Why Oakland A’s move to Las Vegas is still facing an enormous hurdle after MLB owner approval

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That Major League Baseball owners recently voted in unanimous fashion to approve John Fisher’s scheme to relocate his Athletics from Oakland to Las Vegas is neither especially surprising nor especially meaningful. Given that commissioner Rob Manfred had some time ago signaled his support for the move and given that his job is in essence to be valet to and spokesperson for the owners, the final outcome was never particularly in doubt. The owner vote has been treated as the crossing of some kind of Rubicon in Fisher’s relocation bid, but the most meaningful hurdle – one that adds a widely unacknowledged layer of uncertainty to all of this – remains ahead. That hurdle is the securing of private financing for the A’s proposed new ballpark in Las Vegas.
As is pitifully standard in such matters, the A’s are poised to benefit from corporate welfare regardless of whether they remain in Oakland or make the move to Nevada. In the case of the Vegas, Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo signed a $380 million public funding bill back in mid-June, and the bill’s actual cost will likely exceed that figure by quite a lot, as explained by Neil deMause. The entire ballpark project is expected to cost perhaps $1.5 billion, which means Fisher, whose leading accomplishment in life is being born into immense wealth, must get private financiers to quite heavily abet his efforts. That won’t be easy. That’s because private money is going to have real concerns about the club’s viability in Las Vegas and probe more deeply into the rickety plans and numbers and projections that were trotted out to deceive the tax-paying public.
Fisher’s fellow owners – despite that aforementioned unanimous vote – aren’t ignorant of these realities. Indeed, MLB’s relocation committee, which was populated by Phillies owner John Middleton, Brewers owner Mark Attanasio, and Royals owner John Sherman, noted such troubling uncertainties in its report submitted to other owners in advance of that vote. On that front, Evan Drellich of The Athletic recently wrote:
“One person briefed on the report described the A’s potential for success in Las Vegas as ‘iffy’ but added there was no perceived better alternative, despite Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao’s contention that the necessary funding can be found in Oakland.”
Iffy, indeed. The reality is that the A’s are angling to give up a shared spot in the nine-county Bay Area metro area, in which almost 8 million people reside, for sole control of the Las Vegas combined market, which has just a bit more than 2 million people in it. That would make the latter, by some measurements and parameters, the smallest population center in MLB. Even if you divide up the Bay Area market un-generously and apportion, say, two-thirds of it to the Giants, the A’s would still be significantly downsizing the size of their potential customer base.
Not surprisingly, Fisher and A’s president Dave Kaval have an answer for this, and their answer is tourism. Vegas is of course a premium destination for tourists because of the overwhelming abundance of gambling, entertainment, and dining options. To hear the A’s tell it, they’re going to slide right into that complement of leisured pursuits.
The plan is for the new ballpark to be constructed at the current site of the Tropicana Las Vegas Casino on the Strip, right next to the MGM. It will feature some kind of retractable roof, which would be a necessity given the summer temps of Las Vegas. The problem is that the site for the ballpark is a relatively meager nine acres. That’s a potential issue, as the current smallest MLB ballpark plot on which a retractable-roof facility resides is Milwaukee’s at 11.7 acres. It’s going to be a logistical challenge for the A’s and their chosen contractors regardless of how big the stadium itself will be.
Speaking of which, the ballpark the A’s are aiming to build will have a seating capacity of just 30,000 – the smallest in MLB by a substantial margin. In part, this probably reflects the realities of the Tropicana site, and it hints at a larger problem for the A’s and their efforts to get money for all of this – attendance. In their public presentations, the A’s projected average attendance of 27,000 at the new ballpark, 30 percent of which would be out-of-town visitors, or tourists. That’s more than 8,000 tourists at every one of the A’s 81 home games per season. As Brodie Brazil pointed out back in June, that’s about 8% off all daily Las Vegas tourists. Given all the other ways to spend discretionary income in Las Vegas, this is an absurdly high figure. Overall, they’re projecting 90% capacity for those home games. In 2023, just two teams reached such a threshold, the Astros and Red Sox, and that’s according to quite-possibly-inflated official attendance figures. The Astros were the defending World Series champs, and the Red Sox are a venerable brand with nationwide appeal that plays in a small ballpark.
Those attendance estimates become even more ludicrous once you consider that we’re talking about, you know, the A’s. This is the team that has lost 214 games over the last two seasons and, despite pawning off every remotely useful veteran on the roster, has one of the worst farm systems in baseball. The present is dismal for the A’s and so is the next half-decade or so, at the very least. This is not a team people will be clamoring to see anytime soon, particularly in a market that offers so many other ways to spend one’s time and money. In that sense, maybe it’s a good thing that the proposed ballpark wouldn’t be open for business until 2028.
That’s another issue. The A’s lease at the Oakland Coliseum runs through 2024, which at the very least means the team needs to find a place to play its home games for 2025-27. At least some of those games over those three seasons – and maybe most or even all of them – figure to be played at the home of the A’s Triple-A affiliate in Sumerlin, Nevada, just outside Vegas. This all means there’s a high chance that the A’s play a significant number of games in metro Las Vegas across multiple seasons in advance of the move into their new ballpark. They’re also very likely to be terrible across that stretch. Stated another way, the momentum that a relocated team would normally enjoy from the sheer newness of it all will have been eroded by the A’s clocking a bunch of losses in a nearby minor-league park.
The Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals, the last MLB franchise to relocate, provide something of a model in this regard. They moved from Montreal to D.C. in time for the 2005 season, but for the first three seasons they played in R.F.K. Stadium while waiting for Nationals Park to be constructed. The Nats moved into Nationals Park in time for the 2008 season and they did so as a losing team. For that 2008 season, they ranked 20th in total home attendance and 19th in average home attendance. Bear in mind a couple of things about those figures: the Nats weren’t as bad as the A’s are likely to be if and when they move in, and D.C. is a much larger and stronger market for baseball than Vegas.
As is made implicit by the A’s public proposal, the club is going to be highly dependent upon those gate revenues. That’s because the A’s will take a drastic hit on local-media revenues. This is the natural consequence of vacating the 10th-largest media market in favor of the 40th-ranked media market. If the move is realized, Las Vegas will be the smallest media market in MLB. This would be going on at the same time as the current Regional Sports Network model that prevails in MLB continues to unravel, thanks in large measure to the Diamond/Bally’s bankruptcy. Simply put, the Las Vegas A’s aren’t going to make much money from whatever local-media-rights apparatus they land on.
A tidy counterargument to all these attendance concerns is that the small ballpark capacity will restrict ticket supply, which will in turn aid demand and allow the A’s to charge more and make more. Every point laid out above countervails this – i.e., the A’s are going to be bad for a long time, there are too many other things to do in tiny-market Vegas, and the newness of their presence in the area probably will already have worn off by the time they move into the venue. This is probably why the A’s in pressing Nevada officials to give them handouts touted Fisher’s future willingness to invest in player payroll after the move.
This is quite easily the most farcical supposition put forth by the team, and that’s a competitive category. Fisher remains the owner/saboteur who has never run a payroll that ranked higher than 23rd among MLB’s 30 franchises. On average, the A’s in the Fisher’s era have ranked 27th in Opening Day payroll. The largest free-agent contract handed out by Fisher remains Billy Butler’s three-year, $30 million pact inked in 2015. In Las Vegas, he’ll have the built-in excuses of debt service on all the private financing necessary to get the ballpark built plus the modest inflows from whatever local media contract he’s able to finagle to justify his unwillingness to invest in the on-field product. There’s nothing in his hapless record of ownership to suggest any kind of capacity for luring fans to the ballpark unless it’s to heap ridicule and shame upon him.
In what can easily be interpreted as a nod to the dubious nature of all these plans, MLB has agreed to waive the standard relocation fee, which would have been as much as $300 million. Here’s what Manfred said about that over the summer:
“I’ve been clear with the owners: In the context where you have an owner who’s making a billion-dollar private commitment moving to a market where they receive public funding, for baseball to step in and have a relocation fee, I don’t see that as a realistic possibility.”
It may be that it’s not a realistic possibility because the numbers don’t add up even before a relocation fee becomes part of the calculus.
There’s another impediment that bears mentioning. The teacher-led Schools Over Stadiums PAC opposes the use of public funds in order to subsidize sports venues, particularly in light of Nevada’s poor educational outcomes. They want the A’s funding package to be subject to a public referendum, and the A’s and like-minded lawmakers want no part of that. That’s because time and again when people have been given a voice in such matters, they’ve overwhelmingly said they don’t want their dollars to be given to billionaire sports-team owners. While Schools Over Stadiums suffered a recent setback in court, they still have multiple paths to delay or even snuff out public funding of the A’s ballpark – none of which are unrealistic.
None of this to say the move to Las Vegas won’t happen. It might. Private money might see that the A’s in MLB’s smallest market would lock in their status as revenue-sharing recipients, which would mean a large and consistent revenue stream they’d get for merely existing. They’d also note Fisher’s established unwillingness to plow profits back into the team and come away confident they can get their money back despite, well, everything else about this. Then again they might survey what the A’s are; what they’re likely to be; their utter dependence on attracting 8,000 tourists to every home game; their poor prospects for strong local-media revenues; the far-flung nature of their timeline; and Fisher’s inability to run a functioning baseball team and decide the risk isn’t worth it. Fisher needs real money to move forward, and real money demands you show your work, which Fisher can’t do in a serious manner. File under “it’s hard to bulls–t a bulls–tter” if you wish. At that point, perhaps Fisher goes back to Oakland and accepts the even more generous – and similarly unwise – offer of public funding for what he wants.
Fisher’s fellow owners as they see him are probably a mix of fraternal admiration for the grift and large-market frustration over what a relentless burden he’s become. Their votes were accordingly eagerly provided or done so with nose clamped, but in the end it was unanimous. It was also a procedural necessity of no real importance or meaning. Take the longer view, and you’ll see there’s still no guarantee or even an especially strong chance that the Las Vegas A’s ever exist.

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