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Long Cons

A Billionaire Baseball Owner Failed to Extort Oakland, So He’s Scamming Nevada Instead

John Fisher, an heir to the Gap fortune, is being handed hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to screw over A’s fans by moving his team to Las Vegas.

Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images
Oakland Athletics owner John Fisher at a home game on April 17

One of the most farcical sports sagas in memory is approaching its endgame: Last week the Oakland Athletics, who have called the Bay Area home since 1968 (and won four World Series there), officially began the process to relocate to Las Vegas. If the franchise succeeds—and by all appearances it will, given how Major League Baseball and Nevada politicians have rolled out the technicolor carpet—it will go down in history as an unusually naked example of billionaire interests being put ahead of fans, taxpayers, and the public good.

A’s owner John Fisher is worth an estimated $2.2 billion, after he put in the hard work of being born to parents who founded The Gap. Now he’s in line for more handouts. The Nevada legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, and Republican Governor Joe Lombardo have committed $380 million in taxpayer money to build a $1.5 billion stadium. Las Vegas’s Clark County is ponying up an additional $25 million for infrastructure, and the A’s will be immune to property taxes. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, meanwhile, wants to see the A’s move so badly that he plans to waive MLB’s usual $300 million fee for franchises that relocate.

As stadium deals go, Nevada “only” paying 25 percent is a relatively good deal, considering taxpayers are putting an eye-watering $850 million toward a new home for the Buffalo Bills. That beats a record previously set by … Nevada, which in 2022 committed $750 million in public funds to build a new stadium for the Raiders, which Vegas also pilfered from Oakland. But $1.13 billion for two stadiums is a lot to ask of a state with America’s second-to-worst education system and tenth-highest homelessness rate. The Associated Press said the move has “revived the national debate over public funding for private sports clubs,” but there’s no debate about it: Study after study shows that the public never gets its money’s worth. But even on the merits—that is, even if the Athletics’ relocation didn’t cost a taxpayer cent—it’s a suspiciously bad idea.

The A’s proposed new stadium will be the league’s smallest. Vegas will be the league’s smallest market. Tourists, which the A’s insist will flood their new digs, may find themselves distracted by one or two other attractions the city is known for. Even players don’t sound excited; Phillies star and Vegas native Bryce Harper expressed disappointment at the move and noted that local fans already have their own rooting interests.

Fisher had, of course, first tried to extort the city of Oakland, demanding that it shell out public funds to keep the A’s in town. The owner was right that Oakland needs a new stadium: The Coliseum, built in 1966, is crumbling and its location is subpar. But Fisher and the A’s refused to negotiate with the city in good faith. A promising proposal to redevelop Howard Terminal, part of the Port of Oakland, stalled out in May this year after the city insisted the A’s contribute to affordable housing in the neighborhood. The A’s barely bothered to acknowledge the request. The saga is a long one, but it ends with Oakland’s mayor saying the A’s used the city as a bargaining chip “to try to extract a better deal out of Las Vegas.”

Meanwhile, in 2022, Fisher nearly doubled season ticket prices and gutted his team until a small but respectable $90 million payroll became the league’s lowest at $60 million, an embarrassing $100 million under league average. The franchise has always made do with less: Billy Beane, its former general manager and current executive vice president, famously innovated “Moneyball” two decades ago. But a team that has made the playoffs six times since 2012, most recently advancing to the American League Division Series in 2020, now has the worst record in baseball. (They were on track to have a historically bad season; they have since elevated their play to mere gross ineptitude.)

Fisher points to a lack of attendance as justification for a move. The A’s are averaging just shy of 10,000 fans a game, easily worst in the league. But as recently as 2019, a year in which they set an attendance record for a wild card game, the team was averaging 20,600 fans and had hovered around that number for the entire 2010s. If that’s a benchmark for relocation, half a dozen teams need to pack their suitcases.

Fans aren’t avoiding the A’s; they’re avoiding Fisher’s handiwork. When nearly 28,000 A’s fans staged a protest on June 14 to encourage Fisher to sell the team, Manfred took time out of his busy day to snidely dismiss their concerns and their loyalty. “It’s great to see what is this year almost an average Major League Baseball crowd in the facility for one night,” he said, as though there is anything average about the scenario Fisher has engineered. This relocation is, apparently, all the fault of fans, as though they should feel obligated to turn out for a product that has been bled dry.

MLB sees the stadium woes of Oakland and the Tampa Bay Rays as hurdles to clear before the league can expand. When it does, Manfred expects expansion fees to be in the realm of $2.2 billion, a purse that will be divvied up among existing owners. Fisher may be miserly, but as long as he doesn’t stray into Marge “Hitler was OK at the beginning” Schott territory, owners will show solidarity in the name of profit. Perpetually expanding to pursue infinite growth is the only mandate of modern sports. How stadium hurdles are navigated doesn’t matter, as long as ownership minimizes its own expenses.

In an interview with Scripps News, economist Michael Leeds compared the economic impact of a new stadium to that of a midsize department store. Except, of course, a new Target is free to enter, opens every day, and doesn’t need hundreds of millions of public dollars. Sports economist Victor Matheson calls stadiums “terrible public investments,” while the conservative American Enterprise Institute notes that “one of the most consistent findings in economics” is that stadiums don’t create growth, because money spent in and around new stadiums is money consumers would have just spent elsewhere.

This is simply corporate welfare—and it’s unnecessary to put together a winning, and financially successful, club. The Vegas Golden Knights, founded in 2017, didn’t take a cent of public funding for their stadium, and that has hardly hindered them: The NHL club reached the Stanley Cup finals in their inaugural season and won the cup this year. The Knights had the highest attendance capacity (103 percent!) of any club this past season, and may well be worth $1 billion already. They grew organically and without begging for alms, and the public has embraced them for it.

But the Knights were born in a unique economic and political environment that may no longer exist. After the 2008 recession, governments balked at writing huge cheques to billionaire owners, but the A’s deal is part of a troubling reversal in sports stadium financing. The public coffers are open again, and Fisher is taking advantage of it by executing an age-old playbook: Run your franchise into the ground, complain that your fans have abandoned you, then flee to the first city willing to throw you money. It is, quite literally, the plot of Major League—minus the sexy cardboard cutout and racist logo.

The Athletics’ move to Las Vegas isn’t official yet, but MLB ownership is expected to rubber-stamp it. Manfred says the economic benefits to Vegas will be obvious, that “academics can say whatever they want,” but he knows better. He is telling fans to stop whining and listen to their betters. The league, enabled by Nevada politicians, has displayed shocking arrogance and abnegated its responsibility to fans—a stark reminder that enriching billionaires ultimately is baseball’s top priority. In that sense, at least, it remains America’s game.