Oakland A’s see empty Coliseum seats amid fan frustration

The owner of a baseball team purposefully tries to make their team fail in order to gain approval to relocate to a glitzier locale.

It’s the plot of the 1989 hit comedy “Major League” in which mischievous tactics are used to prevent a team from flourishing and force it out of town.

Is life imitating art in Oakland?

The A’s are drawing embarrassingly tiny crowds to the Coliseum, which isn’t surprising after they traded several star players, slashed payroll and raised ticket prices at their antiquated facility.

In the movie, owner Rachel Phelps tries to sabotage her team to move it from Cleveland to Miami. In real life, John Fisher is threatening to move from Oakland to Las Vegas if he doesn’t get his Howard Terminal ballpark development.

“It’s as if the goal is to not have that many people at the games so they can move and say, ‘Hey, we don’t have the fan support,’” former A’s season ticket holder Rob Goldstein said. “That seems pretty clear.”

The A’s say that’s not the case.

“I categorically reject that notion,” team president Dave Kaval said. “Follow the money. We would not be spending $2 million a month, more than the Raiders and Warriors combined in their entire efforts to stay in Oakland, if we weren’t interested in staying.”

With post-Opening Day crowds well under 5,000, many concession stands on the main concourse are shuttered.

With post-Opening Day crowds well under 5,000, many concession stands on the main concourse are shuttered.

Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

While little is spent on A’s payroll (second lowest in MLB), Kaval claims $2 million monthly goes toward funding the campaign to achieve Howard Terminal through salaries of internal staff and many city and county staff assigned to the project along with money earmarked for environmental and legal consultants and studies.

Kaval also cited ticket packages available for fans to attend games relatively cheaply, including four Friday night tickets and a parking pass for as low as $39 and discounted plans for seniors, military and first responders.

Still, the optics are not good. The A’s drew just 17,503 for Monday’s home opener and followed with three anemic crowds that were announced at 3,748, 2,703 and 4,429.

Paid attendance on Wednesday, a game that was moved up 3 ½ hours because of an incoming rainstorm, was the lowest since Sept. 9, 1980 (when attendance used turnstile counts of actual fans entering the stadium), excluding games with restricted seating due to COVID-19. The A’s are last in the majors in average attendance, by far.

Goldstein, an accountant from Alamo, had two season tickets from 2010 through 2019, before the pandemic locked out fans. I have canceled his plan this year because it increased 45%, from $8,474 in 2019 to $12,300.

They were prime seats in section 120, six rows behind the A’s dugout. But last year, when full capacity returned at midseason, Goldstein said he was told his seats would only be available at a much higher rate. He chose to buy individual tickets instead. This year, he took a pass.

Some fans continue to show up. Marcos Ramos, a chef from Oakland, was at Wednesday’s game with his wife and niece and spoke highly of a team with promising young players such as center fielder Cristian Pache.

In an otherwise empty section 129, Ramos hoisted his large green A’s flag, blew from his long, loud green horn and proudly showed off his colorful tattoo of an A’s logo on his neck.

“And I got that when we were losing,” Ramos said. “Even though things have changed now, I’m still here. Regardless, win or lose, we’re here. Devotion is rooted in Oakland.”

That’s one of Kaval’s catch phrases, “rooted in Oakland.” Another is “parallel paths,” as the A’s simultaneously look at Howard Terminal and several sites in Southern Nevada. Fisher and Kaval visited Las Vegas again this week, another reason for fan discontent.

Ownership has rejected building at the Coliseum site, and Commissioner Rob Manfred gave permission to the A’s last May to explore other markets, opening the door to Las Vegas. Originally, the A’s were targeting a 2023 ballpark opening in Oakland. Now it won’t open any earlier than 2028.

Oakland Athletics' mascot Stomper walks in the stands as A's play Baltimore Orioles in front of a couple thousand fans during MLB game at Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, Calif, on Wednesday, April 20, 2022.

Oakland Athletics’ mascot Stomper walks in the stands as A’s play Baltimore Orioles in front of a couple thousand fans during MLB game at Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, Calif, on Wednesday, April 20, 2022.

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

The A’s traded infielders Matt Olson and Matt Chapman and pitchers Chris Bassitt and Sean Manaea for prospects as part of the latest rebuild. It’s a step backward seen multiple times in the franchise’s past, star players dealt before they hit free agency because the A’s are unwilling to pay market rates.

It has been a successful strategy with executives Billy Beane and David Forst constantly remaking the roster, considering the A’s have been in the playoffs 11 times in the 2000s (just four teams have done it more), but fans continue to see their favorite players sent elsewhere.

The A’s aren’t the only team with lower attendance numbers, trying to bring fans back in a pandemic. The Giants had a crowd in their first homestand of 23,279, relatively low for a team generally ranking near the top in attendance.

For the A’s, the numbers are more extreme. The A’s say the price hike seems significant because it was so low previously and that the average ticket price is less than $40, below MLB average (and far below Giants pricing). An individual ticket can cost as little as $15.

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