It’s maybe the most closely watched business issue in MLB these days, but there’s nothing new in the battle between the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants over San Jose.
The New York Times had a nice report on the state of affairs in the A’s/Giants standoff: the A’s want San Jose, the Giants control San Jose and won’t give it up, Bud Selig wants to give Oakland every chance to keep the A’s, yada, yada, yada. It’s a stalemate that’s now measured in years.
And one that’s proving to be harmful for A’s fans, as the team enters a rebuilding process that could yield a winning team down the road if the A’s do work out a new-ballpark plan. But it’s incredibly cynical, telling Oakland fans they’re not worthy of a winning — or even competitive — team because the good fans of San Jose deserve a winner down the road. As a business proposition, what the A’s are doing is salting the market: by purposely fielding a losing team and anticipating apathy from Oakland fans, Lew Wolff and Billy Beane are arguing they should be allowed to move because Oakland can’t support MLB.
But it can. And here’s why: the key to understanding Oakland is to understand how local TV contracts work. We’re in the age of cable TV sports networks, where big deals are boosting team revenues. As an MSA, San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont isn’t that large, not even in the top 10. But as a TV market, it’s a star, the sixth-largest in the nation. On the MLB level, the size of the TV market is beginning to be more important than the perceived fan or population base. Take a look at the TV rankings: you may be a little surprised that so-called “small” markets like Tampa-St. Pete are considerably larger than what you’d assume to be larger markets, like Baltimore and San Diego.
Now, we’re not going to argue that Nashville would make a better MLB market than Kansas City because it’s higher on the TV charts, though it is a sin that large TV markets like Portland and Orlando have no pro baseball at all, especially with TV money now flowing down to Triple-A markets like Lehigh Valley. And moving to San Jose allows Wolff to claim an MSA for themselves while keeping a huge share of the lucrative Bay Area TV market. It’s why Wolff and Beane are willing to turn their backs on current A’s fans, an incredibly cynical approach to running a ballteam. Wolff’s exit strategy, alas, doesn’t have a contingency for staying in Oakland; he’ll make out fine if he sells the team (it’s probably worth double what he paid for it), and Billy Beane will always land on his feet if he leaves the A’s, with plenty of teams hoping he can recapture the Moneyball magic in another market.
What neither apparently counted on: Bud Selig’s commitment to the sanctity of territories in baseball. You can tell how much someone knows about professional baseball by how seriously they take territories. Outsiders will downplay the importance of territories and brush them aside, but we don’t know of many MLB — and MiLB, for that matter — owners who don’t treat territories with the utmost respect. It’s the system that’s benefited almost every owner — yes, even the Steinbrenners and the Wilpons and the Henrys — and as such territories, like the one controlled by the Giants, are writ in stone. Add to that Bud Selig’s insistence that a market be given every chance to retain a franchise, and you have an ongoing standoff that won’t be broken any time soon.
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