The Oakland A’s are arguably the best team in baseball right now. Since May 24, the A’s have gone on an absolute tear, winning 16 of their last 20 games and have stormed atop the AL West, in which the Texas Rangers once held a sizable lead.
They even completed a three-game sweep of the mighty New York Yankees on Thursday in a dramatic, 18-inning game that was fun to watch. The A’s are a damn good team, with a stacked pitching rotation and a solid starting lineup. They can beat you in so many different ways — complete-game shutouts, late-inning rallies, walk-off homers — and every win seems to come via a different method.
But despite all the success, there always remains one constant issue with the A’s: attendance.
The A’s have been perennial bottom feeders when it comes to attendance, and this year it’s been no different, as they rank 26th out of 30th teams with an average of 20,765 fans per game. In fact, the last time they weren’t in the bottom-five in attendance was 2005, when they were 19th in the league. What’s more, they have never ranked in the top half of attendance in the league in at least the past decade.
Even during the days of “Moneyball” and the historic 20-game win streak, the 2006 season that saw them advance to the ALCS, last season, when they made an improbable run to the playoffs, and this season, where they are primed for another postseason birth, the A’s have never drawn enough fans to consistently fill out the O.Co Coliseum.
So why is that? Why is it that a winning ballclub is being mentioned in the same sentence as teams like the Miami Marlins and Houston Astros when it comes to attendance?
To provide some answers, I spoke to Andy Dolich, a front office executive for the A’s during the 1980s and early 90s.
Even when the A’s won three World Series in a row from 1972-1974, nobody came to see them.
They averaged an abysmal 11,562 fans per game during those three years in a stadium that could seat over 30,000, and Charley Finley, the owner, was so fed up with the poor attendance that he threatened to move the team.
He didn’t move the team, but he did move his best players in the wake of free agency, which began in 1976.
“He started breaking the team up in ’75 and selling off all the players,” said Dolich, who referred to Finley as an “absentee” owner. “(Sal) Bando, Vida Blue, Catfish (Hunter), Campy Campaneris — all those guys were gone, and all the fans were gone.”
“Gone” would be an understatement, as the more the A’s lost without their top players, the fewer fans showed up. The Coliseum became known as the “Mausoleum,” and attendance fell to as low as 3,787 per game in 1979, a year that saw them lose 108 games.
The A’s became practically invisible because in addition to the lack of fans showing up at the stadium, their games were rarely heard on the radio, let alone seen on television.
It was a historic debacle of a true dynasty, and eventually Finley sold the team to Levi Strauss & Co. president Walter A. Haas, Jr. before the 1981 season.
As the new owner, Haas brought in a new management group, and Dolich was hired as Vice President of Baseball Operations.
In his words, Dolich was in charge of “all revenue — advertising, marketing, promotions, broadcasts, ticketing, stadium operations, community involvement.”
Some may attribute it to luck, and others may call it genius marketing with the “Billy Ball” campaign. But whatever Dolich and the new management did to boost attendance, it worked tremendously.
Attendance jumped from an average of 10,398 per game in 1980 to 23,928 in 1981, the first season under new ownership.
When asked what strategies he used that led to the jump, Dolich accredited it to a change in culture from the Finley-era.
“Essentially what we did under new ownership was we took a very aggressive approach, and not waiting for fans, but selling, advertising, promoting, having events, things that Finley never did,” he said. “That was just not part of his plan.”
Of course, it helped that the A’s were relevant on the field again, going all the way to the ALCS in 1981 before falling short to the Yankees.
“We won our first 11 games and 17 out of 18,” Dolich recalled, “and we became the darlings of the media…because media loves stories of good to bad.”
Baseball was rejuvenated in Oakland, with a brand new owner and the team seeing newfound success.
With players like Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire, and Jose Canseco growing into superstars, the A’s made it to three consecutive World Series in 1988-1990, winning it all in 1989.
With that success came a spike in attendance. The A’s averaged 35,805 per game in 1990, and they have yet to shatter that mark as of today.
Thanks in part of Dolich’s hard work, season ticket sales increased from 400 to 16,000 and attendance from 800,000 per year to 2.9 million during his 14-year tenure in Oakland.
Dolich compared the scenario to when Joe Lacob and Peter Guber bought the Golden State Warriors in 2010 from Chris Cohan, who, like Finley, had run his franchise into the ground. Lacob and Guber were seen as fresh faces to lead the franchise, and like it was with Haas’ A’s, the Warriors are no longer the laughingstock of the league.
