Arrogant Owners: Lew Wolff, George and Hank Steinbrenner
by Glenn Dickey
Apr 29, 2009

THE AíS are often designated as a ďsmall marketĒ team, but that isnít really true. A reader, Al Streit, has supplied me with information on market sizes. If you cut the Bay Area market of 7,039,362 in half, the Aís and Giants are both about at the midpoint in major league baseball Ė and the Aís market is actually bigger than that because the East Bay is growing at a much faster rate than the West Bay.

Even with half the market, the Aís would be roughly equal to Seattle and ahead of Arizona, Minnesota, Cleveland, San Diego, St. Louis, Colorado, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Kansas City and Milwaukee.

Theyíre also ahead of some cities which have been mentioned as possible sites: Portland, 2,265, 223, and Sacramento, 1,796,857. So, please, no more suggestions from Sacramento area readers that the Aís should move there (which is an alternative the Aís have never discussed internally, to my knowledge.)

Interestingly, there are cities in smaller markets than any MLB cities which have NFL franchises: Indianapolis, Charlotte, New Orleans, Nashville, Buffalo, Jacksonville and, of course, Green Bay.

That has to do not just with the NFLís popularity but the number of games. NFL teams sell most of their tickets through season ticket plans, so they need far fewer customers. Fans buy those tickets because they can plan their entertainment for a six-months period, going to the home games, which are almost always on Sunday, and watching the road games with their friends on TV. Nobody can do that with baseball, with 81 home games at a variety of times and days.

Even so, the NFL put its G-3 program into effect to help teams build new stadiums in large metropolitan areas, because it was concerned about the flight from those areas to smaller cities, which lured teams with substantial benefits.

Back to the Aís: Nobody thought of them as a small market team when the Haas family owned the team. Walter Haas was willing to spend money to build up the bare bones operation he bought from Charlie Finley, and the Aís built a team which won three straight American League pennants, 1988-90, one World Series and made four postseason appearances in five years. Not surprisingly, the team also did well at the box office, setting what was then a Bay Area record of more than 2.9 million one season.

The two owners since then, Steve Schott and Lew Wolff, have run the team quite differently. They have cut the payroll dramatically and relied on revenue-sharing money from other teams, including the Giants, while putting out the word that they canít afford to pay salaries to keep their free agents. Of course, theyíve been making money themselves, with their combination of low payroll and revenue-sharing money, but they havenít talked much about that.

Schottís actions were more defensible because he inherited a team whose star players had grown old; Haas loved his players and didnít have the heart to get rid of them. Schott was advised by general manager Sandy Alderson, a holdover from the Haas regime, to cut the veterans and put his money into the farm system. And, Schott would loosen the purse strings in midseason if Billy Beane thought the addition of a player would help them make a run.

There is no possible defense of Wolff. He is the worst owner in Oakland Aís history. Finley was a despicable man, hated by his players and the team plunged to the depths when free agency hit baseball. But before that, he had built a team which won three straight World Series and was in the postseason for five straight years.

Wolff has kept the payroll down and instituted changes which have just enraged fans, most notably the tarp over the third deck, which is still there. He has flirted with San Jose (not going to happen) and tried that ill-advised plan to build a park in Fremont, which residents and businesses protested until he dropped it. He has made no serious attempt to build a new park in Oakland, while doing whatever he can to drive down attendance so he can claim Oakland wonít support the team.

The Aís market isnít small, but the managing general partner is. Wolff has enjoyed sitting in the stands at games in earlier seasons, but I would advised him against that this year. He wonít be welcome.

WEBSITE FUTURE: Last week, I announced that I would like to take my website to a pay basis in the fall, charging $10 a year for three columns a week, My plan would be to write on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule, each column being 800-1,000 words, which is what my old Chronicle columns were. Since that notice appeared, Iíve been asked two primary questions:

1) Why not get advertising instead? In fact, that was my original thought when I started the site more than four years ago, but the only advertiser I ever got was Steven Douglas for Douglas Parking, but he did it as a friend to help me out because it did little or nothing for his business. Advertisers want to know that youíre delivering a specific audience of people who want to buy their product, and I canít do that. The system which tracks hits on my site also identifies where they come from, and my readers, though the biggest concentration is in the Bay Area, literally come from all over the country and even the world. If I hired a company to identify ages, interests, etc. Ė which would cost a lot of money Ė Iím sure Iíd find that the biggest number is in the 50-or-over grouping. Iím grateful that I have so many readers who have been loyal to me over the years, but this is not the demographic advertisers want.

2) Why donít you charge more than $10 annually? Iíve wanted to keep my audience as broad as possible. That low a fee shouldnít shut out anybody. Still, Iíve also heard from those who simply wonít pay for anything on the Internet. The next few years are going to be hard for these people because there will be many previously free sites which will be charging. Newspapers will have to go that way with their sites or theyíll all go out of business.

Whether youíve been with me for three months or 30 years, you know what kind of work I do: informed evaluations, using the knowledge Iíve gained in 46 years of covering Bay Area sports and talking to managers, coaches and executives.My emphasis would continue to be on Bay Area sports, but I would also touch on national issues on occasion.

My bottom line is 3,000 subscribers. If I hear from that many readers by the middle of June, Iíll make plans to start the pay system on Monday, August 31. If I donít, Iíll just quit writing on the site in July.

SPORTS INTEREST: There are ways of measuring interest in various sports, and attendance at the games is often the least reliable.

Historically, baseball and football have the largest audiences. In the Bay Area, and in California as a whole, fans are more fickle than in other areas. If the team doesnít win, attendance will drop, sometimes sharply. But those fans who stay home Ė or those who are priced out of the market Ė retain their interest. They follow the team on television and radio, and they read about it in the newspapers.

Though attendance is good for the Warriors and great for the Sharks, the overall audience for both teams is smaller, much smaller in the case of the Sharks. Casual fans will get interested in the Warriors when theyíre doing well, which happens once every 15 years or so. Casual fans get interested in the Sharks only when they reach the playoffs, and they donít get interested again until the Sharks get back in the playoffs. And the interest by casual fans doesnít usually extend beyond watching the games on TV. They donít often bother reading about the teams.

This has shown up in studies done by individual teams, and it also shows up in correspondence from readers to writers. Since I started writing a column in 1971, by far the biggest response Iíve gotten is from 49ers fans, whether the team is winning or losing. The Giants are second, but not very close. The Raiders fan base has been concentrated in the East Bay though, since the surfacing of the Internet, I get more e-mails on the Raiders from other parts of the county; apparently, the further you are from the Raiders, the better they look. The Aís have a larger regional fan base than the Raiders, stretching from San Jose to Sacramento, but I almost never get e-mails on the Aís from other areas of the country.

WRETCHED EXCESS: Those $2,625 seats in the new Yankee Stadium were too much even for New Yorkers. Embarrassed by the rows of empty seats behind home plate which showed up on television, the Yankees have reduced the prices. Not enough for the true fans, of course; theyíre sitting in the more reasonably priced upper deck.

Unfortunately, those empty seats arenít enough to dent the Yankeesí finances. Iím not an admirer of George Steinbrenner, but I have to give him credit for being the first one to realize the potential of a sports TV network. The Yankees actually showed an operating loss last year because of their payroll, the largest in baseball, but that was more than offset by their TV profits, which are not included in the figures MLB uses to determine revenue-sharing payments.

His son, Hank, is now running the Yankee operation and, unfortunately, Hank has inherited only his fatherís arrogance, not his savvy. It takes a special kind of arrogance to think you can sell baseball game tickets for $2,625. It would be nice if this would teach Hank a lesson, but Iím sure it wonít.


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