Las Vegas Sun

June 23, 2021

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Mulling a move, Oakland A’s consider impact of visiting fans on Las Vegas attendance

Oakland

Tony Avelar / AP

The COVID-19 pandemic kept attendance low for the Oakland Athletics’ April 1 game against the Houston Astros at Oakland’s RingCentral Coliseum. But small crowds and Oakland’s reluctance to replace the aging stadium have the A’s looking at other cities to call home, including Las Vegas.

Whenever the Chicago Cubs play in Milwaukee, large swaths of Cubs fans flock to American Family Field. Often, the Cubs backers are louder than those cheering for the hometown team.

The Brewers hosted the Cubs 10 times in 2019, with more than 40,000 fans packing the ballpark in five of those games to represent some of the highest-attended games of that season in Milwaukee.

If the Oakland A’s were to relocate to Las Vegas, out-of-town fans would surely be part of the equation when filling the stadium for the 81-game home schedule, A’s president Dave Kaval said in an interview last week with the Sun.

The franchise, with the blessing of Major League Baseball, is exploring leaving the Bay Area after years of failing to secure a new ballpark. And Las Vegas is at the top of the list.

“We’re trying to think about what the mix of home fans versus visiting fans would be in Las Vegas,” said Kaval, who toured potential stadium sites and met with area leaders in a visit to town with A’s owner John Fisher last week.

“That’s the fundamental question. In the past, the thinking was that you’d have to be too reliant on tourists, but the success of the Golden Knights, and to a degree the (Las Vegas) Aviators, has changed that a little. I think that’s tremendously important.”

The Golden Knights sell out most dates on their 41-game home schedule, and locals' fanaticism for the team drives up ticket prices. The Raiders have also sold out Allegiant Stadium, but those eight NFL games are more of an event with many visitors.

The sheer number of games on a baseball schedule creates a different challenge, and considering the A’s ranked 24th out of 30 MLB teams in attendance at about 20,000 fans per game in 2019, getting more butts in the seats on game day is a priority. The more fans, the more revenue.

The Las Vegas metropolitan area, according to the latest U.S. Census statistics, is home to just over 2.2 million people and would be considered a small market franchise. But it also has a wild card that most other cities lack — the throngs of visitors it draws during nonpandemic years.

In 2019, more than 42 million people visited Las Vegas, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. If the A’s — should they move here — could zero in on the tourist market to attract fans, it could mean that Vegas might punch above its weight as a baseball market.

Bo Bernhard, vice president of economic development and a professor at UNLV, said he believes Las Vegas could support a major league team.

Bernhard’s opinion will likely hold some weight, when considering Raiders owner Mark Davis said that Bernhard was one of the people most instrumental in convincing the NFL franchise’s ownership group that Las Vegas was a viable relocation destination.

“Even more than the Golden Knights, I think the Raiders’ sales plan has demonstrated that Las Vegas can produce an event that can market quite differently than the traditional model dictates,” Bernhard said.

While the long-held model to gauge whether a city could support an MLB franchise centered largely on metro area population, television market size, and per-game attendance projections, Bernhard said some parts of that model are outdated.

“We now have a number of other considerations at play,” Bernhard said. “The ‘old way’ is so 2015. The ‘new way’ is very much 2025. Specifically, to what degree will there be a market for out-of-market attendees, and to what degree are in-person attendance figures as relevant in a sports world that will likely all be streamed — via YouTube or some other service — fairly soon?”

Part of the reason why the Brewers drew so well in 2019 — and most years — is because of Milwaukee’s proximity to Chicago, one of the most populous metro areas in the country and a rabid baseball town.

“To what degree do (the A’s) want that kind of marketing strategy?” Bernhard said. “After all, it might make the atmosphere less advantageous for the home team.”

Kaval, at least in part, agreed with Bernhard’s notion that the way attendance figures are thought of has changed somewhat in recent years.

Newer ballparks are also smaller than many of the ballparks built in recent decades. Gone are the days of building large venues designed to pack in 50,000-plus people.

In 2012, the Miami Marlins opened a ballpark that seats only 37,000. In 2017, the Atlanta Braves opened Truist Park, which has a capacity of 41,000.

Target Field in Minneapolis and PNC Park in Pittsburgh — generally considered two of the best MLB fan experience venues to emerge in the past 20 years — both hold less than 40,000 at capacity.

Kaval said fans these days, especially in the all-important young adult demographic segments, don’t necessarily want to sit and watch a baseball game for three hours. They want common areas and ballpark amenities like restaurants and bars.

He said any new ballpark in the Las Vegas Valley would likely have a capacity of around 30,000.

“Fans, especially younger fans, like these smaller venues,” Kaval said. “It’s less about a lot of fixed seats and more about location, neighborhood, experiences and the ability to get that great TikTok or Instagram shot. That’s what people want. America is changing and baseball has to change, too.”

He also said it’s unlikely that Las Vegas Ballpark — home to the minor league Las Vegas Aviators — could be renovated to become a long-term home for a major league team.

“Baseball, I think, has gotten away from entertainment value in the last generation,” Kaval said. “Being in Las Vegas would be good for Major League Baseball, it would be good for the sport to inject that type of (Las Vegas) energy. So, I think Vegas would bring benefits beyond just fans in the seats.”

Kaval also noted how the city — long thought of as an abyss for any serious talk about being home to a baseball, football, hockey or basketball pro franchise — has chiseled a new reputation for itself.

“We were impressed with the community and the depth of the local market around professional sports,” Kaval said late last week before heading back to California. “It’s eye-opening to get on site and see it firsthand.”

Kaval said the A’s delegation toured around 20 ballpark sites in and around Las Vegas — including along the resort corridor and in Henderson — but said no sites stood out more than others.

“We’re early in this process, but there will be more visits (to Las Vegas),” Kaval said. “We got some great insights into what could be possible.”

Kaval said he planned to meet with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and other league officials in New York this week. He said he planned to tell Manfred about the “positive nature” of what he saw in Las Vegas.

There’s no question that the Las Vegas market is looked at differently than it was 15 or 20 years ago.

With the success of the Golden Knights — both on the ice and at the box office — and the Las Vegas Raiders’ fruitful quest for a $2 billion football and entertainment palace near the Strip, other pro leagues have taken notice.

It feels like an A’s-to-Vegas scenario is possible, although many hurdles remain before the team puts in for a change of address.

Probably the two largest hurdles include whether officials in Oakland get on board with the A’s proposed downtown ballpark and development plan, and if leaders in the Las Vegas Valley would be open to supplying a certain amount of public money for a ballpark.

Since the Raiders received $750 million from the state — through a hotel room tax — for Allegiant Stadium, there might not be the same level of appetite to put public dollars into another pricey pro sports venue.

During a speaking engagement in Las Vegas last month, Raiders president Marc Badain was asked about his thoughts on the possible move of a second pro sports team from Oakland to Las Vegas.

“This is a get-to-yes town,” Badain said. “Rather than finding obstacles, people here plow through obstacles then move to the next obstacle. That’s not the norm. Certainly, where we came from, it’s the complete opposite.”

Still, any thoughts of an A’s move to Las Vegas would likely be moot if officials in Oakland get on board with the downtown Oakland ballpark plan.

A key Oakland City Council vote on the development is scheduled to take place in July, although Kaval said that additional hurdles would remain, even if the plan is given a green light at that meeting.

“I don’t think there’s any reason to think this couldn’t work,” Kaval said. “We do need to move quickly. We have these parallel tracks, one in Oakland, and, per direction of the league, one in Southern Nevada. We’re going to see what the next steps are after our meeting with the commissioner.”