The moment couldn’t have been more Oakland. It was a warm afternoon in June, the sky free of fog. Marshawn Lynch was there; twice, he and Draymond Green bounded off their bus to dap up fans on Lakeside Drive. The confetti that is de rigueur at these events speckled the sun, but it commingled with rising wafts of blunt smoke, creating a bewitching tactile haze that trawled the airspace over Broadway and slinked suggestively inside open storefront windows. And music, of course, was everywhere. At any given moment, “Blow the Whistle’’ could be heard rattling several different sets of bass-heavy car speakers, compelling scattered pockets of red-cup-toting strangers to scrunch up their faces and bob their heads to the beat.
The occasion was the Golden State Warriors’ 2015 championship parade, though to say that it was simply a parade feels inadequate. This was not just a parade—it was a reclamation of pride and space, a celebration of a community that had been hungry for occasion to celebrate itself and eager for a chance to remind the world why it was worth celebrating in the first place. Participation was as reaffirming as it was triumphant, as cathartic as it was convivial. “I can’t tell you how good it feels,” said that year’s NBA MVP, Stephen Curry, addressing a crowd nearly a million strong from a stage that had been erected at the end of the parade route, south of Lake Merritt. “Celebrating the city of Oakland like we should.”
The parade was also, in this way, an example of pro sports’ unique utility to a place. Sports give communities “a kind of adhesive,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer and former president of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America Derrick Goold told me earlier this year. “[They can be] something that draws you out and draws you together.” The crowd that gathered in downtown Oakland that day—in a space used more often for protest than for partying, and amid a moment when Oakland was rife with anger over inequality, gentrification, and displacement—was the largest, most eclectic, and most uniformly jubilant the Town had ever seen. The last time Oakland had witnessed anything like it: 26 years prior, when the A’s hosted a delayed celebration of their World Series victory over the San Francisco Giants at Jack London Square.
At the time, prevailing sentiment in Oakland seemed to be that this utility was not only unique, but uniquely valuable—a function of city life worth fighting for. “This is the best thing that’s happened to Oakland,” a man named Marcus told Sports Illustrated about the Warriors seven years ago. He was holding a “Keep the Warriors in Oakland” sign—and was far from the only one. “Oakland’s sports teams have reflected this community,” echoes Susan Slusser, the former A’s beat writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. “They have been something that fans in probably almost every economic position can look at and say, ‘Yes, I love that team because I feel like they represent me.’”
The Warriors parade through Oakland after their 2015 title
Photo by Jack Arent/NBAE via Getty Images
In Oakland today, however, such love is harder to come by. The city’s relationship with sports has changed, strained by loss. Just two years after the high-water mark of the 2015 parade, Raiders owner Mark Davis, donning a boxy pinstripe suit and his perfectly symmetrical bowl haircut, proudly announced that he’d secured approval from the NFL to move the Raiders from Oakland to Las Vegas, Nevada, where the state Legislature had offered him $750 million in taxpayer funding for a new stadium. Two years after that, the Warriors formally ditched Oakland’s Oracle Arena for the Chase Center, in San Francisco, an event that, though expected, proved a gut punch; the metaphor most Oakland-based fans reach for now is that of an unhandsome but hardscrabble younger brother losing his girlfriend to a preternaturally privileged, comparatively unappreciative older brother.
By 2020, the A’s were the only team left. But they made it clear they were prepared to leave, too. Last May, majority owner John Fisher and team president Dave Kaval—resident cartoon villains of what remains of the Oakland sports scene—began threatening to follow in the Raiders’ footsteps and relocate Oakland’s last pro team to Las Vegas … unless the Oakland City Council voted to help them build a $12 billion stadium “district”—replete with condos, hotels, and apartment buildings—on a wedge of waterfront property operated by the Port of Oakland just west of Jack London Square. If approved, the project would constitute one of the largest and most transformative development deals in California state history. It would likewise require hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding to complete. Fisher, who is heir to the Gap Inc. fortune and has a net worth north of $2 billion, has committed to privately finance the construction of the stadium itself, but the project isn’t viable without a suite of infrastructure improvements to the surrounding area. These improvements are what the A’s asked the city to find ways to pay for.
It was a familiar ploy. As journalists Neil deMause and Joanna Cagan write in Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, since roughly 1984, when the Colts left Baltimore for Indianapolis, team owners across the country have worked systematically to “supplement profits by extorting money from their hometowns,” usually “under threat of moving.” Starting around last summer, Fisher and Kaval began to expand upon their means of municipal extortion. In the run-up to a series of contentious City Council meetings, Kaval took to posting videos of himself on Twitter jubilantly attending Las Vegas Knights games, as if to spur the city into supporting his proposal out of jealous insecurity. Fisher, meanwhile, enlisted MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to act as muscle. “Thinking about this as a bluff is a mistake,” Manfred told the BWAA in July 2021. “This is the decision point for Oakland as to whether they want Major League Baseball going forward.”
