The Oakland Athletics’ sad stadium saga took a new turn late last week, when team president Dave Kaval announced that the A’s had signed on to purchase a plot of land for a future ballpark in Las Vegas. It’s not a done deal, but given team owner John Fisher’s extended standoff with Oakland city officials and the Coliseum’s decay into a possum-infested, sewage-splattered mess, the path forward clearly leads to Las Vegas.
MLB is behind the A’s on the relocation idea. Commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters Monday, in a straight-outta-ChatGPT Manfred-ism, that “Las Vegas will present a real revenue-enhancing opportunity.”
And sure, opportunity exists (though you could argue the opportunity has existed in Oakland for years if Fisher were willing to put a little more of his money behind the team), but moving to Las Vegas is far from a panacea. This season’s A’s — 5-18 with a -102 run differential, almost twice as bad as that of the next-worst MLB team — are an embarrassment. And it’s unclear exactly how successfully any baseball team would launch in Nevada, much less a terrible one.
Taking the Las Vegas A’s as a future reality, there are some serious questions remaining. Let’s lay out five big ones.
How long — and how bleak — will the lame duck period in Oakland be?
In their relocation news rollout, A’s leadership told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the goal would be to break ground on the new ballpark — a 30,000-seat venue with a partially retractable roof to mitigate the scorching desert sun — in 2024 and open it in 2027. That's all well and good, except for the part where the team’s current lease at the Coliseum runs out in 2024.
Now, I’m sure someone has joked that no home at all would be better than the crusty husk of a baseball facility that is the Coliseum, but practically, that's not really the case!
Three main options have emerged in the initial reporting about Oakland’s plan:
Renew the lease at the Coliseum: This is perhaps the most realistic but also the most depressing. Attendance in Oakland, as you might've heard, is low. "The team is bad, the stadium is bad, and we’re trying to leave" isn't exactly a winning marketing pitch. Last season, the A’s brought up the rear in MLB attendance at 9,849 fans per home game. This season, they’re also last at 11,026, and that figures to go down.
Excising the pandemic-suppressed 2020 and '21 seasons, the 2022 A’s accounted for three of the 10 least-attended MLB games since the 1995 strike, and the 2023 A’s already logged a new entry in the “top 15” when 3,035 people showed up to watch a matchup with the Guardians on April 3. The next night, their 3,407-person crowd was topped by 11 Triple-A teams. That was before the relocation news dropped.
Fans looking to make a point about Fisher’s poor stewardship of the club had been planning a “reverse boycott” in which they tried to fill the park — necessary since every A’s game looks like a regular boycott. Even if the A’s want to go the route of sticking around for a few more seasons, there’s some agency on the part of the city, which might not be feeling cooperative at this stage.
Move to Las Vegas and play in a Triple-A park: The A’s already have a foothold in Las Vegas with their Triple-A affiliate. The Aviators play in 10,000-seat Las Vegas Ballpark, which opened in 2019. The major-league team reportedly has an agreement in place allowing the option of taking over that park while the new stadium is under construction, and Kaval told the New York Times that is an option for the A’s.
That would at least extricate the A’s from their self-imposed cauldron of bad feelings in Oakland, but it comes with a whole host of new questions, such as where to put the Triple-A team. The Toronto Blue Jays trudged through 2020 and part of 2021 playing in minor-league parks in Buffalo and Dunedin, Florida, so it is possible, but that came without minor-league scheduling conflicts. Moving the Aviators entirely is not in the cards, according to Kaval. The A’s plan to keep the team in the region, following a trend of MLB clubs (Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins) keeping their Triple-A teams close.
Share Oracle Park with the San Francisco Giants: This is the most extreme option, and it has surfaced mainly because of a report that MLB was willing to facilitate a short-term stadium-sharing arrangement back in 2013.
Can the A’s field a competent on-field product for a Las Vegas debut?
Whether the A’s migrate to Nevada in 2024 or 2027, the likelihood of a contender taking the field looks slim. After years of cycling through cheap but competitive cores, the A's front office — led by GM David Forst — has hit a rut that’s quickly turning into a gaping pit. Setting aside, for a moment, the cynicism of never retaining homegrown stars, the A’s were often successful at replenishing their major-league roster with talent until this latest teardown.
In ridding themselves of Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Frankie Montas and Sean Murphy, the A’s landed next to nothing — catcher Shea Langeliers is the best of the group right now — in deals that perplexed the industry even as they happened. In this offseason’s jettisoning of Murphy, the A's went out of their way to acquire fast but punchless center fielder Esteury Ruiz from the Milwaukee Brewers, while the Braves (frequent beneficiaries of Oakland’s penny-pinching) sent young All-Star William Contreras to Milwaukee. In a previous deal with Atlanta (Olson), the A's focused on defense-first center fielder Cristian Pache. He batted .166/.218/.241 in 91 games last season, and the A’s cut bait this spring.
