseum essentially since the moment they bought the A's on March 30, 2005. Wolff proposed a local stadium site five months after the purchase was finalized, and in 2006, they discussed moving the team to Fremont. Over the years, Wolff and Fisher proposed moving the team to various other locations inside and outside of California, including San Jose.
Considering how obviously Fisher and Wolff wanted to get the team out of Oakland, it's fair to wonder how much of what they've done since 2005 was merely an act. Was the Howard Terminal project, which Oakland developed specifically for them, a pantomime to make it look like they were trying to remain "rooted in Oakland" while Fisher profited off the team at every turn? In the end, it probably doesn't matter. Fisher's wish has been grated. He's finally leaving Oakland and dragging the A's with him.
A's president Dave Kaval
Fisher controls the purse strings, but he's one of the most absent team owners in sports, rarely speaking to the media or showing his face. Team president Dave Kaval is his mouthpiece and hatchet man, speaking on behalf of the team and executing Fisher's orders.
Kaval has made pretty much every major team announcement since he was hired in 2006. He's the one who said in May 2021 that it was "Howard Terminal or bust" on the same day Manfred instructed the team to start exploring relocation options. Kaval went to Vegas two weeks later to do just that, even tweeting from a Golden Knights game.
In July 2021, he essentially gave the Oakland City Council an ultimatum: pass our term sheet or we're leaving. The Council had just passed its own non-binding term sheet laying out financing for the ballpark, which included less than the $855 million in public infrastructure funding the A's were demanding. If the City Council didn't approve financing on the A's terms, "it's over," Kaval told The New York Times. (The A's and the city decided to continue negotiating despite the term sheet issue.)
And Kaval is the team executive who made the relocation announcement. It's his words in the Nevada Review-Journal, not Fisher's. The franchise owner might control the money, but Kaval is a true believer. Fisher's vision is his vision — and vice versa.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred
To be clear, Manfred isn't the reason the A's are moving to Las Vegas. But he has been instrumental in the process.
The most important thing to remember about Manfred's involvement is that the club owners, including Fisher, sign his checks, so their satisfaction is his first priority. That's vital context for his actions in May 2021, when he said he was "concerned" about the speed of the A's stadium project and instructed the team to start considering sites outside Oakland.
A statement from Major League Baseball: pic.twitter.com/Ujzll7cMWF
— Oakland A's (@Athletics) May 11, 2021
If Fisher wanted to stay in Oakland, it seems unlikely that Manfred would've told the A's to officially start leaving.
That statement in May 2021 allowed the A's to hit the turbo button on their relocation plans. As Manfred said in the statement, the stadium project had not been moving as quickly as MLB would've liked. It's true that very little progress was made in 2020, but that was true about countless things that year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The planetary tragedy that resulted in a global work stoppage conveniently became another delay that Manfred used to help the A's force their way out of Oakland.
Manfred also said in 2021 that he and MLB believe the A's need a new ballpark to be competitive. A ballpark that people enjoy going to, one that doesn't spew sewage on visiting players, is something that makes a team profitable, but it doesn't necessarily make it competitive. Manfred appears to conflate "profitable" with "competitive" and in doing so ends up ignoring the main reason the A's exist: to play baseball. The A's need a good team to be competitive, but that never seems to be at the top of Manfred's list.
The city of Oakland
What's Oakland's culpability in all this? How much blame does a fully functional city with numerous daily responsibilities to its residents truly shoulder? If you ask Manfred, a lot.
“We have shown an unbelievable commitment to the fans in Oakland by exhausting every possible opportunity to try to get something done in Oakland,” Manfred recently told the Associated Press. “Unfortunately, the government doesn’t seem to have the will to get it done.”
Oakland was willing to do a lot for the A's. The Howard Terminal project was developed to entice them to stay. Things got complicated when it came to negotiating the deal's financial terms. The A's were asking Oakland for $855 million in public, taxpayer-funded money to cover infrastructure costs.
In the face of Fisher, a multibillionaire who inherited his fortune from his parents (his father is the founder of Gap, Inc.), asking the city and its residents for $855 million he didn't want to pay, Oakland did what Arlington, Texas, and Cobb County, Georgia (currently in financial quagmires due to publicly financed baseball stadiums) couldn't do: It said no. In July 2021, the city council passed a non-binding term sheet with less public financing (in part due to needing more money to fight the pandemic), and the A's were so unhappy that they almost cut off negotiations.
But they didn't, and it looked like things would move forward until the A's and the city were sued several times in 2022 by parties trying to stop the Howard Terminal project. All of those suits were dismissed by March 2023, but in the meantime, the A's and Oakland missed a self-imposed deadline to reach an agreement on the ballpark by the end of 2022. Negotiations bled into 2023, which Kaval said would "doom" the team's efforts in Oakland.
Oakland didn't ask to be sued. The city didn't ask for COVID, which required time and budget dollars to manage and delayed work on the stadium project. And it didn't ask the A's to sign a binding agreement to purchase land for a Las Vegas ballpark while still in active negotiations.
Oakland might have been able to do more, but doing so could've negatively impacted residents, and a ballpark isn't worth that.
The fans of the Athletics are here at the bottom of this list to reiterate that they did nothing to deserve this. They are not at fault for what's happening.
Oakland is a small-market team. The city has fewer than 500,000 residents and is just across the bridge from San Francisco, meaning the Giants control the market, and the A's are the perpetual also-rans in their own backyard. But the love between a fan and a team doesn't recognize any of that. A's fans adore their team just as much as Yankees fans, Red Sox fans or Cubs fans do.
Despite Manfred's comment that A's attendance has never been "outstanding," fans loyally attended games for years. Attendance swelled when the A's were good, but can you blame fans for staying away and not spending their hard-earned money on tickets when the franchise owner never spent any money to maintain those good teams?
Fans don't ask for a lot. Team owners and executives make it seem like they do, but they don't. They want reasonably priced tickets and concessions (Fisher has jacked up prices the past few years) so anyone — including families — can attend without breaking the bank. They want an enjoyable, feces-free experience. They want to watch a team that was put together to win, instead of one that was put together to fit within the embarrassingly meager budget set by its multibillionaire owner.
That's not too much to ask, no matter what an owner or GM says. But Fisher wasn't willing to give the dedicated fans even one of those things. Now he gets to dive into a Scrooge McDuck vault full of money while the fans in Oakland are left with a gaping hole in their hearts.