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Christo and the Great Tarp Experiment

Were the A’s correct to tarp off the upper deck of the Coliseum? Why did they do it? Could they have achieved a similar result in another, more creative way? The answers are, 1) yes, 2) several reasons, some not so obvious, and 3) probably.

It's not a tarp, it's a canvas!
It's not a tarp, it's a canvas!

In business, inventory management is crucial. If there are too many widgets on the shelves, you are hosed. All your money is trapped in unsold widgets instead of things like advertising or new widget development. If there are too few widgets on the shelf, you're still hosed. Your customers will buy their widgets from your competition and many buyers won't come back.

The A's have two types of inventory to manage, the players on the field and the seats that surround the field. Since there are plenty of people on this website better-suited to assess the players' performance, I won't delve into the subject of players as inventory, as impersonal as that sounds. (I will make this observation, though: In addition to being a great method for evaluating field performance, sabermetrics is a great way to manage player inventory.)

What I worry about is all those empty seats.

From the A's sales perspective (and now, apparently, the Raiders') the Coliseum simply has too many seats, too much inventory. Prior to the Great Tarp Experiment, the capacity of the Coliseum, with Mt. Davis, was in the 50,000-seat range, not counting luxury boxes and club seats. That capacity was required by the NFL. Multiply 50,000 times 81 home games and you end up with an inventory of more than 4 million seats. Yikes! That's one helluva lot of tickets to sell. Even the almighty Giants, who were bested by only Philadelphia and the Yankees in 2012 attendance, couldn't sell four million tickets.

The A's have a big inventory problem. The number of available seats far exceeds the A's ability to sell those seats. Having an empty seat instead of money in the bank from the sale of that seat is bad enough. But it's actually much worse. The value of a seat, as opposed to a widget, decays rapidly. Once a game begins, the worth of the unsold seats is zero. You can't sell them at a discount in Eastern Europe, either.

Having too many available seats crushes your future cash flow because you won't be able to raise ticket prices. Beyond that, excess capacity makes it almost impossible to draw new audiences in a competitive entertainment market.

The Social Psychology

In promoting the live gate, you must sell the primary attraction, of course. Without that, you might as well be selling widgets. But you must also sell the communal experience of live attendance. Just look at the adorable, Bernie-leaning, bacon-eating, Balfour-loving nutjobs in the right field bleachers. Yeah, they come for the A's, but they also come for each other. The fact that they are there, concentrated above right field, adds value to their experience. They feed off each other's energy and wackiness. They are connected. In live attendance, familiarity breeds, not contempt, but repeat ticket sales.

The A's would like nothing better than to replicate the right-field bleacher experience throughout the stadium. (Actually, in the playoffs last season, they did. And wasn't that nice!) But, most days, the Coliseum is just too damn big. So the A's decided, if they couldn't sell all those seats, they had to make them disappear!

Thus, the Great Tarp Experiment.

Let's face it, the tarps could have been worse. Instead of the A's name and logo on a green background, the tarps might have featured ad signage for Bob's Muffler Boutique and Gabinetti's Italian Dim Sum Bistro. But the A's didn't go to the tarps for the miniscule, direct ad revenue they might have gleaned. (I believe the idea was to make the upper deck fade away rather than draw attention to it.) I have heard some suggest the A's did it to save money on ushers and security for the upper deck. Although saving money is rarely a bad idea, the A's were not being cheap. Installing those tarps probably cost a lot more than a couple of ushers.

Beyond a long-term capacity reduction, I'm convinced the A's Great Tarp Experiment was prompted by something more benign: A genuine desire to enhance the value of the live experience for the fans. And the A's did so knowing they would sacrifice ticket sales at games with big attractions─the Yankees, Giants, Red Sox, and the playoffs.

Who Needs More Yankee Fans?

Remember the social experience of live attendance. People feel better when their decision to attend is confirmed by the presence of other, kindred souls─people to cheer with, people to commiserate with, people with the same investment of time, money, and emotion. The Coliseum may have been filled for Yankee games but what's the benefit for A's fans in that? Who needs more Yankee fans in the Coliseum cheering against our noble misfits? For that matter, who needs Yankee fans, at all?

The visuals of a performance facility can also add to or detract from the value of live attendance. Surrounded by too many vacant seats, your customers will start to have doubts. Why am I the only one at the party? What do all those other people know that I don't? Those questions are not good portents for ticket sales.