Oakland has been struggling to make that decision ever since. Some, like Marcus Thompson, an East Oakland native, 2021 California Sportswriter of the Year, and author of Golden: The Miraculous Rise of Steph Curry, resent Fisher and Kaval’s tactics, and say that Oakland’s political leaders “should not be caving to an owner” worth over $2 billion who has “shown zero desire to be a meaningful member of our community unless it is profitable.” Certain Oakland political leaders, such as Councilmember Carroll Fife, who represents the district in West Oakland where the A’s stadium would be built, agree. “There are so many dire issues in Oakland right now,” Fife told me in February—citing, among other things, Oakland’s crises of gentrification, affordability, and homelessness, which the United Nations has singled out as “cruel.” Fife said she doesn’t believe “a sports team is going to address” any of them. “We should use public resources toward addressing residents’ immediate needs.”
“Look, everybody loved San Francisco. And everybody stuck their noses up at Oakland. But we had the Raiders. We had the A’s. We had championships.” —Dave Peters, Oakland resident
Others believe the economic benefits of a new stadium are worth pursuing in and of themselves. “Building the new A’s ballpark would be a blessing,” Mitchell Schwarzer, historian, professor, and author of Hella Town: Oakland’s History of Development and Disruption, told me in an email. It would “bring crowds to adjacent Jack London Square,” and fill “its vacant spaces with places to eat, drink and shop.” Oakland’s mayor, Libby Schaaf, agrees, calling the A’s stadium project “a world-class waterfront ballpark district” with the potential to “benefit Bay Area residents for generations to come.”
Many diehards, however, simply want the A’s to stay, and don’t care how it happens. Bryan Johansen, who cofounded the Last Dive Bar, which sells A’s-related apparel (and directs its profits to local organizations), has been a regular at A’s home games since 1987. He also has the Athletics’ logo tattooed in green on his forearm. “If [baseball] was taken away from me,” he told me recently, “it would be like losing a loved one.”
In this, Johansen is not alone. In spite of how easy it can be to despise team owners, pro sports occupy rarefied air in American society. They remain perhaps the last public-private institution capable of transcending partisan divides at scale, and they inspire a kind of devotion that few enterprises match; as Mark Cuban once put it, “no city has ever thrown a parade for a local company that has had a great quarter or year.”
This, then, is Oakland’s predicament. Oakland’s leaders want to avoid falling for the “city-pays-for-the-stadium-and-the-team-takes-the-money dodge,” to borrow the words of local legend Ray Ratto. But so, too, do they not want to lose pro sports, along with all the benefits and opportunities they provide. “There is clearly a lot of potential with this project and a lot at stake,” Oakland City Council president Nikki Fortunato Bas said at a council meeting last February. “But to approve it, I have to see that it delivers the economic and community benefits we know Oakland so desperately needs, and that it makes fiscal sense.”
Council is expected to vote on a final developer agreement for the A’s stadium project before the end of 2022, and possibly even before the end of the baseball season. This has imbued the beginning of the season with a sense of unfamiliar consequence, like a kind of hostage situation. What matters for A’s fans in Oakland this season will happen not on the baseball diamond, but behind closed doors. And while the stakes in every negotiation between cities and team owners are high, the difference in Oakland today is that what’s on the line isn’t just the fate of one team, but rather what remains of the soul of a once-great sports town.
It’s not exactly rare for sports teams to relocate. From Brooklyn to Baltimore, San Diego to Seattle, American sports history is littered with the stories of franchise owners who abandoned cities their teams were once assumed fundamental to—and left fans disillusioned and unmoored in their wake. Even when it’s expected, “you’re still kind of gut punched when it actually occurs,” said Eric Williams, who covers the NFL for FOX Sports.
Williams is something of an expert on this topic. Before moving to FOX, he covered the San Diego Chargers for ESPN. And before that, he covered the Seattle Supersonics for his hometown paper, The Tacoma News Tribune. The Supersonics, of course, were ripped out of Seattle in 2008 by an ownership group that before purchasing the team promised it had no intention to relocate. Howard Schultz, the coffee tycoon and former Sonics owner, had in fact sold the team under that very condition. But after political leaders in Washington neglected to hand over some $500 million in taxpayer funding to support the construction of a new stadium, the Seattle Supersonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder. That was Williams’s first year at the Tribune, though he’d been a Sonics fan all his life. “People loved the Sonics,” he told me. “They were a part of the culture and fabric and identity of the community.”
