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Lew Wolff on Attracting Casual Fans and If San Jose Fails: Athletics Nation Exclusive Interview Part III

This is the end. Here is Part I and here is Part II in case you missed it.. Obviously I talked to Lew before the A's were awarded the rights to negotiate with Iwakuma otherwise I would've asked about that. But I hope that you have a little more insight as to where Lew is on a wide range of topics. He's also generously offered to speak to a group of AN people and answer any questions you might have about the stadium situation. I think I'm going to take him up on it and we'll get something organized.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed the three-part, 12,000 word interview and that it didn't make your head hurt too much. I personally think this part is probably the most revealing of all three parts.

Tyler Bleszinski:  Here's the $64,000 question for a guy in your position - how do you get casual fans more interested in this team right now, especially considering that you have a World Series champion right across the bay now? 

Lew Wolff:  Look, we had a pretty good season this season.  Even when we got close to the World Series, we did not draw fans.  I believe the problem is the proximity to the Giants.  But I think the person who is an A's fan isn't a Giants fan.  It's still National versus American League mentality. 

TB:  Well I think, at least from what I've experienced with Giants fans, I think there are more Giants fans that are A's fans than A's fans who are Giants fans. 

LW:  Let me show you something (Wolff pulls out a bar graph from a powerpoint that shows the Giants revenue compared to A's revenue).  In 2000, the Giants got a great ballpark, look how their compensation was able to rise - we'll run through these in a minute.  This is in 2007, - their media revenue -all this would be comparable if we were further away and at a decent facility.  Local advertising - look at how we get killed.  Now, this isn't the Giants fault, it's just that we're in a market that's compressed.  We got water on one side and mountains on the other.  A little different after 2000, right?  This is what a new ballpark does for you.  And therefore, they can take it, and they can go pay for pitching and others.  That's all we want to do, and most of this happened - started in 2000 when most of this jumped up because the Giants got a new ballpark.

TB:  Also, they can make a mistake, like the mistake the made with Barry Zito.

LW:  Exactly although Barry is a talent and I believe he will deliver for the Giants.

TB:  And they don't have to pay for it forever.

LW:  Right. 

TB:  They didn't even play him - he sat in the sidelines.

LW:  I feel sorry for him.  He's a good guy and he's a hard worker.  You know he's never missed a start, I don't believe. 

TB:  Is the Bay Area truly a two team market?

LW:  In MLB it is.

TB:  But do you think it is? 

LW:  Yeah, I think it is.  I don't think we can go put 55,000 seats down in a second ballpark - but even if it wasn't, that's the card we have.  So what do we do if it isn't?  I didn't make that decision. 

TB:  If San Jose fails...

LW:  I'm not sure what we'll do.  Because we can't extend in Oakland because first of all, we've asked for extensions and so far our request has not been granted.  What do we do?  Is that facility going to last another 20 years? 

TB:  But does it mean that at that point you say right now I've got to start looking at Portland and Las Vegas?

LW:  Well,

TB:  I mean, have you started any of those processes, or no?

LW:  First of all, John Fisher and I don't want to own a team outside of the Bay Area or outside of California.  So if the Commissioner says to us, "Sorry I can't do anything for you."  Then I don't know what we'll do.  We have not measured those options.  The one thing I also haven't done besides not talking about the few people who are demeaning me all the time, I've never once threatened a move to another city.  Some of the other owners have said, "If you have another alternate, why don't you use that."  One, I don't want to bother with it; Two, I don't want to upset another city.

TB:  When the Giants were using them in that fashion.

LW:  Yes.  This was years ago so it's over that.  That had nothing to do with the Giants' current managing partners. Today we are about 16 miles apart; I want to go 50 miles away.

TB:  Sounds like you would probably sell the team then.

LW:  I don't know.  I can't give you an answer, because I don't know.  After all of our work, we think - it's not even San Jose, it's that particular site, we need to be in a downtown because the infrastructure is there.  In Fremont, we would have created our own downtown.  In Oakland we have real problems of transportation and off ramps, just one thing after another.  Who's going to pay for all of that?  Even if we paid for the stadium, there's a huge number of other costs if we are not in a downtown.  In 1992, the Giants were given the territorial rights in San Jose because they were planning to move to San Jose.  They never moved, and somehow it had slipped by, but they never gave the territorial rights back.  Do you know that whole story? 

TB:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

LW:  OK, I don't want to bore you with it.  In Oakland, from the 70's to 2007, the demographics from Oakland have changed, through no one's fault - it just changed, and that's a big problem.  For example, they grew from 362,000 to 372,000 or something like that, a very low compounded rate.  San Jose went to a million people in the same period.  We're not suggesting that's the reason to go there but that's the reason we're not doing well here. 

TB:  There are more fans to draw from.

