It’s easy to be deceived in the data vacuum of the first week of the MLB season, but sometimes, it provides a preview of what is to come. Consider Oakland Athletics third baseman Matt Chapman, who’s hitting .400/.455/.633 in his first eight games. Certainly Chapman will cool off a little, but in a week, we’ve seen everything the 24-year-old has to offer.
Chapman, a 2014 first-rounder out of Cal State Fullerton, has two special tools: defense and power. As a rookie last year, he led all third basemen in fielding runs above average despite playing only 84 games. And he’s not some quiet defender who gets by on positioning and avoiding mistakes; Chapman is a physical, exuberant fielder who flings his body around the diamond in the tradition of great defensive third basemen from Scott Rolen to Brooks Robinson to Ken Keltner. Here’s an example from Opening Day this year.
Chappy coming for that gold glove pic.twitter.com/J8BmoiPwD7— A's on NBCS (@NBCSAthletics) March 30, 2018
As for power, despite playing in a pitcher’s park, Chapman hit 14 homers and 23 doubles as a rookie—again, in just 84 games. On Sunday, Chapman’s three-run homer was the only blemish on the dazzling debut start by Angels right-hander (and Ringer content gold mine) Shohei Ohtani.
It was just a matter of time— A's on NBCS (@NBCSAthletics) April 1, 2018
Chappy goes deep off Ohtani! 3-run jack!
A's lead 3-2 pic.twitter.com/2wVsLmSmCL
Extrapolate Chapman’s 2017 numbers over a full season and he’s an elite defensive third baseman with 30-homer power—a six-win player, give or take, which will usually get you in the top 10 in MVP voting. To use a comp, Chapman looks like Colorado’s Nolan Arenado, only smaller and with way more strikeouts. He’s a blast to watch, and he’d be a star in the making if not for a distressing set of numbers: 7,416, 9,157, and 7,908.
Those are the staggeringly low attendance totals for the Athletics’ games at the Oakland Coliseum on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Even last year, with a last-place team that finished next-to-last in the American League in attendance, the Athletics drew a four-digit crowd only three times all year. In 2018, they’ve done it three nights in a row in the first week of the season. At the risk of running headfirst into a cliché, those attendance figures recall the “rich teams/poor teams/50 feet of crap” monologue from Moneyball, because crowds that get called “sparse” in other cities are twice or three times as large as the ones the A’s are playing in front of. The Florida Panthers, a mediocre NHL team that’s 20 years removed from its last serious title challenge and plays in the middle of nowhere, have drawn more than 9,157 fans in every single one of their 40 home games this year. The A’s are drawing like the Expos in their last days in Montreal.
Chapman’s not the only fun A’s player, nor the only one with 30-homer power, but Oakland is learning the same lesson ABC learned with its submarine drama Last Resort, which lasted half a season before being canceled due to poor ratings: Going deep frequently gets you only so far if nobody’s watching.
When big league clubs play in front of empty seats, the first inclination is frequently to blame or laugh at the fans, which is the wrong way to look at the issue. Oakland’s attendance numbers aren’t the result of an uncommitted fan base, and even if they were, in what other industry is a lack of consumer interest seen as a moral failing of the consumer, and not a failure of marketing or the product itself?
In Oakland’s case, the failure doesn’t lie in marketing. In November 2016, the A’s hired a new team president, Dave Kaval, under whose watch the A’s have introduced one fan-friendly promotion after another. The A’s have a rotating lineup of food trucks in Championship Plaza outside the park, and in 2018 they introduced a party deck called The Treehouse. Fans can buy a season pass that gets them into The Treehouse and the general admission seats around it for $149.99—that’s for the whole year—which makes MLB games affordable to people who might be unwilling or unable to pay $50 per seat under normal circumstances. A $55 single-game Treehouse ticket will get you a food item and unlimited drinks, including beer, for three hours. The Madison (Wisconsin) Mallards of the Northwoods League—a summer wood-bat league for college players—offer a similar promotion called the Duck Blind, which costs $41 on weekends and makes that Treehouse package look like a steal.
In addition to the usual regimen of bobblehead and jersey giveaways, and a playful scheme to charge Giants fans extra for parking, the A’s are promoting this season as the 50th anniversary of their move to Oakland by trotting out alumni from their championship teams of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the Moneyball-era squads. They named the playing field after Rickey Henderson last year, and this season they introduced a drool-inducing new kelly-green alternate uniform.
The end result is that it seems like attending an A’s game should be a really good time, and the fans that do show up tend to be loud and rowdy, often chanting and drumming like they’re at a soccer game in Serbia. Kaval himself has made a point to solicit input from the fans directly, as detailed in a USA Today article by Jorge Ortiz last year. Ortiz ran down a laundry list of things fans had asked Kaval and the A’s for and then been granted, until he got to one sticking point.
