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Why aren’t the Oakland A’s trying harder to fill their stadium?


Why aren’t the Oakland A’s trying harder to fill their stadium?

Very, very few people are going to baseball games in Oakland this year. At first glance, it might seem obvious why: They’re rebuilding, the park is not great, and attendance is down everywhere. These things are all true. They also do not tell the whole story of what’s going on in Oakland.

If you really take a look at what’s different for the A’s right now compared to other low points in their history, what’s curious is what the team is not doing to try and get butts in the seats. It’s that lack of action that inspires some to wonder if this is not the plot of a popular baseball movie, where the team wants it to look like baseball can never work in Oakland, so that they can leave Oakland and get a new park elsewhere .

“I know some people think it’s Major League, ‘but it’s not,” A’s president Dave Kaval said. “We would not be spending $ 2 million a month trying to get our waterfront ballpark approved if we were not serious about staying in Oakland.”

The question is whether the way the A’s are being run this season lines up with that assertion – both in terms of the product on the field, and when it comes to what they’re doing to sell tickets.

Kaval has pointed out on Twitter that attendance is down a bit around the league, including for the Giants, the more popular team in the Bay Area. It’s certainly true that there was a big drop in 2021 that was most probably related to the pandemic, and that April 2022 attendance did not return fully to pre-pandemic levels.

But the league’s median attendance is down a couple thousand off of 2019. The Giants are down a couple thousand off of 2019. Oakland is down close to 12,000 a gameby far the biggest differential in the league.

* The truncated 2020 season is not included in this chart.

The A’s are currently averaging 8,789 people per game, lowest in the majors – and that is paid attendance, not actual humans in seats. The lived experience at the park often feels like there are fewer people than the reported attendance. The numbers have ticked up recently – three of the last four games of the weekend series against the Angels drew at least 12,000, with the exception the 2nd game of a doubleheader – but there’s no denying that for most of this year, the Coliseum has felt like a house with all the children gone.

The reported number is also less than half of the A’s past attendance numbers when they were bottom third in the league, and less than a third of their peak attendance numbers.

What’s different about the 2022 A’s versus their cost-conscious predecessors?

The one thing that reliably correlates with attendance is winning, according to those who study the numbers closely. The A’s are within shouting distance of .500 ball, but it’s also obvious that this team is more in rebuilding mode after trading away Chris Bassitt, Matt Olson, Matt Chapman spirit Sean Manaea during the offseason.

In the past, however, A’s president of baseball operations Billy Beane has tried to buy while selling in order to stay competitive. When Beane traded away Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey in 2012, it looked like a step back. Then he signed Yoenis Cespedes and re-signed Coco Crisp with the money he saved, and the team won the division.

“We’ve used the term rebuilding, but we’ve always spent all of our payroll in an effort to respect the fact that we have to field a major league team,” Beane said three years later. “I think our market demands it, and we demand it of ourselves.”

So if Beane is spending everything he has been given, that means the always-skint A’s aren’t even spending to their previous low levels on the one thing that would most likely improve attendance.

* The truncated 2020 season is not included in this chart.

That $ 47 million mark is their lowest payroll in 20 years after adjusting for inflation, and their second-biggest drop year over year. The last time they dropped this far was going into the 2008 season, when they were in the middle of a two-year low point in terms of competitiveness. That 2008 season was not wholly unlike this one. The A’s traded away stars (Dan Haren and Nick Swisher among others), signed only Keith Foulke and Emil Brown, reduced payroll, and saw their attendance decline. The A’s still drew almost 10,000 more fans per game in 2008 than they are currently drawing.

Are they really trying to get the season ticket holders back?

Rebuilding teams have a few options to keep attendance up while trying to restore the team to a competitive position. One is to cut prices on tickets. In 2018, the A’s made a Tuesday night game, projected to have the lowest attendance of the season, free for everyone. Almost 50,000 people came to that game, which the A’s promoted as a celebration of their 50 years in Oakland.

“We have plenty of affordable options,” Kaval said. “I think it’s important to remember that we have many affordable ways to get out to the ballpark, whether it’s our $ 5 tickets for 510 night, whether it’s our family four-packs when you can get in for $ 9 a ticket, whether you want to just buy a ticket on the regular box-office site at tickets.com for $ 18 for a game. ”

But the organization still raised prices on most season ticket holders, even announcing as much in a pre-season email.

Jeff Paulson had season tickets through Treehouse season access for around $ 600 in 2019 and went to over 50 games. The Treehouse pass was a monthly ticket subscription that gave fans access to a destination area above the left-field bleachers. This season, it is no longer offered by the club, and they have done little to court previous holders with new options.

