The People’s Athletics

Musings Oakland

The People’s Athletics

This is a cross-post from Karen Hester’s Loakal blog. It explores the wonderful but unlikely fantasy of a publicly-owned Oakland Athletics.

Though Oakland loves its baseball team, it’s safe to say that the Oakland Athletics’s ownership does not love Oakland.

Only a year after buying the team in 2005, Lew Wolff started a campaign to move the team to Fremont and later San Jose. When neither city was able or allowed to cough up enough public money the grease the transfer, Wolff closed off the Coliseum’s upper deck and began incrementally selling off talent. He denigrates Oakland at every opportunity, and holds out hope that if he can sufficiently undermine the Oakland Athletics, the stars will align to move the team into a more profitable market. Even the City of Oakland’s efforts to throw more public money at a stadium elsewhere in Oakland haven’t earned Wolff’s respect, let alone a commitment to stay.

No wonder Lew Wolff is the called most hated man in Oakland.

Wolff’s actions comprise an egregious example of extorting public affection for profit, and he’s hardly alone. Local municipalities around the United States provided $12 billion in taxpayer money to 51 new sports facilities between 2001 and 2011. The majority of that money went to the National Football League and Major League Baseball, which each surpassed $10 billion and $9 billion in 2014 revenue, respectively. These facilities were each built with the goal of keeping or attracting teams, all in response to capitulation and threats similar to Lew Wolff’s in Oakland. They were also each built with a promise of creating new jobs and spurring the local economy, though these claims are regularly debunked. If the Athletics continue to play in Oakland, it will be because the City of Oakland gave Wolff an enormous sum of money to do so.

In short, Oakland is in a tough spot: Use public money to further enrich a team’s private owner, or lose the team. What is a sport-loving city to do?

One unlikely option: put Lew Wolff out of a job. For that, the Green Bay Packers provide a compelling alternative ownership model.

In 1923, the Packers were on the verge of bankruptcy, and fans threw in the cash needed to save the team. Today, four million shares later, the Packers are the only publicly-owned franchise in the NFL. Individual shareholders are limited to 200,000 shares, preventing a single individual from gaining ownership over the club. Shareholders don’t receive dividends or free tickets, but they do receive annual ballots, as well as the assurance that their team (though it serves the smallest market in the NFL) won’t leave Green Bay. Volunteers work the concession stands, which have lower prices than other stadiums, and 60% of proceeds go to local charities. The elected management is even serving its constituents well: the Packers have won four Super Bowls, one as recently as 2010.

And of course, the NFL hates this. In 1960, the “Green Bay Rule” was added to the NFL’s constitution: “charitable organizations and/or corporations not organized for profit and not now a member of the league may not hold membership in the National Football League.” Congress passed a similar resolution in 1961 for Major League Baseball, forbidding public ownership of teams. This hasn’t stopped Dodgers fans from attempting to organize a consortium similar to the Packers. Across the United States, cities are finally starting to look back on their “investments” in sports facilities and wonder if their public money was well spent.

What would it take for the Oakland Athletics to convert to public ownership? Just an act of Congress and Lew Wolff’s willingness to sell. Wolff and his silent partner only paid $180 million for the Athletics in 2005. The City of Oakland has already offered to sponsor bondsworth more than twice that for the new Coliseum City proposal, which still isn’t enough for Wolff.

Oakland will likely spend a lot of money to temporarily placate the A’s current ownership. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Athletics had owners that prioritized love for the team over profit?

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