LW:  Right.  San Jose hit a million a couple of years ago and that is just within the city limits. 

TB:  Just the city?

LW:  Only 16 percent of our fans come from Oakland based on what my guys tell me. 

TB:  When I went, I lived in Sacramento.

LW:  The corporate base is very tiny. 

TB:  That's clearly why somebody would be very interested in San Jose and why, in my opinion, the Giants don't want you down there.

LW:  Yeah, but the point is that there was a letter to the Commissioner, it was in the paper, signed by 75 or 85 CEOs of the Silicon Valley area and they said, ‘look those of us who support the Giants will continue.' 

TB:  So you have no idea what kind of time table you're looking at at this point, and it can drag out for another 12 months, 24 months?

LW:  I don't think so. 

TB:  Do you anticipate hearing something?

LW:  I think we've exhausted everything there is to exhaust, except somebody that wants to say to you two and two is four I want to check that out again.  So I would say that we need to know something quite soon and I think we will.  I don't know what it means though.  They can say, "You can go to San Jose, but you've got to pay the Giants $300 million."  We're not going to do that. 

TB:  That looks like a deal for using the Nationals as an example.  It seems to me like...

LW:  Excuse me - they gave the Giants San Jose for nothing.  It is up to baseball. 

TB:  But from what I see, and from what I've heard, it seems as if the Nationals kind of got kind of a raw deal.

LW:  Are you kidding?  They got a free stadium. They have a great owner, but the vast majority of venue cost was public.

TB:  No, but I mean in terms of TV rights. The fans still complain about it.

LW:  It was a factor, but they literally walked into a - they added some money into the ballpark they needed.  But on the ballpark side, they got it for nothing.  You can take a lot of hits if somebody hands you $400 to $500 million building, right?  We have to do it with private funds.

TB:  Yeah.

LW:  It was all paid for by somebody/something in Washington.  OK, we're the smallest two team market in baseball, and we're the only two-team market where the district (they call it a district instead of a territory) isn't shared.  It's ridiculous.  You can just see the work that we've put in.  The work on Oakland is probably more interesting to you.     

TB:  Yeah, I think there are a lot of people that are A's fans from Oakland, that's where the frustration with you as an owner is.

LW:  You bring any of them into a room and I'll be happy to talk to them.  I tried to be nice to a couple of people - a guy with one of those signs, "We hate Lew," you know?  And I really was sincerely talking to him and he said to me "He's just doing this for publicity."  I didn't.  I did not say one word, or even think about having a reporter or our own people involved. All press after what I intended to be an informational meeting was issued by the very person who said I had the meeting to cause press.  Very sad.

TB:  The people you were talking to?

LW:  Who were saying as they confided to one of our guys, "Lew's just doing this for publicity, he's going to announce that he met with us."  First of all, I didn't even think of it, as a factor.  But they then did the very thing they were accusing me of. 

TB:  "Lew came and talked to us."

LW:  We were having dinner and watching the game - you know, they were nice guys. 

TB:  You've owned the team for 5 1/2  years now, what has been your favorite part of owning the A's?  A lot of the things we've talked about are slanted negatively.

LW:  Well that's just recently.

TB:  Unfortunately.

LW:  My absolute favorite thing, and it's by a leap year, it's the kids that come to the game.  Sometimes they're fine and sometimes they have certain illnesses.  How important it is for some, and their families.  I enjoy taking them into the locker room, getting them a bat, I get a big kick out of it. I have grandchildren, I know baseball touches everybody.  And, I enjoy that more than anything. 

TB:  The interaction with the kids?

LW:  Yes, just the fact that - and the players are big kids, you know what I mean?  It's so nice that part of it. And our players are wonderful to kids.

TB:  Well you have mostly kids in Oakland too.

LW:  Yes, there are very young players.  That's the first thing, the second thing I really do like is the David and Goliath position that we're in.  How do we compete?  As you saw, Billy and I talk all the time.  Obviously we're all sitting there saying, "If we had a new stadium, if we had this, if we had that."  We also have to deal with the cards that we have.

TB:  So would you miss that aspect if you had the new stadium and you had a bigger budget?

LW:  No, I wouldn't miss always being behind 28 or 29 other teams in terms of revenue.

TB:  I think Billy in a way enjoys the challenge.  It stimulates him.

LW:  It stimulates him.  But we're not going to be the Yankees because we have a new ballpark.  We're not going to have $220 million payroll, but it would be nice to be comparable with the teams we are facing and to have a great experience with the Giants.  That would be fun. 

TB:  Do you think you could recreate the Giants atmosphere - one of the things that is appealing about-- AT & T Park, is it? They've changed the name so many times now.

LW:  It's AT & T. 

TB:  At AT & T Park they've got the water right there; they've got the people in the boats, would that be the same kind of experience?  It doesn't seem like it would be the same kind of experience.