“We were the beneficiaries of just doing anything, which looked better than doing nothing,” said Dolich, “which is essentially what Finley had done from a business and marketing perspective.”
Fast forward 32 years.
Dolich is long gone from Oakland. After leaving the A’s in 1995, Dolich worked briefly with the Warriors, spent seven years with the Memphis Grizzlies, and most recently was the COO of the San Francisco 49ers from 2007-2010. He currently operates a sports consultancy in the Bay Area named Dolich & Associates.
These days, Dolich can sit back and marvel at what he accomplished with the A’s, but he also shakes his head when he looks at the state of the franchise in 2013.
It is eerily similar to what the A’s went through in the late 70s, with the current owner fed up with lack of attendance and wanting to move the team, even in the midst of success.
That, says Dolich, is the main reason why fans are not showing up.
When ownership threatens and constantly talks about the fact that it must leave the market — if you’re a fan of the team, or if you’re a patron of a restaurant, or you like to buy a certain product, and they tell you that there’s going to be change or they might not be there, sometimes, no matter how much you like the product, you’re not going to use it, you’re not going to go as many times.
Clearly, that’s affected their attendance. We can’t argue that the performance on the field isn’t great, it is. Not just an overnight success. Last year opened a lot of eyes, and it’s continuing. However, it seems that any time enthusiasm really starts to cook, the territorial dispute always seems to get back as a major issue.
Ah, the old territorial dispute.
If Lew Wolff had his way, the A’s would be playing in a brand new ballpark in Fremont called Cisco Field by next season.
He didn’t get his way.
Wolff tried again, turning to San Jose as a destination for a new ballpark.
He still hasn’t gotten his way, at least not yet, and he can blame the San Francisco Giants for it.
The Giants, exercising their territorial rights, blocked the A’s proposed move to San Jose. A stalemate resulted, and both teams turned to the commissioner’s office to make a decision.
It’s been four years, and nothing has been resolved.
Dolich recognizes how frustrating it has to be for the fans, with the franchise in a state of limbo.
“You take a lot of patience if you’re a fan to say, ‘We’ll reach some sort of resolution.’
Dolich also mentioned how most of the other professional sports teams in the Bay Area have plans in place to build a beautiful stadium.
The Niners are building a new stadium which will be open, the Earthquakes are building a new stadium, the Warriors have a plan, and most likely, they’re going to have a new arena, the Kings fought a similar-type battle that the A’s have fought, and now they’ve reached a resolution with new ownership and a plan to build a new downtown arena.
And where are the A’s? The same unanswered question. People don’t want to vacation in the Bermuda Triangle.
That is the reality that the A’s have to face. Who knows if or when Bud Selig and his cohorts will come up with a decision?
But because they haven’t, the A’s are paying the price because fans do not want to spend to see a team that may leave town in the near future.
There is no doubt that the A’s need a new home.
The Coliseum is a stadium that is way past its prime, and Dolich agrees.
“The argument whether the (Coliseum’s) time has passed – I think that’s a given in that it’s the last joint-used stadium between an NFL team and an MLB team,” he said. “We know what the downsides of that are. When you see the infield when the Raiders are playing and you can see the grass ripped off…It’s not a perfect football stadium and it’s surely not a perfect baseball stadium.”
“Not perfect” would be a kind way of describing the Coliseum, a run-down dump with an outdated sound system, scoreboards in dire need of an upgrade, tarps covering an empty third deck, and bathrooms that still have troughs.
A’s fans and players deserve better than that. Players deserve to play in a much better venue, while fans deserve to attend games in a much more comfortable and luxurious environment.
Whether that place is in Oakland, San Jose, Fremont, or even Mars, it doesn’t matter.
As long as the state of the franchise remains in limbo, and the A’s keep playing the Coliseum, attendance will continue to be an issue.
There’s nothing the A’s can do about it, even if they are tied for the most wins in the AL and are scorching hot at the moment.
“We have this ongoing soap opera off the field, which to a certain extent affects the ticket-buying public,” said Dolich. “The frustrating part is, the most difficult challenge in professional sports is to create a winning team, and they’ve done that.”
Yes, they’ve done that.
The A’s are winning, but the fans aren’t coming.