In the many conversations I had with fans, writers, historians, radio hosts, and politicians for this story, the impact pro teams can have on a region’s identity came up time and time again as a key benefit of hosting them. Casey Kinnamon, who is a contributor for the Cleveland Browns fan site Dawg Pound Daily, put it in physical terms, saying that watching the Browns leave Cleveland for Baltimore, in 1996—after Browns owner Art Modell had assured the city that so long as he owned the team, he would not relocate—was like having a piece of his heart ripped out. “So many fans attached their identity and their personality to that team,” he told me, conjuring images of the working-class Browns fans who packed the end zone bleacher seats at Cleveland’s old Municipal Stadium, donning dog masks and barking at opposing players each time the Browns secondary took the field. “It tore me up.”
Browns fans at a game vs. the Packers in 1995
Set Number: X49656 TK1 R10 F31
Of course, not everyone is a sports fan. In Oakland, many who oppose the A’s stadium project reject the idea that pro teams can be so integral to a city’s identity. Recently, Councilmember Fife retweeted a tweet that expressed this sentiment: “Mystified by why people think Oakland’s identity is tied to having a sports team.”
It’s true that Oakland’s identity—much like Seattle’s or Cleveland’s—does not depend entirely on sports. Oakland is a uniquely dynamic and culturally rich city. It’s a place of artists and activists and immigrants and great natural beauty. It’s the birthplace of the Black Panthers. It remains one of the most diverse cities in the nation. It’s a gastronomic mecca. It will continue to be all these things even if it loses the A’s. As Marcus Thompson wrote in his screed against the idea that Oakland should sell John Fisher its soul on account of his being the last team around, “The Town is lit on its own.”
Few cities, however, exemplify just how much pro teams can contribute to the identity of a place—and how beneficial that contribution can be—better than Oakland. By the 1960s—the decade pro sports arrived in Oakland—Oakland was in a bad way. In the years following World War II, the Town had been abandoned by industry, gutted by suburbanization, segregated into geographic silos by racist, state-sanctioned real-estate practices, and marred by shortsighted infrastructure projects executed in service of the suburbs and at the direct expense of locals. These included the freeways that split Black, brown, and Asian neighborhoods, displaced thousands of residents, and, pertinently, cannibalized formerly essential cultural and commercial strips, such as West Oakland’s 7th Street. In fact, by 1966, nearly all of Oakland’s primary cultural centers, from the jazz clubs on 7th Street to the Fox Theater, had been closed or destroyed—which rendered only more conspicuous the negative comparisons Oakland drew to its richer and more culturally reputable neighbor across the bay. Within Oakland proper, an ethos of incorrigible grit and rebellious funk had begun to flourish. But in the eyes of not just the nation but the rest of the Bay Area, Oakland was increasingly seen as a city to either fear or, worse, not think much of at all.
Sports changed that. By the 1970s, Oakland was home to franchises representing each of the four major leagues. (R.I.P to the NHL’s California Golden Seals.) From 1972 to 1977, three of those franchises—the Warriors, Raiders, and A’s—brought five championships to Oakland. The figures who were largely to thank—from the mustachioed Rollie Fingers to the camp counselor John Madden to Raiders owner Al Davis, who prowled the sidelines of home games sporting imperial white jumpsuits that billowed in the breeze like pirate sails—became sources of international mystique. Iconic as they were iconoclastic, they transcended the boundaries of the city and turned Oakland, as the writer John Branch once put it in The New York Times, into “the most successful sports city in the nation.”
“Team owners are well aware of the power [they have], and they try to leverage it however they can.” —Marcel Louis-Jacques, reporter
So, too, did they alchemize the fractured and overlooked elements of Oakland’s cultural identity into a newly leverageable sense of self. The 1970s Raiders, for example, reflected and in effect amplified the grit and funk that constituted “the very identity of the city,” as Peter Richmond notes in Badasses, his 2010 study of the Silver and Black. Can a sports team embody and even harness the essence of a place? The Raiders certainly did. As Richmond writes, this team was “perfectly designed for a town that occupied no place in the national pantheon of municipal privilege, or wealth, or respect, but went about doing the daily grunt work without reward, without national notoriety, in the shadow of the glittering, towered city across the bay.” That towered city might have had Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Oakland had not only the Raiders but those Swingin’ A’s, Rick Barry, and later the Bash Brothers, the Splash Brothers, and the ghoulish baroque anarchists of the Black Hole—each of whom became heroes of the story Oaklanders told the world about themselves.
