Sold Out: Are Pro Sports Owners Obligated to Keep the Team in Town?

An artist’s rendering of the Warriors’ proposed new arena on a San Francisco pier

via Good.is

Last night I watched my hometown baseball team, the Oakland Athletics, get shut out by their most hated rival in front of a crowd of barely 11,000 people while simultaneously reading news reports about Oakland’s basketball team, the Golden State Warriors, moving across the Bay to San Francisco. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so personally betrayed by sports.

I’m not even a Warriors fan—an uncle’s season ticket package made me root for the Portland Trail Blazers years before I moved to the Bay Area in middle school. But I am and will always be an Oakland fan, and anybody who’s ever loved a city should be able to appreciate how taking away a sports team strips away part of its soul.

At a news conference yesterday, Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Gruber announced plans to relocate the team from its Oakland arena to a brand-new, privately funded $500 million facility at a San Francisco pier currently used for parking. The site will include restaurant and retail space and will be closer to the region’s wealth, much of which is in San Francisco and neighboring Marin County, and almost none of which is in Oakland, the perpetual underdog.

Logic suggests that moving the Warriors a measly 15 miles away shouldn’t matter to those who already support the team, especially when they always purported to represent the entire Bay Area. But the fact that Lacob considered it so important to leave Oakland, the Warriors’ home for four decades, reveals both a deep disrespect for the community that supported the team and a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a team owner.

The usual reasons owners move teams to new cities—low attendance or a decrepit arena—don’t hold water in the Warriors’ case. The team’s coliseum is perfectly adequate, and despite losing all the time, they have the 10th-highest attendance in the league. They didn’t need to move, Lacob wanted to move.

It was obvious from his first press conference as owner that he wanted to be in the bigger, shinier city—he took questions in a hotel ballroom in downtown San Francisco, not in the Oracle Coliseum or anywhere else in the team’s actual hometown. And he was surprisingly candid yesterday when asked about the conventional wisdom that the team would attract better players and thus win more games in San Francisco than in Oakland. “That’s debatable, whether this will make the team better,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Moving the Warriors is about image, not results. Oakland is associated with crime and poverty and bad schools and police brutality; San Francisco with great restaurants and expensive real estate and yuppies and hipsters. If you were a billionaire investor and sports team owner, you’d make the same choice.

The owners’ decision is logical but not defensible. Sports teams owe a unique debt to their communities. Lacob and Gruber shouldn’t have been allowed to buy the team if they intended to betray the hometown fans as soon as they had the chance. Oakland fans didn’t buy tickets to Warriors game simply because it was so much fun to watch them get blown out every night. They made the conscious decision to invest in their hometown. Many of them assumed that buying tickets would help improve the city they love. And in exchange, they got sold out by a greedy owner.

San Francisco has plenty of crime and bad schools too, and Oakland its share of great restaurants and hipsters. A city’s image is largely a sales job, and billionaire team owners should be key salesmen. The hundreds of acres of restaurants and shops that Lacob is planning to surround the Warriors’ new home could easily have occupied the hundreds of open acres near Oracle Arena, and they would have made money—anyone who’s ever tried to eat something before a game or hang out afterward would pay quite the premium for some options.

By the time the Warriors tip off in their new home in 2017, the A’s likely will have already fled the East Bay. The Raiders may not be far behind; Los Angeles is openly trying to woo them away. It’s easy to imagine Oakland going from three sports teams to zero in the next few years, hurting a city I love in ways much more tangible than image. I still believe in Oakland. I just wish the occasional billionaire did, too.

Illustration by Art Zendarski, courtesy of the Golden State Warriors

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