Moneyball Takes Manhattan
Why moving to New York would be good for the Oakland A’s, and good for baseball.
General manager Billy Beane of the Oakland A's has publicly been positioning himself for a possible move to San Jose
Photograph by Michael Zagaris/Getty Images.
When the Oakland A's hold their home opener on Friday night, fans will see a very different team than the one that took the field last fall. General manager Billy Beane disposed of half his pitching staff this offseason in a "youth movement" that was startling for the not-so-advanced ages of those sent packing: Gio Gonzalez, 26; Andrew Bailey, 27; Josh Outman, 27; Guillermo Moscoso, 28; Trevor Cahill, 23.
This year’s ritual strip-mining of the Oakland roster—which followed prior seasons in which soon-to-be-expensive young stars like Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Dan Haren were sent packing—was accompanied by a new excuse. “For us to compete, we’re going to have to have a new stadium,” Beane explained, telling reporters that he’s designing the team’s roster to peak when the A’s get a new ballpark in tech-dollar-rich San Jose.
Considering the A’s move to the South Bay has been stalled for three years now, this is wishful thinking on Beane’s part. Way back in 2009, MLB commissioner Bud Selig appointed a "blue ribbon committee" on the A's future. As of yet, that committee hasn’t issued a final report. ("You could've written a Ph.D. dissertation by now," grumbled A’s owner Lew Wolff last year.) The holdup, as Susan Slusser reported in the San Francisco Chronicle last September, is that Major League Baseball granted the San Francisco Giants territorial rights to San Jose back in the early 1990s. And even though the Giants are now happily ensconced in San Francisco’s AT&T Park, they’re refusing to give the rival A’s a foothold in the lucrative Silicon Valley market.
This is a squabble that could happen only in the antitrust-exempted world of baseball: a team ransacking its own roster as a ploy to get baseball to consent to a new, far-flung stadium. But moving the team to San Jose still wouldn't solve the A’s payroll problems. If that’s the team’s primary concern, there's only one solution: Move Billy Beane’s boys to New York.
Thanks to Moneyball, the whole world knows the A's are one of baseball’s poor cousins, scrimping each year on payroll and surviving on revenue-sharing checks from the league’s richest teams. Yet if the goal is for the A's to be able to compete with the big boys, a move to San Jose might not be the panacea that it would seem. Wolff, to his credit, seems willing to build a new stadium without much public money. According to the best available projections, the A’s owner is looking at around $550 million in costs for a stadium and related infrastructure, even for the scaled-down park that he's proposed. To pay that off will cost maybe $40 million a year—and with no public subsidies coming from San Jose, all of that money would come out of the A's bank account. MLB lets teams deduct stadium construction costs for revenue-sharing purposes, though, which would cut the annual cost to around $28 million.
If Selig arm-twists the Giants' owners into selling the A’s their territorial rights, that's an additional check that Wolff will have to cut. Estimates of how much those rights are worth have ranged from a couple of million dollars a year (Stanford economist Roger Noll) to $12.5 million annually (Oakland stadium analysts newballpark.org). Let's split the difference and assume an annual payoff of $7 million. Adding in his stadium costs, Wolff will be in a $35 million-a-year hole before he sells a single ticket.
In exchange, the A's would reap the benefits of a new stadium in a new market: club seat sales, naming rights, cable contracts, the works. How much is that worth? Let's look to the Giants as an example. According to Forbes, the Giants pulled in $230 million in revenue last year compared to the A's $160 million. Let's say that the San Jose market is strong enough that the A's are able to turn themselves into Giants Lite, giving them $210 million a year. That $50 million-a-year bump would be enough to pay off Wolff's $35 million in annual mortgage payments and checks to the Giants and give him $15 million to spare.
That's a tribute to the size of the San Jose market, and shows why most cities touted as relocation sites (Portland, Las Vegas, San Antonio) shouldn’t be taken seriously: They'd have a tough time generating enough added revenue to pay off a stadium, even without territorial payoffs.
But while an extra $15 million might help Lew Wolff's bottom line, it's not going to keep the next wave of young A's pitching studs in green and gold when they become eligible for free agency sometime during the Biden Administration. A stadium in San Jose simply won’t do much to help the A's compete with the Angels and the Rangers for AL West dominance, let alone crack the Yankees-Red Sox axis of baseball big spenders.
Look across the country, though, and there is one metropolitan area that could boost a team's revenue, potentially into the baseball stratosphere. New York City is a television market that’s triple the size of the Bay Area, and there are millions more households a short drive away in New Jersey and Connecticut. The New York metro area is the one market where a team owner could build a stadium with all the trimmings and end up with plenty of profit left over, thanks to the inevitable cable riches that would await.
Moreover, moving the A's to New Jersey or Long Island or Brooklyn would solve another of baseball’s thorniest problems. The Yankees, by virtue of being in a media market vastly larger than anyone else's, can bid up player salaries into the stratosphere with the assurance that it will get that money back with TV revenue. (The Mets should get the same benefit of the NYC media market, but have been held back by a factor that's hard to legislate: incompetence.) It's this reality that has created the Rube Goldberg devices of revenue sharing and luxury taxes. The Yankees don’t just have more money than anyone else: Because so many more fannies in the seats and eyeballs on flatscreens are at stake, players are worth more to the Yankees than anyone else.
Splitting the New York market among three teams instead of two would dilute that advantage and help make for a more level playing field league-wide. This, of course, is why neither the Steinbrenners nor the Wilpons would allow the A’s to move to New York. (Unlike the Bay Area, which MLB has split into discrete A's and Giants territories, the Mets and Yankees both have veto power over other teams moving into the New York metro area.) The Mets’ owners, ever protective of their territory, even rejected a much-needed payoff that would’ve allowed the Yankees' top minor-league club to play in Newark for a year, leaving the team wandering homeless this season as the Empire State Yankees.
But that’s no reason that Selig and the other 28 owners couldn't overrule them for the good of baseball, just as Wolff wants the league office to overrule the Giants. It's reasonable, in fact, to assume that MLB isn't forcing the Giants to let the A's move to San Jose because the Mets and Yankees fear they'll be next in line. Once you've conceded that territorial privileges aren’t a sacred right, there's no re-closing that door.
Losing the A's to the East Coast would undeniably suck for the remaining A's fans. These loyal supporters have devoted the last 20 years to following a cash-strapped team that has won four division titles but no championships, all the while forcing its fans to shell out for jerseys with the names of another round of future Arizona Diamondbacks. But if that's our main worry, moving the team to San Jose—which would constitute an epic drive for most East Bay fans, especially on a weeknight—isn't a great deal for A’s fans, either. If MLB is concerned about giving the team’s fans the shortest possible commute, they should leave the A’s in Oakland. If they’re concerned about what's best for the sport, damn the Steinbrenners—full speed ahead to NYC.