“Oakland was sticking its chest out,” said Dave Peters, a third-generation West Oakland resident, community activist, and founder of the Black Liberation Walking Tour, an organization that provides education on the cultural contributions of Black Oaklanders within West Oakland’s Hoover-Foster District. A wealth of knowledge and a wellspring of energy, Peters is a community asset unto himself. I met him recently at the Hoover Elementary School community garden in West Oakland for a Black History Month celebration and community cleanup event put on by BLWT in partnership with the Oakland Unified School District and several other local nonprofits. Among planter boxes corralling blackberry thickets, collards, and potato vines, a hundred or so volunteers weeded and raked. On the blacktop adjacent to the garden, elementary school kids partook of a bounce house and members of the Oakland Black Cowboy Association treated children with more equestrian tastes to pony rides. Inside the school, volunteers administered COVID-19 vaccines. In the center of it all stood Peters, the event’s MC and maestro; when he wasn’t on the microphone, directing traffic with his foghorn voice and in his flat-billed Oakland Roots cap, he was leading cleanup crews around the garden, or taking volunteers on walking tours around the neighborhood, unspooling his extensive knowledge of Oakland cultural history like so much kite string.
I asked him what the contributions of pro sports to that history were. “Huge,” he said. “Look, everybody loved San Francisco. And everybody stuck their noses up at Oakland. But we had the Raiders. We had the A’s. We had championships. The fact that the A’s were winning and the Raiders were winning and the Giants and 49ers weren’t gave us pride. And the Warriors had a Black head coach, and were one of the first NBA teams to have an all-Black starting five. Al Davis was the first GM to draft a Black quarterback in the first round. That was very powerful.” Then he took a long pause. “But that was a long time ago.”
Identity and pride are not the only things cities lose when they lose pro sports. They also lose the community partnerships that come with hosting teams. Williams, the former Sonics reporter, told me that when the Sonics left Seattle, the city didn’t lose just a piece of its identity, but also “the touching points of those players. Current and past players, the ones that continue to live in the community, and the ones that may live in your community in the future. Kevin Durant, for example, would’ve been a resident of Seattle for who knows how long.”
Kevin Durant in his rookie year with Seattle
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Pro teams also support opportunities for creating and sustaining relationships. Shared love for a team creates continuities—threads of connective tissue that not only bridge class, communal, and cultural dichotomies, but also connect generational divides. As Goold, the former BWAA president, put it to me, love for a team can bond people. “[The Cardinals] have a signature Hall of Famer for every generation. My son’s grandfather’s signature Cardinal is probably Bob Gibson. My grandfather’s signature Cardinal is Stan Musial. If I had grown up here, it’d be Ozzie Smith and my son would have Albert Pujols. These players are threads that tighten and bind the Cardinals to the fabric of the community here.”
The longer a team has been in a community, the more in the way of connection its continuities support—and the more painful severing them becomes. This was what Emmett Golden, cohost of the radio show The Next Level, on ESPN Cleveland, told me. We’d connected to discuss the impact within families of watching the Browns leave Cleveland for Baltimore in 1996. In Golden’s telling, even though the city of Cleveland fought for and eventually won the right to keep the Browns’ name, history, and archives—and in fact received an expansion team to transfer that information to—the move was harmful. “It might sound crazy,” he told me, “but I don’t think families are as close today as they would have been” had the Browns not moved. “Northeast Ohio is football country,” he said. “In Cleveland, that’s what you do. Sunday the game comes on, you get together with your family and friends and you watch the Browns. When the team left, you lost that block of time. So you’re losing memories. You’re losing experiences, and you’re losing bonding time that some people might not have with their dad, or with their son, or their mom, or their daughter, or grandfather.”
Oakland’s pro teams have created similar experiences and have supported similar relationships. “I met my wife at an A’s game,” said Jorge Leon, president of the drum-banging, flag-waving Athletics fan collective the Oakland 68s. The 68s are modeled after the kind of supporters’ groups popular in the world of European football. Members pay dues—which fund organized events, such as tailgating parties—partner with local nonprofits, and collaborate with A’s management to improve the fan experience. Most of all, they find ways to spend time together. “We always hang out,” Leon said.
As the lecturer, podcast host, and author of Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport, Nathan Kalman-Lamb has written that such bonds are “not incidental but rather central to the powerful appeal of sports.” We care as much about the communities that fandom grants us access to as we do the teams and players that we root for. Accordingly, the opportunity to create more of those communities, as well as nurture those they already hold on to, is something A’s fans hope striking a deal to keep the team will effectively protect.