LW:  No, I think our experience would be- if we're going to do this thing, we'll be the closest to the field for any fan of any ballpark in Major League Baseball.  So we think that's a factor.  You'll see the design, but you'll need an explanation.  The Giants park is fantastic, very similar to what they call retro - to Detroit, Seattle - beautiful ballparks.  Ours is going to be, we think, much more intimate.  We're not going to do a lot - for example - if we go to San Jose, we're going to let the downtown restaurants thrive - we won't have a stadium club - it's going to be, our goal is to be for the broadest or the middle market.  Just having a good time.  But baseball time.  Other people do it other ways; we don't have the room or the interest to do an amusement park, or things of that nature.  But we've got a lot of things of interesting nature in the park. 

TB:  So you think it will be appealing no matter where it will be?

LW:  I think people will say, "Oh my God!  If we do another one, we'll do it like that."

TB:  What's been your least favorite part about owning the team?

LW:  The frustration about not being able to deliver to the team and to the on field and off field staff a decent venue where they can exercise their capabilities.  I mean, it's really sad when you go to locker rooms and things like that.

TB:  You've been in development and real estate for years and years.  Have you ever experienced the level of frustration or anything like this before?

LW:  No. 

TB:  Not close?

LW:  I would say the Fremont situation, which was also baseball, it wasn't the City Council there, it was some neighbors across the freeway that threatened lawsuits.  You know, California - you can stop any project with lawsuits, and all this gibberish.  It's sad because a lot of people only care about their - you know, they want a new Target store close by but not next door.  If it's too close, they'll stop the Target from being built there.  That's why downtown also is helpful. You don't have a lot of resistance. 

TB:  Do you have any regrets about getting involved in a team considering how challenging this whole situation has been?

LW:  No. 

TB:  Would you do anything differently?

LW:  Probably not, because I honestly thought that I could pull off - knowing what I know today I probably wouldn't do it, but not knowing what I know today I would probably do it because, for example, and people might say, "he just did that as another head fake."  When I drove the area north of 66th, you know where you drive into the ballpark, a lot of parcels there.  I realize that you can't just go out there and pick them up for nothing.  But it was so right in my mind that if we were willing to pay the market value plus 20 percent, we might get some cooperation because it might be cool, and we would still have the availability of some of the parking of the Coliseum and BART.  And another gentleman, he was willing to sell us his land just for the good of getting this for Oakland.  Not that we expected something for nothing.  That was just a phony thing Lew did.  This was all done on land done north of 66.  Here's the Coliseum.  So we said, "Gee, it would be nice to clean all this area up."  And they were going to do parking here for BART anyway, but it was too many parcels and we couldn't get any traction.  But we couldn't gain traction with anyone.  One person called and said, "Oh, you're taking my land."  Nobody said that.  They would run for the hills.  In other words, you need drivers to get major things done, you know what I mean?  They're not simple.  This was all housing.  We were going to use the value of housing, which has gone to zero, because of the economy.  We were going to use this money to acquire land and then were going to use the same concept in Fremont.  This housing didn't have to be here, it could have been in Dublin.  It was very complicated.  But we had a way of getting the ballpark paid for this way and benefiting the community.  And we had a connection into the existing Coliseum.  It would have been pretty cool.  I wasn't even given a chance to catch my breath on this.  Some of the very people that said, "He should be doing this" are the very ones that stopped it.  It may have been impossible anyway, but this was after we looked at Howard Terminal, looked at the Coliseum site, looked at Laney College, looked at all waterfront areas, etc.  Everybody who said that we haven't done that, they are wrong.  And if they want to sit down with me and have an honest conversation about it - I would be happy to go over every inch of everything we did. 

TB:  Did you go to Jack London Square?

LW:  We looked at it 100 times, but it's not going to happen. 

TB:  That's the one that many A's fans seem to point to for some reason.

LW:  Then all they have to do - they say they're working on it for two years - I tell you it's impossible, but if it isn't, come to me with their suggested program.  I don't know what else to tell you.  Acquiring the land?  Has anybody - it would take a week to just go by all the people involved and say, "Would you sell your assessed value times this?"  One person called me from one of those sites and said, "We're not going to sell this without a fight."  The whole fight could take 10 years.  I haven't seen the City Council say "I'm going to stand up and do Imminent Domain and take your property."  It sounds so simple, but development is not so simple. 

TB:  Just working with Homeowner's Associations.

LW:  That's why the Coliseum site - and then we had architects in town present us with transactions on it.  I didn't know about myself and I said, well wait a minute, I better order a title report.  The port, they said Howard Terminal - that was a big one.  I finally called the guy at the port and he said, "Oh I want to be very cooperative." And then he sent me a letter.  He sent a letter to the development guy - we're in support, however these are the conditions, they had to get back from the city or us the same amount of money they would lose if they didn't bring in ships there.  A fair request, but not at all helpful for doing a new ballpark. 

