We talk a lot about the Oakland A’s here at Athletics Nation, from the players to the coaches to the front office executives and beyond. But we don’t often talk about the very top of the organization: the team’s majority owner, John Fisher.
The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the nation’s economy, and on the financial fortunes of millions upon millions of Americans. That crash has extended to the pro sports world, where the inability to sell tickets to fans has tanked the revenues of many teams in various leagues.
Not Fisher, though. His net worth has actually risen during the pandemic, according to Forbes. Back in 2018 they reported a steady value of $2.8 billion, but that number fell during the next year-plus, at the same time as his family’s stock in The Gap declined. In October 2019 he was down to $2.5 billion, and in April 2020, just as the pandemic was beginning, his number dipped to $2.1 billion.
But by September 2020, Forbes was reporting Fisher back up at $2.4 billion, and currently, as of yesterday (Tue, Jan. 26, 2021) they had him at $2.9 billion. Not only is that a significant raise over where he was at the start of the virus shutdown, it’s higher than any time in Forbes’ easily accessible records for him going back to March 2016. By this measure, Fisher has never been wealthier, at least in recent memory. (He’s back down to $2.8 billion today, on Wednesday.)
Meanwhile, one of his highest-profile assets, the Oakland A’s, is either doing great or poorly depending how you look at it. Big picture, the MLB club that Fisher bought for $180 million in 2005 is now valued at $1.1 billion, which is a tidy profit whenever he sells someday. But in the near-term, the team is reeling from virus-related loss of income in 2020, causing them to slash payroll smack in the middle of a prime window of potential World Series contention.
The A’s opened 2020 with a payroll in the neighborhood of $92 million. Their current roster, with three weeks to go before spring training, carries a payroll around $72 million, and they reportedly “have no money” to spend beyond that. As things stand, that’s a $20 million cut (over 20%), for a team that went to the postseason the last three years straight and still has a core of enough stars to build around for another serious run. The average MLB payroll was around $138 million in the league’s last full season of 2019, nearly double what the A’s are set to spend in 2021.
Granted, sports team payrolls tend to be tied more to the organization’s revenues than to the owner’s overall wealth. And net worth isn’t the same as cash in the bank that can be withdrawn at an ATM or sent on PayPal. But these also aren’t anything like normal times, and it’s difficult to ignore that Fisher (like many billionaires right now) is up financially at a moment when almost everybody reading this article is down and hurting to some extent, including his own MLB team.
Interesting fact: Forbes also offers a daily update on net worth, in the form of the amount of increase or decrease from the previous day. Yesterday he was down $21 million. Other days he’s up by a similar amount, or even more.
That fluctuation, relatively minuscule amid the full pie, virtually a rounding error in the overall portfolio, is coincidentally about the amount that the A’s can’t afford to (re-)tack onto their payroll. It’s around the amount they couldn’t afford to give beloved hometown star Marcus Semien to stick around for one more crucial season, with no long-term risk or cost attached.
I don’t presume to know all the details of owning and operating an MLB team, or of managing this mountainous pile of money. A few publicly available numbers don’t make us experts.
All I know is that right now we’ve been under stay-at-home orders for nearly a year and live sports are one of the things that helps make that situation bearable, but my favorite baseball team is more or less punting a prime contending season right when fans need a win more than ever, over an amount of money that the club’s owner routinely gains and loses every day, at a moment when he’s never been richer.
It might be a pipe dream that could never happen in the real world, but it’s interesting to imagine what it might look like for a sports team from Oakland to invest heavily in the club.
In other news, one of the A’s minor league managers (Webster Garrison), who has been with the organization for over two decades, is recovering from a nasty battle with COVID-19. He’s raising money for his medical bills via a GoFundMe account.