Thursday, April 1, 2010

Baseball’s Bay Problems

Baseball’s Bay Problems

By Evan Weiner

April 2, 2010

(New York, N. Y.) --- Major League Baseball has a Bay problem in the East Bay area of the San Francisco Bay in Oakland and west of Tampa Bay, specifically in St. Petersburg. Neither the ownership group of the Oakland A's nor the ownership group of the Tampa Bay Rays want to operate in their present homes, the Oakland Coliseum or whatever it is being called today and at the dome in St. Petersburg which was built after Major League Baseball said no, no, don't build it for us to various Florida political entities in the late 1980s.

The politicians ignored Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and built the dome even though there was no real commitment from any team to move to St. Petersburg although San Francisco and Seattle were rumored to be ready to relocate until MLB expanded in 1995.

The Oakland dilemma is simple. A's owner Lewis Wolff would like to move his team to San Jose which is more than 40 miles south of San Francisco down the 101 but because the San Francisco Giants control the territorial rights to the Bay Area's largest city, Wolff cannot relocate his team there. Wolff almost cut a deal to build a stadium down I-880 in Fremont which is as closed as you can get to San Jose without venturing into Giants territory but the deal fell though.

In St. Petersburg, the Rays ownership led by Stuart Sternberg has been pursuing a new stadium since 2007 when they proposed a building a stadium on the St. Petersburg waterfront. That idea was shelved in 2009 but that does not mean Sternberg has given up on getting his Rays a new ballyard.

Sternberg does have a significant obstacle to overcome in his pursuit of a new facility. The franchise is contractually obligated to play in the Suncoast Dome or whatever name is attached to the building until 2027 and St. Petersburg officials say they will make sure the team fulfills that contract.

But as the late Dr. John McMullen, who owned MLB's Houston Astros and the National Hockey League's New Jersey Devils, once said, a contract is just a piece of paper. In other words, the contract could be broken.

At this point, there are no real options for Stenberg in the Bay Area and even if someone approached the Rays owner about moving his team, St. Petersburg officials are threatening to sue anyone who interferes with the Rays lease at the stadium. But as Dr. McMullen once pointed out, a contract is just a piece of paper.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Wolff has been looking for a stadium for years. Initially he wanted to claim some land north of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and Arena and turn that into a stadium village. Oakland officials seemingly were not interested which forced Wolff to explore Fremont. That didn't work out. San Jose officials seem very interested in bringing Wolff's A's to town but there are numerous hurdles to overcome starting with the San Francisco Giants ownership getting the territorial rights to Santa Clara County in 1992. The Giants ownership still controls the territory even though voters in San Jose and Santa Clara said no to building a Giants ballpark. Then there is the matter of whether San Jose voters want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build a yard for Lewis Wolff.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig appointed a committee to study the A's stadium situation and see if a deal can be worked out with the Giants and the A's ownership that would allow Wolff to move his franchise to San Jose. The Giants ownership does draw customers from San Jose/Santa Clara but that away is an hour away by car from the Giants ballpark in China Basin. The Oakland Coliseum is significantly closer to San Francisco and Oakland is easily accessible from San Francisco by car and train with the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). The television market doesn't matter, both teams saturate the entire market with games and both teams share the radio market.

Selig and Major League Baseball worked out a deal in 2004 which allowed the then 29 MLB owners of the Montreal Expos and move the franchise to Washington even though D. C. was part of Peter Angelos' Baltimore Orioles territory. MLB established a baseball-centric regional sports network, the Mid Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) with Angelos getting the lion’s share of cable TV revenues to offset his potential losses of customers from Washington and Northern Virginia. The new Washington franchise would have significantly less cable TV revenues.

The answer to the Oakland dilemma seems to be paying off the Giants ownership so that Wolff can end up in San Jose, assuming San Jose residents want a stadium.

If Selig's committee, Wolff and the Giants ownership cannot work out a deal, Wolff could move his team anyway to San Jose and then sue MLB for violating antitrust laws although MLB does have an antitrust exemption. Wolff doesn't seem to be the type to challenge MLB. It is an option however.

MLB’s bay problem will drag into the 2010 baseball season. Wolff has a few years left on his Oakland Coliseum lease and there is still a possibility that Oakland might come back with a stadium deal. In the Tampa Bay area, that battle could go on for years.

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