The team's best hope might reside in pitching prospects, notably Mason Miller, a hard-throwing, 6-foot-5 right-hander who debuted last week. But Baseball Prospectus ranked Oakland's farm system 20th this spring, far too low for a team that has already sold off virtually every useful player it had.
If this team is going to return to the race, it’s going to require either a slow, painful accumulation of uncertain draft picks or an infusion of cash. So far, there’s no evidence that Fisher is willing to provide the latter.
Is Las Vegas actually a viable baseball market?
One thing many people are skipping over is the matter of whether Las Vegas is even a better host for a baseball team than Oakland. Certainly, other pro sports leagues are betting on Vegas — the NHL’s Golden Knights began play there with a bang in 2017, and the Raiders made their trek from Oakland in 2020 — but their viability is not an apples-to-apples ticket to blank checks and glory.
The Golden Knights are an almost impossible comparison because they benefited from an extremely favorable expansion draft, soaring to a historic first season and racking up fans by reaching the Stanley Cup Final. The A’s, as established, stand a better chance at different forms of history, such as breaking the all-time losses record or playing the first modern game open to the public with more people in the dugouts than the stands.
The Raiders are a football team. This is obvious, but it comes with some important distinctions. NFL teams play at home eight or nine times per season, always on or around weekends, always in the fall or winter. A Las Vegas-based football team doesn’t need to draw that many of its own fans; it can entice the opposing fans to plan a weekend trip at a time when most people would find the desert an appealing idea. A baseball team? It needs to lure people 81 times, including a lot during the week, when it’s hot as blazes in Southern Nevada. You cannot click your heels three times, sing “Viva Las Vegas” and take your money to the bank.
The A’s are signing themselves up to answer the question of whether the Las Vegas area can support top-level sports when the tourism influence is removed. Maybe the answer is yes, but it’s far from a given. In pointing out the relatively small media market and lack of nearby metro areas from which to draw fans, the baseball newsletter writer Joe Sheehan memorably dubbed the Vegas area “Hot Milwaukee.”
Glitz and glam? Cultural momentum? Sure, Las Vegas has that cache right now. But the ultimate fate of the A’s will depend on whether the team can consistently draw tens of thousands of fans to a mostly indoor ballpark when it’s 100 or more degrees outside, over and over again, for the foreseeable future. It’s far from a given.
Will playing in Las Vegas bring Rockies-style altitude problems?
Righting this ship will require some good marketing, a long-awaited new ballpark and all those things, but it will also require winning. The A’s did a fair amount of that prior to this recent rough patch, yet there are some roadblocks that await in Las Vegas.
Specifically, the same problem the Colorado Rockies have been dealing with since their inception: altitude. Denver’s thinner air has consistently wreaked havoc on pitcher development and on hitters who struggle to adjust to road environments where the ball moves differently.
Las Vegas isn’t nearly as extreme as Colorado’s situation, at 5,200 feet above sea level, but the Strip — where the new ballpark is planned — sits about 2,000 feet above sea level, or almost twice as high as the next-closest park, Arizona’s Chase Field (1,100 feet). The Triple-A park, potentially the team's temporary home, is in an even higher part of the region, more than 3,000 feet above sea level.
The exact effects are tough to predict in a major-league context, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the environment creates difficulties and requires adjustments for a team taking up residence.
Would Oakland or San Jose become candidates for expansion?
Looking beyond the A’s, their relocation would cross off one major hurdle to MLB expansion. Manfred has said the A’s and Tampa Bay Rays stadium situations need to be resolved first, but ultimately, he would like to see a 32-team league. Realignment would likely go along with that effort, and a certain geographic balance seems desirable.
If Las Vegas is already taken, that eliminates the West Coast’s most prominent expansion favorite. While Nashville, Charlotte and Montreal all stake claims to potential teams, it seems likely that MLB would consider another western city. Portland could fill that void, as could the recently announced effort in Salt Lake City, but there’s also the chance for the Bay Area to reassert itself as a two-team region. If Oakland’s long-negotiated Howard Terminal project could come to fruition more smoothly without Fisher and the A’s in the picture, perhaps it could lure a team under different ownership. The Giants, meanwhile, have long guarded against competition in San Jose, but expansion might force a tougher conversation there than the Athletics' ambitions ever did.
It’s more likely that MLB looks elsewhere, that Fisher drives big-league baseball out of the East Bay entirely, but the area would have considerably more appeal if it were out from under the shadow of this particular saga.