But that’s not the only hope. There are several others. One is that allowing John Fisher to build his stadium would convince him to finally begin signing star players to long-term contracts. (Fisher is the most frugal owner in the league; Oakland has not re-signed one homegrown star since Eric Chávez, in 2004.) Another is that a new stadium would revitalize Oakland’s economy, injecting millions of dollars into neighborhoods that historically have been denied such investment, and restore Oakland’s reputation as a major league city—on par, even, with its older brother across the bay. Indeed, many in Oakland point to San Francisco’s Oracle Park, where the Giants play, as an example of a new stadium that turned a pocket of San Francisco filled mostly with shabby-looking warehouses into a neighborhood buzzing with bars, coffee shops, and tourists. “Major League Baseball has an excellent track record for creating beautiful new ballparks that reinvigorate city centers and spawn new neighborhoods,” Mayor Schaaf wrote in an op-ed last summer. “We want no less for Oakland.”
That new stadiums benefit not only the teams that play in them but the cities that host them is something team owners reliably tout as a reason municipal leaders should give them taxpayer money. In support of Cleveland’s mid-’90s Gateway Project, which resulted in the construction of a new baseball stadium and basketball arena downtown, proponents ran newspaper ads that promised it would generate “$33.7 million in public revenues every year” and provide “28,000 good jobs for the jobless … neighborhood housing development for the homeless … and energy assistance programs for the elderly.” Fisher and Kaval’s pitch employs a similarly salvific tone: “$7 billion in economic impact; 6,000 permanent and mostly union jobs; 3,000 construction jobs,” A’s president Dave Kaval told me last summer.
But this is where things get a bit murky. Whom new stadiums prove positive for depends on how the development deals supporting them are structured: who pays for what; who reaps the profits; what sort of partnership between city and team is put in place. This has not yet been established in the case of the A’s’ stadium deal with Oakland. And, historically, the public ends up shouldering a large share of the cost, usually in the form of “public subsidies, in tax revenue lost, [and] in public spaces taken over for private gain,” as Neil deMause and Joanna Cagan write in Field of Schemes. (Cleveland’s Gateway Project was paid for in large part by a “sin” tax on cigarettes and alcohol, which, as deMause and Cagan write, “like all taxes on the sale of goods, fall disproportionately on those with lower incomes.”)
Such “investments,” for lack of a better term, are not guaranteed to be profitable; as Timothy Chapin, a professor of urban and regional planning at Florida State University, wrote in his paper on this topic, “Sports Facilities as Urban Redevelopment Catalysts,” “Redevelopment is not guaranteed by massive investments in a sports project.” In fact, they can turn out quite poorly. For all the good sports have done in Oakland, this is something the city also knows well. In 1995, Oakland issued $223 million in municipal bonds to lure the Raiders back from Los Angeles, where Al Davis had moved the team in the early ’80s. Of that sum, $53.9 million was given directly to Davis to pay for relocation costs—but that Davis could use however he wanted. The rest was spent building—at Davis’s behest—an oppressive 22,000-seat expansion atop the Coliseum’s eastern side, which had previously been defined by a grassy knoll that had allowed fans a picturesque view of the Oakland hills. The expansion, known today as “Mt. Davis,” obliterated that view, and forever corrupted the experience of watching games at the Coliseum. It did not seem to achieve much in the way of development in the neighborhoods surrounding the Coliseum. (As Oaklandside’s Ricky Rodas wrote in 2020, much of the district in which the Coliseum resides “remains undeveloped or derelict.”) Nor did it succeed in convincing the Raiders to exhibit more loyalty to their home city. Just 25 years after the family received its payoff, Al Davis’s son moved the team to Las Vegas, leaving fans bereft—and the city burdened with debt that it’s still paying off. (When it is finally paid off, in 2025, it will have cost Alameda County and Oakland $350 million. The Oakland Unified School District, meanwhile, faces a $40 million budget shortfall.)
Similar examples abound. The $250 million that taxpayers across Wisconsin ended up dedicating to the construction of a new basketball arena for the Milwaukee Bucks, in 2015—after, of course, team owners Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens threatened to move the team—was shown to have come out of the state’s recently slashed higher education budget. In Georgia, Cobb County residents kicked in more than $400 million to the construction of the new Braves stadium—which ended up including $40 million residents had previously voted to dedicate to the construction and beautification of public parks. In 2012, Glendale, Arizona, had to cut staffing in every city department to pay off the $300 million debt it had issued to build a new hockey arena for the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes; last February, the team announced it was leaving town anyway—to play in a 5,000-seat arena on Arizona State’s Tempe campus. The same year the city of Cleveland consented to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the Gateway Project, the Cleveland public school system announced it would cut $52 million from its budget and lay off more than 160 teachers.