TB:  If you were successful and say, Bud Selig calls you tomorrow and says, "The committee has come back and says it's a go for San Jose."  How quickly do you think you could get a ballpark done? 

LW:  Assuming that the Giants don't file suit and all that, which I don't think they're planning to, it would take about nine months to get a building permit and about two years - 36 months on the outside from the time until we could do it.  With that, the next question you should ask is, "How long do you have in Oakland?"

TB:  Isn't it through 2013?

LW:  Yes.  We've gone to Oakland already and asked for an extension.  We were willing to pay them and they don't want to do it at this moment.  They're saying, "We're willing to do it if you stay here." Or something.  I don't know who is who.  The committee is involved.  The committee is delivering us whatever we need to do, but I haven't heard one word from the committee about a transaction in Oakland.

TB:  Does Bud realize that you're on a timetable here?

LW:  I think so.

TB:  I think that this is probably why most baseball fans don't like Bud Selig. That's one of the reasons, there are a lot of them. 

LW:  You need to look at what Bud has accomplished for Major League Baseball - as much as I'm pissed off about this, and I am, I'm madder than I look, he's done so much for baseball that the fans may not recognize.  This baseball has grown when he got involved, I mean really got involved.  He takes a lot of crap that he doesn't deserve.  Bud has saved and enhanced MLB like no other Commissioner in the entire history of Major League Baseball. 

TB:  Have you and Billy already gone over the plan as to what you're going to offer who and when you're going to offer to them, and how often are you involved with free agents?  When Billy is trying to woo a free agent, like I know you took Furcal up to the stadium and gave him...

LW:  I did not do that.

TB:  I know Billy did.  But is it the type of thing that you want to get more involved with?  I mean, it's got to be really exciting for you as an owner to realize that your team has this great pitching, the best pitching in baseball this year statistically through 162 games, but it's so deflating for a fan - and I'm speaking from a fan perspective now, to realize that the offense isn't going to support this outstanding young pitching - if you just got those few players, this team could get there.  You got to want to get involved.

LW:  Let me give you an analogy.  John Fisher and I bought the San Jose Earthquakes.  We bought a franchise because they left Houston.  We're told that we have all these fans, right?  So we're playing temporarily at Santa Clara College.  9,000 - 10,000 people.  There's one group there, a very nice group.  They say, "Lew, thank you, thank you - we'll inundate you with fans. Season ticket holders."  It didn't quite happen that way.  The next thing they say is, "Well, we would, but we need a new stadium."  So everything is another hurdle.  If we get the hitters, I don't know if that's going to change our number of people that come to the ball games.  It hasn't worked before.  But we'll try.  We want to win better than most people or at least equal to others.  So the answer is that we're going to do the best we can.  We do feel that it's our fault that we don't have a decent venue for the fans.  So part of it is, do you want to drive from Pleasanton?  We get a lot of negative because of the Raiders.  Yet we don't have any incidents at our ballpark.  I don't know if they (the Raiders) still do, I don't follow them except to applaud the fine year they're having.  Most often you name the things against us and you don't have any scarcity.  So, we don't know how many employees to have for a game because you can come up any time you want and get a ticket, which is good in a way.

TB:  But when it comes to free agent season, is that something that you may be the type of year where...

LW:  Well, (Billy) wants to talk with me right now.  I don't need to be involved with any of them unless he needs me.  In other words, he may say, "I've got to talk to the owner."  But Billy - we've got a budget - a general thing, it's not inflexible and frankly, I don't want to micromanage.  As much as I'm a fan, I also know what I don't know.  I also think that I have the best people, comparable people to anybody in baseball and we're lucky to have that in Oakland. 

TB:  It's always helpful for the owner to show a little bit of love to some of these guys too though.

LW:  Sure, if I can help I am certainly available.

TB:  You were talking about stroking the ego.

LW:  I'm in the locker room all the time.

TB:  I'm talking about potential free agents.

LW:  If Billy wants me to be there, sometimes I need to be there to be the negative, and a lot of times it's not the player it's the agent.  Maybe it's better to say - for me - for Billy to say, "I'll make you that deal but I've got to talk to the owner."  And he'll call me up and say...whatever he wants.  But I think Billy will tell you that in terms of a relationship with an owner, we have a great and unique bond.  I don't want to tinker with it.  But I've loved him and he knows.  There was a coach we wanted to look at, we were interviewing and I flew him from Phoenix to wherever he lived, you know?  Stuff like that I'll do all the time.  Whatever it takes to get it done. 

TB:  Well that's what we want as A's fans.  We just want those bats to compliment that pitching.

LW:  Well, we're trying.

TB:  Thanks, Lew.