M.L.B. Commissioner Says There Is ‘Wood to Chop’ on Las Vegas A’s Deal

M.L.B. Commissioner Says There Is ‘Wood to Chop’ on Las Vegas A’s Deal

Major League Baseball is hoping to become the latest major sports league to enter the Las Vegas market. The Oakland Athletics announced last week that they had agreed to purchase land near the Las Vegas Strip in hopes of building a ballpark there by 2027.

It would be the fourth home for the A’s, a vagabond club that was an original American League franchise in Philadelphia in 1901 and then moved to Kansas City, Mo., in 1955 and to Oakland, Calif., in 1968.

While leagues like the N.F.L. and the N.H.L. have been met with great fanfare (and generous funding) in the Las Vegas market, which was once considered taboo for sports teams because of its association with gambling, baseball may have trouble drumming up enthusiasm for a project that requires hundreds of millions of dollars in public financing. The Athletics, stripped of any recognizable talent, were 4-18 entering Monday’s action and had been outscored by an M.L.B.-high 103 runs. They appear headed to a second consecutive season of 100 or more losses.

Yet to Commissioner Rob Manfred, who sat down with a group of sports editors and reporters at M.L.B.’s offices in New York on Monday to discuss league issues, including the recent success of the World Baseball Classic and the popularity of baseball’s new rules, there are plenty of reasons for Las Vegas to be excited about the team, even as the A’s struggle.

“I can tell you, and will vouch for it personally, that John Fisher wants to win,” Manfred said of the Athletics’ principal owner, who has come under fire for the extreme cost-cutting that has turned his team from a perennial postseason contender into a basement dweller.

As the team has faded on the field, with an M.L.B.-low payroll of $58.2 million this season, attendance at Oakland Coliseum, which has never been strong, bottomed out: Last year, the A’s were the only team in M.L.B. to average fewer than 10,000 fans per home game, and this year’s average of 11,025 was inflated by the 26,000 fans who attended on opening day, many of them to see Shohei Ohtani, the two-way superstar of the Los Angeles Angels.

Things had gotten so bad that Rooted in Oakland, a fan group dedicated to keeping the A’s in the city, tried to organize a reverse boycott in which fans would show up en masse to a Tuesday game in June to remind M.L.B. and the franchise that they would come out in droves if the team ever decided to be competitive again.

Manfred suggested the pieces were in place for the A’s to recover as a team once their stadium issue was settled.

“You got really smart baseball operations people,” Manfred said of the A’s front office, which is led by General Manager David Forst. His predecessor, Billy Beane, is a special adviser. “You got owners that want to win, and I think Las Vegas will present a real revenue-enhancing opportunity. So I think you’re going to have a good product.”

The A’s have seemed on the verge of moving away from the cavernous and dilapidated Coliseum several times. In a recent attempt, they had been working with Oakland to gain approval for a new stadium at Howard Terminal. Upon last week’s announcement of the team’s land agreement in Las Vegas, Mayor Sheng Thao publicly withdrew from negotiations with the team to stay in Oakland.

“The city has gone above and beyond in our attempts to arrive at mutually beneficial terms to keep the A’s in Oakland,” the mayor said in a statement. “In the last three months, we’ve made significant strides to close the deal. Yet it is clear to me that the A’s have no intention of staying in Oakland and have simply been using this process to try to extract a better deal out of Las Vegas.”

Manfred defended Fisher’s attempts to get a deal done in California and questioned Oakland’s response to the recent news. He said that from the time he became commissioner in 2014, until 2021, the A’s had been exclusively negotiating with Oakland, and he claimed that Fisher had spent more than $100 million trying to get the deal done — costs that Manfred said had hampered the team’s ability to spend more on payroll.

“I don’t know how you negotiate for somebody exclusively for seven years and then get accused of using him as leverage,” he said. “It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Manfred acknowledged there was still “wood to chop” in terms of getting a deal done to move the team, and he pointed out that Las Vegas and Oakland both had tracts of land identified for a potential stadium, so beyond Oakland’s public declaration that the city would no longer negotiate, the cities are technically on equal footing.

As to how the A’s would handle the years between now and 2027, even if a Las Vegas stadium deal is approved, Manfred said it was too soon to speculate if the team could share Oracle Park with the Giants in San Francisco or if it could share Las Vegas Ballpark with the Aviators, Oakland’s Class AAA team, once the team’s lease on the Coliseum ends after the 2024 season.

Manfred said that he had yet to attend a game at the Aviators’ park, which can hold about 10,000 fans and opened in 2019, but that he planned to visit it soon.

Finding a stadium solution for the A’s has long been a priority of Manfred’s, as has finding one for the Tampa Bay Rays, who are off to a blistering start this season but who play in underwhelming Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.

In Monday’s talk, Manfred said he believed the Rays had showed positive momentum in their stadium search, and said a city like Nashville, which under the guidance of Dave Stewart, a former M.L.B. player, coach, agent and executive, has campaigned to get its own team, would be considered a candidate for an expansion team, rather than a relocating team. He said that there were many reasons that expanding to 32 teams would be good for baseball and that a city like Nashville, which does not have a huge metropolitan area, would be in the running if the league decided to add teams.

“I think Nashville’s on everybody’s list,” he said. As proof of the viability of smaller markets, he cited the success Las Vegas has had with the teams that have moved there in recent years.

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