Oakland community members protest school closures
Photo by Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images
Then you have what happened in St. Louis, when Rams owner Stan Kroenke decided to re-relocate his team to Los Angeles, in spite of St. Louis’s efforts to dissuade him. In 1995, the city of St. Louis had offered Georgia Frontiere and Kroenke—majority and minority owners, respectively, of the at-the-time Los Angeles Rams—a new taxpayer-funded $260 million stadium; a $15 million practice facility; and a contract committing the city to fund improvements to the stadium such that it would always rank within the top quartile of NFL stadiums nationally (as observed by a neutral party), all in return for moving the team to St. Louis. (The Rams also enjoyed low rent and the right to all luxury-box and concession revenues, plus a $29 million relocation fee.) When the Rams’ stadium no longer ranked in the top quartile, St. Louis, as promised, poured more public money into renovations, including $30 million to replace the old scoreboards with LED video displays and LED fascia boards. When this still didn’t do the trick, St. Louis created a task force charged with putting together a plan for dedicating some $400 million in additional public funds to construct another new stadium, this time on the riverfront. Kroenke, by then majority owner, supported the creation of the task force and led fans to believe that he wanted to stay put. Yet all the while, he was purchasing land in Los Angeles and registering the Rams as a California company. Then, in early 2016, Kroenke submitted an official relocation application to the NFL, in which he wrote that St. Louis was not, in effect, a major league sports city, and that no other NFL team would be interested in occupying a new, publicly funded riverfront stadium there. The words stung. “In a region that cares as much about sports and about its sports identity as St. Louis does,” Ben Frederickson, a columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, told me, “that hurt.” So did the debt Kroenke left St. Louis saddled with. It hurt so bad, in fact, that St. Louis filed a lawsuit alleging Kroenke had violated the NFL’s relocation policy, which stipulates that team owners and the league must make every reasonable effort available to find stadiums for their franchises in their home city. Kroenke and the NFL settled for $790 million, but St. Louis remains football-less. Kroenke’s Los Angeles Rams, meanwhile, just won the Super Bowl, and are estimated to be worth nearly $5 billion.
Why do cities that are struggling to fund public schools sign off on these kinds of deals? And how do team owners so consistently win them? One way is by exploiting fans’ love for their product, which creates a misalignment of incentives, and leaves fans—and their representatives—susceptible to being taken advantage of. “Team owners are well aware of the power [they have],” said Marcel Louis-Jacques, a reporter who covers the Miami Dolphins for ESPN’s NFL Nation and who grew up in Sacramento, where the Maloof family—former owners of the Sacramento Kings—waged a long battle with city leaders over a publicly funded basketball arena. “And they try to leverage it however they can.” He knows from experience; that, after all, is what the Maloof family did in Sacramento, by leaking rumors of wanting to leave for cities like Anaheim and Seattle while insisting they were unable to contribute monetarily to the construction of a new arena. (They eventually sold the Kings to Vivek Ranadivé, who struck a deal with the city to build what would go on to become the Golden 1 Center.)
There’s reason to believe that the A’s stadium project could prove more symbiotic and less exploitative than either the sports-related redevelopment projects of Oakland’s past or those more recently completed in cities like St. Louis—that it might indeed succeed in reenergizing Oakland’s economic core and in spurring new kinds of economic development in areas surrounding the stadium, all without putting Oakland’s general fund at risk. Financial proposals released so far do not call for the issue of new bonds or “sin taxes’’ to fund construction. The project’s downtown location and inclusion of condominiums, retail, and hotels could predispose it to the kind of revitalization that has eluded the Coliseum site, and that certain other large-scale stadium projects, like Oracle Park in San Francisco or Golden 1 in Sacramento, ultimately produced. (Even some former critics of the Kings’ stadium deal “believe it’s had a positive impact … and spurred business and development,” as Patrick Sisson wrote in Curbed. According to Sisson, in just its first year, the new Kings arena hosted “1.6 million guests, who spent more than $71 million.”) And with a specific and strongly worded community benefits package—attached to a sensible final developer agreement that doesn’t imperil the city’s general fund—Oakland’s political leaders could take meaningful steps to ensure the new development delivers for communities like West Oakland in ways the Coliseum expansion did not deliver for East Oakland. So, too, could they hold John Fisher and Dave Kaval accountable to the community in ways Al and Mark Davis never were.
But these are historically difficult needles to thread. Little between the A’s and the city has been agreed upon. And even seemingly anodyne concessions that remain on the table could prove costly. Consider the disagreements between the A’s and the Oakland City Council that surfaced last summer over the structure of the Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts, which will account for much of the city’s side of the project’s financing. (They’re a big reason the financial proposals that have been released don’t include new taxes or call for new bonds.) EIFDs are mechanisms for generating public money. A city creates them at the onset of large-scale development projects by drawing lines around blocks of land that developers believe will benefit from their project. Once the project succeeds in generating these benefits, future increases in property tax revenue that exceed existing “base-year” revenues generated inside the district are diverted from the city’s general fund to be used for infrastructure. The idea is the funds would not exist “but for” the development, and are thus not considered much skin off the city’s back—especially in comparison to bonds that have to be paid off from the general fund. But EIFDs can still be exploitive—depending on how they’re drawn. In their initial terms, Fisher and Kaval suggested Oakland, in order to foot their end of the bill, create two EIFDs, one around the stadium site itself—which, remember, is currently a wedge of little-used port land—and another encompassing many businesses that are already bringing in property tax revenue across a large swath of Jack London Square. Oakland rejected this proposal because, in the words of Mayor Schaaf, it “would have put the city’s general fund at risk.”