I'm not wild about the tarps myself, but the A's were correct to put them up there. They had to do something. The tarps immediately dropped the capacity to a less-daunting 35,000-plus, a 30% reduction. The tarps also forced the available crowd to aggregate in the lower decks, enhancing the visuals and concentrating the energy and interaction of the attending fans. (The A's have since modified their tarping to allow one section of seating in the center of the upper deck.) The tarps may have also created a greater urgency to buy A's tickets (because of a perceived decrease in supply), but that's hard to prove.

I used to do the same thing back in the days when I promoted concerts and theater at the San Jose Center for Performing Arts. The capacity was 2,701 (probably still is) with 756 seats upstairs in the balcony. For shows with ticket sales of 1,000 or fewer, I closed the balcony (for renovations!) then exchanged people's balcony seats for better orchestra seats on the main floor. People got better sightlines and they didn't feel lost and lonely. (This maneuver was tougher for dance shows because many ballet aficionados like to sit in the balcony in order to view the full scope of the choreography.)

The tarps have been a modified, slightly awkward, success. They cut down inventory and they are reasonably inconspicuous, unless you happen to be blimping above the stadium. The A's are moving in the right direction. A couple problems, however; capacity needs to be reduced even more, and the tarps do nothing to add value or interest for the attending customers.

The last time I went to an A's game, I sat in the Plaza-level seats. (I always sit Plaza level on the first base side; I want to be close to a nice bar and far from the threat of screaming foul balls.) It was a pleasant day and there was a goodly crowd of 20,000. During lulls in the action, though, my attention was always, invariably, drawn away from the genial experience to the looming mausoleum beyond centerfield, Mt. Davis. All I could see were empty seats and failure. Talk about a bad visual.

Requiem for An Eyesore

Has there ever been a more monstrous, less useful, more unappealing edifice in history? I can think of a few Las Vegas casinos that might be worse, and some government buildings, but few others. (Come to think of it, the Coliseum is a government building.) Now even the Raiders don't want a big chunk of Mt. Davis. They are going to install their own tarps to eliminate the 11,000 seats at the top. This is prudent. I am surprised no one has been killed negotiating the steps in the upper deck. Incidentally, come September, whose tarps will be displayed, the A's or the Raiders?
What can you do with Mt. Davis? You can't blow it up. (Or can you? I bet you could sell a lot of tickets to see that demolition!) The A's didn't create the empty-seated eyesore, but it's there. If the A's can't get rid of it, they might as well make an attraction out of it.

This is where Christo enters the story.

For those who weren't around at the time, Christo was a conceptual artist noted for his gigantic, bizarrely-beautiful art. Christo once ran a fabric fence across Marin County. He cascaded gigantic umbrellas down the hills south of Bakersfield. He surrounded islands near Miami with beautiful pink skirts, and wrapped the Pont Neuf in Paris. He cloaked the Reichstag (now the Bundestag, for obvious PR reasons) in Berlin with a shimmering shroud of white cloth. Christo even wrapped an entire coastline near Sydney. The internet is loaded with photos of his work. You can argue about the value of his "conceptual" art, but Christo always drew a crowd.

Christo and Mt. Davis were meant for each other! Except for one thing: Christo is really, really old which makes him a little difficult to book these days. It's the concept that's important, however. There must be a horde of would-be Christo's out there! Let's turn them loose on the A's capacity problem.

By draping Mt. Davis, Christo-style, the A's could eliminate capacity and draw worldwide attention at the same time. If fireworks displays draw fans, why wouldn't the costuming of Mt. Davis? The project could be co-sponsored by the A's Community Foundation and the Oakland Museum. Start a contest this season for the best concept for Mt. Davis. Should it be cloaked in a single brilliant shade, like the Reichstag, or should it feature a vista of the Coliseum before the Raiders returned? Or maybe there should be several different concepts unveiled at different times during the season when the A's need to juice attendance.

I'm tellin' ya, folks, this could be big! BIG! Men, women, children of all ages will come to behold the conceptual art formerly known as Mt. Davis. Best of all, ticket buyers will be viewing a physical manifestation of the audacity the A's exhibit in their field operations. With any success at all, I predict the Giants will quickly announce plans to disguise the unsightly centerfield scoreboard at Phone Booth Park as a Panda hat.

Of course, some purists might object to the Mt. Davis project as a distraction from the game on the field. As tepidly as the A's have played these last few weeks, that may be exactly what we need.