“This season, not a single soul from ticket sales contacted me,” Paulson said. “I got a generic email telling me to log into my account and choose what I wanted. When I did log on, the cheapest tickets I could find were something like $ 1500. ”

Other season ticket holders reported strange interactions with their normally helpful reps.

“They made no effort to woo me back after canceling,” said Mike Winstanley, who faced an increase of 50-60 percent on his traditional season tickets. “They called, I said no, they said thanks, refund will arrive on your card in three-to-five business days. Never heard from them again. ”

“They did not even counter with smaller packages,” recounted former season ticket holder Yvette Coulter of the process.

Kaval said the team had not sold season tickets since 2019, and based its pricing on what it charged for individual tickets last season.

“We looked at what the tickets sold for in the different sections and actually took about a 20 percent discount, and then priced the seats accordingly,” Kaval said. “That is more than it was back in 2019. But it was basically at a discount to what we had last season where we had obviously a pretty competitive team.”

What else could be done?

There are other options for increasing attendance, including the membership plan the A’s no longer offer. The Treehouse access plan Paulson used was sometimes called the Ballpark Plan or A’s Access, but the entire idea came from former COO Chris Giles, who has now spun that into a new company called FanRally, which lists the LA Kings, Milwaukee Brewersand Stanford University as clients.

“FanRally is a membership platform for teams and venues and artists that are based off of reservations and not tickets,” Giles said. “The basic concept is a monthly fee for the privilege to reserve seats. The seats in your core seating zone are free to reserve, you do not need a ticket, you just make a reservation in our system. On average, they end up costing, let’s call it 40-60 percent of a season ticket, for the unlimited privilege to go to any event you want to. ”

The version the A’s rolled out came with many discounts, including half off of concessions and discounts on MLB.tv and parking and merchandise. But without the promise of a new ballpark in the short-term, the effort to attract casual fans may not have been worth the economic sacrifice.

“That program was not financially viable,” says Kaval. “We had that program in 2018 and ’19. There were a lot of operational challenges, especially at the Coliseum, to provide the 50 percent off on the concessions.

“It made for an inferior experience for a lot of people who were there, which is unfortunate. It really did just not create enough volume of fans to offset the fact that people could potentially come to any game. While it was something we wanted to try and see if it could work – and it had its time – when we look forward now and in the future, we’re really focused on more of a traditional season-ticket model. ”

That makes sense, but A’s Access was certainly popular in Oakland before, and removing some of the discounts to make it more financially feasible was one possible compromise.

Kaval, however, said, “We felt it was very important to reward our ticket holders who were spending the most dollars and buying the tickets and had been with us the longest.”

Other than toggling pricing on the tickets, enhancing the non-baseball experience at the park is another way that teams can entice fans to the seats. In nearby San Jose, the Low-A San Jose Giants have a bouncy house, multiple carnival-type games for the fans, beers from local breweries, and tacos, churros, and barbecue from local restaurants.

The A’s can at least say they have a solid outdoor play area, but they are down to one food truck most weeknights. They used to have anywhere from three-to-five food trucks. Inside the Coliseum, in Shibe Tavern, there was a tri-tip carving station, the best pizza available at the stadium and a craft beer bar. There was also a spot for local craft cans near the Treehouse, and a couple of interesting food spots in the outfield. Almost all of these options are now shuttered, especially on weeknights.

Comparing a minor league ballpark to a major league club, however, is obviously not an apples-to-apples proposition; average attendance in San Jose is still below 2,000 fans per game. That’s an important consideration – with smaller crowds, the potential cost of adding amenities is lower. The added concessions in Oakland were shut down at least in part because there aren’t enough fans to pay what it takes to open those stands. When the scale of the ballpark is so large, the costs required to run many promotions and amenities become more challenging.

Just think about how many bobbleheads the San Jose Giants would have to produce if they decided to run a promotion on a Friday night, and compare that to a Friday night in Oakland, even with reduced crowds.

Yet, the A’s have not completely abandoned in-stadium promotions.

“We have the only drone show in Major League Baseball, ”Kaval said. “Our Little League night. Our scout night. Running the bases on Sundays. We’m doing a lot of activities to encourage people to come out. And the people who are here, they’re having a great time. ”

Still, the fans missing out on the old amenities and ticket programs do not necessarily care about the business reasons behind the decisions to cut them, whether they’re simply related to profit and loss statements, or perhaps tied to the search for a new ballpark . That effort is headed to another important vote on June 30. If voters approve the removal of the port designation on Howard Terminal, it would allow the site to be developed into a ballpark.

In the meantime, the fans wait, and hope their loyalty isn’t being taken for granted.

“I have not spent a cent on anything A’s related since and will not (and that’s really hard for me) until they make an announcement they are staying in Oakland,” Paulson said.

(Top photo of an A’s fan at the Coliseum Monday: Darren Yamashita / USA Today)


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