The A’s and the city continue to negotiate over the specifics of the stadium project’s financial plan—according to Kaval, the city’s counterproposal for creating and relying on just one EIFD leaves a $352 million shortfall; the city has said it will bridge the gap with grants—but, again, no compromise has been reached. And though it’s unlikely taxpayers in Oakland will regret whatever deal the city and the A’s strike quite as much as they’ve come to regret Oakland’s past development deals, the consequences of bending too far backward for Fisher and Kaval, whether over particulars as arcane as tax infrastructure financing or as salient as affordable housing, remain very real. The wrong compromise may still imperil the city’s general fund, and even a comparatively responsible agreement could end up endangering communities like West Oakland, which remain susceptible to the sorts of negative side effects large-scale private development tends to exacerbate, like displacement.
The point is, the calculus city leaders must undertake when deciding how much political and economic capital keeping pro teams is worth is never clear cut. This is as true in Oakland now as it’s been in St. Louis, Glendale, and Cleveland. For all that cities stand to lose by losing pro sports, keeping them can prove more expensive—both economically and otherwise. One is reminded of a line from local author José Vadi, whose book of essays, Interstate, is set partly in Oakland, and examines, among other things, the way the city has been changed by external forces, including billionaire team owners. “I want Oakland to first be associated with the Panthers rather than the Raiders,” he writes, “with an animal that protects and contributes, rather than a figure that plunders and departs.”
So what, then, should Oakland’s leaders do, as negotiations with the A’s approach the bottom of the ninth inning? They appear to have coalesced around a common goal: fight for a deal that serves not only to save the last of Oakland’s major league teams, but also that constitutes a smart investment in Oakland’s future. “No matter how much we want to have a baseball team here,” Councilmember Loren Taylor said during the city council meeting in February, “we can’t and will not sell our soul of the city for peanuts.” If peanuts are John Fisher’s final offer, Oakland appears ready to let him leave.
Fisher and Kaval at an A’s game in 2017
The debate over whether this is the right thing to do continues here, as it does elsewhere, albeit in different forms. Officials in Erie County and New York state just agreed to give Kim and Terry Pegula, owners of the Buffalo Bills, nearly a billion dollars to help construct a new stadium for their team. (The Pegulas had threatened to move the Bills if their requests for public funding were denied.)
Can keeping pro sports possibly be worth such a price? Economists tend not to think so, but many fans do—and that’s true even here in Oakland. I spoke to a few in March, at an unofficial “Fanfest” that the Oakland 68s were throwing at Township Commons, a public park nestled on the eastern edge of the Oakland Estuary—about a mile south of the A’s proposed stadium site, and roughly a mile from Lake Merritt, where the Warriors’ 2015 championship parade culminated seven years ago. It was a gorgeous afternoon, warm in that East Bay way. Hundreds of people showed up, including several stalwarts of the A’s fan community. Casey Pratt of KGO-TV, ABC’s Bay Area affiliate; the mayor; Oakland’s favorite hot dog vendor, Hal the Hot Dog Guy, whom I helped spin up cotton candy, which we served to kids tromping about in Kelly-Green Matt Olson jerseys, as well as to parents paying homage to Mark McGwire and Rickey Henderson. On the park’s refurbished wharf, beneath the crosshatch of structural trusses that overhang Rocky’s Market (Township Commons sits on what had once been Oakland’s 9th Avenue shipping terminal), all these people came together and chatted and hugged, drinking and joking, as if in joyful defiance of the spring’s predominating angst. But some good news had recently arrived. Earlier in the week, the MLB lockout had been lifted, and the air now felt redolent of baseball, all hot dogs and sunscreen and the sinusy bite of freshly clipped grass. Conversation centered around the state of the stadium negotiations, and crackled with hopeful conviction. “Oakland should do whatever it takes to keep this team,” a woman named Nicole told me. “Keeping them is all that matters.”
