Monday, June 13, 2011

Tale of Two Owners

Walter A. Haas, Jr. and John Fisher have a lot in common, with one huge exception. Haas was an excellent sports owner when he owned the Oakland A's. Fisher, in contrast, has been a disaster as the A's current owner.

Both men were born and raised in San Francisco and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. Haas and Fisher both come from two of the biggest clothing empires in San Francisco, Levi's for Walter and the Gap for John.

But this is where the similarities end.

It was Walter who purchased the Oakland A's in 1980 from Charlie Finley, and he led the club to glory with three consecutive World Series appearances, including a World Series title in 1989. As for Fisher, he purchased the Athletics (with minority-interest owner Lew Wolff as the front man) in 2005. Fisher inherited a perennial contender that frequently drew over 2 million fans annually and, almost immediately, he and Wolff mismanaged the franchise and ran it into the ground.

This 2011 season will be the fifth consecutive non-winning campaign (four losing seasons and one .500 season) for the Fisher/Wolff regime.

In 2006, Fisher and Wolff excluded A's fans from the third deck by tarping it off. They said they wanted a "more intimate" setting, but, perhaps not coincidentally, the move depressed attendance and prevented it from ever hitting the 2 million mark, which was the threshold at which the A's would have to share revenue with the city, according to the Coliseum lease at the time.

Also, payroll has subsequently decreased since the 2005 purchase, despite the fact that Fisher/Wolff is the fourth-richest ownership in all of Major League Baseball. The refusal to add to payroll and the tarping of the third deck have led to a substandard fan experience. Many in the press, from Ann Killion to Lowell Cohn to Glenn Dickey, have speculated that Fisher has purposely depressed attendance and put an inferior product on the field to justify moving the Athletics out of Oakland.

To this day, Fisher has been silent about Oakland ballpark locations, including the proposed Victory Court site. This is not surprising given that Fisher is an avid Giants fan.

As a result, A's fans are stuck in a depressing holding pattern and the team's constant mediocrity has resulted in the lame-duck status of this once-proud franchise.

Contrast this to Walter A. Haas Jr., who believed in investing money in the team and the community. Perhaps, John Fisher does not care about his legacy since he is an avid Giants fan looking to cash in on the short-term through revenue sharing and by not investing it back into the team.

Fisher has not shown that he is willing to work within his territory, which includes Alameda and Contra Costa counties, home to 2.5 million people and a few Fortune 500 companies like Chevron, Safeway, and Clorox. Many MLB markets around the nation can't even claim to possess that kind of market size and corporate strength. But the Oakland A's and their East Bay market can -- despite the false claims to the contrary often made by the small but vocal group of Wolff apologists.

In short, Fisher and Wolff could make the A's a viable franchise again, but they choose not to. Haas previously did, and with a smaller population and corporate base.

Or, as Bruce Jenkins wrote recently in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Until Fisher speaks up, or at least shows his face, we have to assume he's only in baseball so he can drop a few clever lines at cocktail parties."


Domination 7 said...

Good read. I wash Haas could've lived forever. As a kid the Coliseum was my favorite place in the world. When I go to a game now or watch one on TV it's just depressing. I thought the Schott/Hoffman team was bad and that it couldn't get worse but my god was I wrong!

Richard Bennett said...

Even with the tarp, the Coliseum is capable of seating 3 million fans a year. It's not the reason attendance has dipped below 2 million.

The A's won the ALDS in 2006, and still drew less than 2 million, so the team's quality is not the reason for the low attendance either. In 2007, the Giants drew 3.4 million and finished last in their division.

Haas' teams won because they juiced, not because of big payrolls. These teams were powered by rookie of the year winners in '86-88 who came to the A's thanks to the high draft picks they got from finishing 4th and 5th in 82-85.

Haas gave the Giants the territorial rights to San Jose when they were trying to build a stadium there, without any strings attached to get them back if the Giants built elsewhere. This was a major mistake.

The A's are in trouble today because of the territorial rights, and baseball has enacted a drug testing program to prevent other owners from succeeding with the "better baseball through chemistry" program his teams pioneered.

Haas was no saint.

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