Oakland A sees empty Coliseum seats amid fan frustration

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The owner of a baseball team deliberately tries to fail his team in order to gain approval to move to a more glamorous place.

It’s the story of the hit 1989 comedy Major League, in which mischievous tactics are used to thwart a team and force it out of town.

Does life in Oakland imitate art?

The A’s draw awkwardly small crowds to the Coliseum, which is not surprising after trading several star players, cutting payrolls and raising ticket prices at their antiquated facility.

In the film, owner Rachel Phelps attempts to sabotage her team to move from Cleveland to Miami. In real life, John Fisher threatens to move from Oakland to Las Vegas if he doesn’t get his Howard Terminal baseball development.

“It’s like the goal is not to have so many people at the games so they can move and say, ‘Hey, we don’t have the support of the fans,'” said Rob Goldstein, former season ticket holder of A “That seems pretty clear.”

The A’s say that’s not the case.

“I categorically reject this idea,” said team president Dave Kaval. “Follow the money. We wouldn’t be spending $2 million a month, more than the Raiders and Warriors combined, on their efforts to stay in Oakland if we weren’t interested in staying.”

With well under 5,000 spectators after opening day, many concession stands in the main hall are closed.

Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

While little is spent on A’s payroll (second-lowest in MLB), Kaval claims $2 million a month to fund the campaign to reach Howard Terminal through salaries from internal employees and many city and county employees, allocated to the project, as well as funds for environmental and legal advice and study.

Kaval also cited ticket packages available to fans for attending games relatively cheaply, including four Friday night tickets and a parking pass for just $39, as well as discounted plans for seniors, military and first responders.

However, the optics are not good. The A’s drew just 17,503 at Monday’s home game, followed by three anemic crowds announced at 3,748, 2,703 and 4,429.

Paid attendances on Wednesday, a game brought forward 3 1/2 hours due to an impending rainstorm, were the lowest since September 9, 1980 (when attendances were used using turnstile counts of actual fans entering the stadium), excluding games with limited seating due to COVID-19. The A’s are by far the last in the average attendance majors.

Goldstein, an Alamo accountant, had two season tickets from 2010 to 2019 before the pandemic locked fans out. He canceled his plan this year because it was up 45% from $8,474 in 2019 to $12,300.

They were prime seats in Section 120, six rows behind the A’s dugout. But last year, when full capacity returned for mid-season, Goldstein said he was told his seats would only be available at a much higher rate. He opted for single tickets instead. This year he took a passport.

Some fans continue to show up. Marcos Ramos, a chef from Oakland, was with his wife and niece at Wednesday’s game and spoke highly of a team full of promising young players like center fielder Cristian Pache.

In an otherwise empty Section 129, Ramos hoisted his large green A flag, blew his long, loud green horn and proudly displayed his colorful tattoo of an A logo on his neck.

“And that’s what I got when we lost,” said Ramos. “Even though things have changed now, I’m still here. Regardless, win or lose, we’re here. Dedication has its roots in Oakland.”

That’s one of Kaval’s catchphrases, “rooted in Oakland.” Another is “parallel paths,” as the A’s simultaneously face Howard Terminal and multiple locations in southern Nevada. Fisher and Kaval revisited Las Vegas this week, another reason for fan dissatisfaction.

Property has turned down construction on the Colosseum site, and Commissioner Rob Manfred gave the A’s permission to explore other markets last May, opening the door to Las Vegas. Originally, the A’s aimed for the opening of a baseball stadium in Oakland in 2023. Now it won’t open until 2028 at the earliest.

Oakland Athletics mascot Stomper walks into the stands as A's Baltimore Orioles perform in front of a few thousand fans during the MLB game at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California Wednesday, March 20, 2018.

Oakland Athletics mascot Stomper walks into the stands as A’s Baltimore Orioles perform in front of a few thousand fans during the MLB game at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California Wednesday, March 20, 2018.

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

The A’s traded infielders Matt Olson and Matt Chapman, and pitchers Chris Bassitt and Sean Manaea for prospects as part of the recent remodel. It’s a step backwards seen multiple times in the franchise’s past, with star players dishing out before they got free because the A’s aren’t willing to pay market prices.

It was a winning strategy, with executives Billy Beane and David Forst constantly reshaping the roster, considering the A’s made the playoffs 11 times in the 2000s (only four teams have made it more), but the fans continue to see their favorite players being sent elsewhere.

The A’s aren’t the only lower-attendance team trying to bring fans back in a pandemic. The Giants had 23,279 viewers in their first homestand, relatively low for a team that generally ranks at the top of attendance.

For the A’s, the numbers are more extreme. The A’s say the price hike seems significant because it was so low previously and the average ticket price is less than $40, below the MLB average (and well below Giants prices). A single ticket costs from $15.

With no fans allowed in 2020 and spacing capsules required in early 2021, the A’s discontinued their popular A’s Access program, which allowed members to take advantage of affordable and flexible ticket packages and significantly reduced parking, food, drink and merchandise.

The team said it has proved an impractical business model. Fans could choose games they wanted to attend, and sometimes staff couldn’t handle the load of concessions and merchandise. A’s Access effectively replaced season tickets, so last year the A’s had no season ticket holders.

“That was something we tried. We like to try new things,” said Kaval. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t a financially viable product. Operationally, it was a difficult situation.”

A couple watches the action from a mostly empty upper deck during Oakland Athletics on Wednesday, April 20.

A couple watches the action from a mostly empty upper deck during Oakland Athletics on Wednesday, April 20.

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Now the A’s are trying to rebuild season cards in a more traditional way. Tiny paid attendance numbers show there’s still a long way to go.

Sports business consultant Andy Dolich, marketing director for the A’s under Haas ownership in the ’80s and ’90s, has doubts about the direction of the A’s under Fisher, who bought the team in 2005.

“I believe their position in the market is 100% self-inflicted in terms of how they’ve positioned the team and gutted the roster,” Dolich said, “and you’ve been raising ticket prices and continuing to let the baseball world know that you’re you.” are enthusiastic and excited about Las Vegas while commenting that time is running out in Oakland. Well, you’ve been running out of time for 17 years.”

Kaval said getting a stadium deal would solve their problems and allow the A’s to compete better against other teams, including the Giants.

“This is a key reason we need a modern, fan-friendly downtown location, which we hope will be approved this summer,” Kaval said.

“We’re all focused on one goal, to keep the team in Oakland. But at the same time we need a parallel path because it took so long. There was so much resistance and California is such a difficult environment to have something like that approved.”

John Shea is the national baseball writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @JohnSheaHey

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