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“The development surrounding the stadium would be benefit enough,” her husband added. “Whatever investment the city needs to make will be worth it, both for fans and economically for Jack London Square.” Others were even more resolute. “I don’t give a shit about John Fisher,” said a fan in a beanie knit in the likeness of Stomper, the A’s elephant mascot. He had to speak up over the beat to “Drop It Like it’s Hot,” which tumbled out of the portable speakers beside the cotton candy machine like a huge pair of rolled dice. “We need to build that stadium. Oakland’s already let the Raiders and the Warriors leave. This is all we have left.”
As a fan myself, it’s hard not to empathize. Sports fans in Oakland have endured much. The loss of two teams. Being forced to cheer on their only remaining team in a debased stadium that floods with sewage. Never getting to form long-term bonds with any of their favorite players, on account of Fisher’s persistent refusal to offer them market-rate contracts. (“The good news about being an Oakland A’s fan is that someday I’ll die,” quipped one fan on Twitter, after news broke that the A’s had traded Matt Olson.) And yet, in spite of all this, A’s fans still appreciate the potential of their team, as they understand the potential of pro sports more broadly—how they can be engines of unity in a time of division, and creators of community in a time of isolation. This is why, over the last several years, many A’s fans have embraced the Roots, Oakland’s local United Soccer League team, which plays at Laney College; at this spring’s home opener, the 68s were well-represented, drums and banners in tow, and over 5,000 people showed up. But it’s also why A’s fans mourn the state of their last remaining major league team. They know what they’ve been denied, and they know what they may lose.
I know I do, at any rate. I think of my own life, and of how my father and I, in the manner of an untold number of fathers and sons before us, first began to understand and relate to each other through A’s baseball. I’d always loved him as my dad. But we got to know and love each other as people in the Oakland Coliseum’s upper deck, bag lunches flattened on our lap, peanut shells crunching pleasantly beneath our shoes. I relish those memories. I would love to re-create them with my own kids one day. The idea of forfeiting that opportunity feels tragic—and the prospect of protecting it priceless. As Pratt put it to me, “There’s no dollar figure attached to that.”
As Major League Baseball’s delayed Opening Day finally draws near, more and more fans fear that “tragic” is how the story of the A’s in Oakland will end. Just a few days after the Fanfest, Fisher and Kaval put in an offer to buy a potential stadium site in Las Vegas—marking the fifth such offer they’ve made. That same day, the Seaport Planning Advisory Committee—a state committee that advises the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, whose jurisdiction includes the wedge of waterfront property the A’s want to build their stadium on—decided in an unexpected vote not to recommend eliminating maritime use at the A’s proposed stadium site. Should the BCDC accept SPAC’s recommendation, in a final vote scheduled for June, the A’s stadium project would not be able to move forward. Meaning the A’s time in Oakland would likely be finished—and residents would indeed finally find out what happens to a sports town when it loses pro sports.
Photo By Noah Berger/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
But perhaps what we’d find out wouldn’t only be tragic—perhaps we’d become aware of more than just opportunities lost. Before I left the Fanfest that afternoon in March, I linked up with Jorge Leon, the president of the Oakland 68s. Leon is 36 years old, Oakland-raised, and built like a center fielder. He had his kids with him; he carried his youngest in a BabyBjorn strapped over his green and gold A’s T-shirt. We drank beers and watched over the party, the kids in jerseys playing wiffle ball on the wharf, the fans milling around the mayor, the water on the estuary shimmering vaguely the way blue and gold confetti does when it dangles in the sun. I asked him what he thought would come of the 68s, and of other community groups tied to Oakland’s sports scene, if the A’s left. Would all this not just go away, without the team?
“I’m not sure,” he said. He told me that the 68s had decided to throw their unofficial Fanfest only after it had become clear that the A’s wouldn’t be throwing an official one. In this context, the afternoon felt to me suddenly more like a rally, an event thrown—like the Warriors’ parades of the late 2010s—not in honor of one team, but of a broader community. And much like the Black History Month Celebration that Dave Peters had put on at Hoover Elementary, an eclectic sampling of Oakland was present. Reps from the Oakland Roots, a soccer club that was formed in 2018 by Oakland residents, were there. Local retailers, such as Beast Oakland and Oaklandish, were selling shirts and hats. Local musicians—Kehlani, Keak Da Sneak—jutted their way onto the speaker system and lit up the crowd. Podcasters and writers and politicians were all there, some dancing, all drinking. I even recognized a few volunteers from Hoover Elementary, nursing seltzers while officiating a rather competitive game of cornhole.
It was reorienting. Pro teams can seem to represent so much about a place, and imbue it with such meaning—particularly for fans, and particularly when they’re playing well, netting national notoriety, throwing parades that double as block parties. But they’re not alone in this ability.
“Look,” Leon told me. “People from here are resilient. It would be heartbreaking if the A’s left. But we’ll be OK. We’ll keep doing our thing no matter what.”