“More money spent to lure and retain players?” Ortiz wrote. “Well, that may have to wait a while.”
That, unfortunately, is the whole proverbial ballgame.
Kaval is the point man for billionaire real estate developer John Fisher, who owns the A’s and the San Jose Earthquakes of MLS. He got his current job not because he’s a man of the people, but because he was able to procure a new stadium for the Earthquakes.
Baseball used to be played exclusively in unique, cozy ballparks designed specifically for baseball and squeezed into a downtown city block. In the 1960s, those buildings started to show their age and were replaced by a new generation of stadiums: concrete doughnuts suitable for both baseball and football and surrounded by parking lots. In 1992, the Baltimore Orioles abandoned their concrete doughnut for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, a beautiful building on the Inner Harbor of the city that boasts retro architecture and a view of the Baltimore skyline. Through the next 20 years, almost every team in baseball ditched its multipurpose concrete doughnut for a Camden Yards–type facility.
In addition to being more stylish, these new ballparks are huge moneymakers. Naming rights alone go for tens of millions of dollars, and when you factor in higher ticket prices, luxury boxes, improved concessions, and neighboring development projects in which the team might have a stake, the influx of cash can change the economics of a franchise. Sometimes, that influx of cash gets poured back into team payroll and the new stadium becomes synonymous with an era of on-field prosperity, as it did for Baltimore and Cleveland in the 1990s and Philadelphia in the 2000s.
But the A’s have yet to cash in with a new park. That they’re still in the Coliseum speaks to the unique difficulties of building a new ballpark in the Bay Area. Unable to wring public financing out of Oakland and Alameda County for a new park, the club threatened to decamp for San Jose multiple times, most recently in 2012, only to be stymied by the neighboring Giants, who have “territorial rights” to San Jose and can therefore block any team from moving there. The league can override that veto by a vote of 23 out of the 30 teams, which the A’s couldn’t whip up, so the city of San Jose sued to strip MLB of its antitrust provision and failed.
This process took years, in which time stadium-financing disasters in Cincinnati, Miami, and greater Atlanta had started to turn public opinion against funding stadiums for billionaires. But as the Raiders and Warriors are in the process of leaving town, Oakland and Alameda County are currently renegotiating their joint ownership of the sports complex that houses the Coliseum and Oracle Arena. Having a single landlord, the reasoning goes, would make it easier for developers to build there—particularly the A’s, who are looking at the Coliseum site, as well as two others within Oakland, as potential locations for a privately financed ballpark.
But even if they pick a site by the end of the year, that new stadium wouldn’t be ready until 2023, giving Chapman just one season to play there before he hits free agency, if the A’s don’t trade him before then. Oakland’s traditional approach has been to draft, sign, or trade for talented young players, develop them, then trade them as they approach free agency. That’s what the team did with Sonny Gray, Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Céspedes, Josh Reddick, Gio González, Nick Swisher, Dan Haren, and numerous others in the past 15 years. Meanwhile the A’s haven’t run a top-20 payroll since 2007, which means they need to draft and develop nearly perfectly in order to compete, because not only can they not afford top-tier free agents, they can’t or won’t pay enough to keep their own players, at least not until they get a new ballpark.
They have nonetheless been competitive in that time, with three consecutive playoff appearances from 2012 to 2014, and, when they were winning, fans showed up. It wasn’t a sellout every night, but Oakland was ninth in the American League in attendance in 2013 and drew more than 2 million fans in 2014. They also drew 2 million fans every year from 2001 to 2005, and six years in a row from 1988 to 1993.
Even today, fans will show up to see a good team in an concrete doughnut. The Kansas City Royals also play in a concrete doughnut in the middle of a parking lot—and while Kauffman Stadium was renovated in 2009, it’s in a smaller population center and does not boast the Coliseum’s easy access by public transit. The Royals drew 2.7 million fans in 2015, when they won the World Series, which is almost twice as many as the 75-87 Athletics drew last year.
The A’s, their fans, and the local government are caught in a familiar cyclical argument. Fans aren’t showing up because the team is bad, while ownership won’t spend to make the team good until it gets a new stadium from local government, so fans continue not to show up, despite some clever marketing and the entertaining play of Chapman.
It’s true that Fisher could make millions with a new ballpark by raising ticket prices and selling luxury boxes and corporate sponsorships, millions he could sink back into the team. But while new stadiums and the revenue streams that come with them sometimes entice teams to spend to compete, there’s no guarantee that will happen. And even if it does, that commitment is frequently short-lived. Cheap tickets, bobbleheads, and Barry Zito meet-and-greets only go so far to entice fans to come to the ballpark—the only guaranteed attendance booster is winning, and if Fisher invests enough to build a winning club, he’ll make his money back at the gate.
If not, the world will have to wait a little longer for Chapman to get his moment on the national stage. Maybe it’ll come when he’s traded to the Dodgers three years from now.