The Oakland A’s Want to Leave for Las Vegas: Lessons on the Risks of Sports Stadiums

The news that the Oakland Athletics have announced plans to leave Oakland for Las Vegas has been met with overall poor reactions from fans of the team and sports enthusiasts. A’s fans no doubt hold the team’s owner John Fisher primarily accountable. Still, many fans also blame the City of Oakland for not doing more to keep the team. While some are sad to see the team leave after such a rich history in Oakland, there is still a modicum of a silver lining, considering the economics of professional sports and their impact on their home cities.

For many years, the Oakland A’s have been a staple of the community in Oakland, providing entertainment and excitement for fans across the Bay Area. During its tenure in Oakland, the Athletics secured “Four championships, six World Series appearances, multiple MVPs, Cy Youngs… and countless memories for all of us.” writes Connor Ashford for the fansite Athletics Nation. However, despite this deep connection to Oakland, the team has announced that they will be looking to move to Las Vegas in the coming years, citing the need for a new stadium.

The Athletics have been playing in the Oakland Coliseum since the 1960s. With its charms and flaws, the stadium is a “brutalist gem.” Indeed, it’s ugly, the plumbing doesn’t work, and visiting teams can’t use their broadcast booth because an opossum is “living inside its walls.” The stadium is now one of the oldest in Major League Baseball, and the team has been pushing for a new ballpark for years. The team has proposed a waterfront ballpark in the Jack London Square vicinity in Oakland, but the proposal faced numerous challenges, including opposition from community and environmental groups. 

Momentum for a new stadium seemed to be picking up. The First District Court of Appeals recently threw out a CEQA challenge to the proposed waterfront ballpark, but that was not enough. The A’s have suggested that the lack of progress on the new stadium was the major factor in their decision to move to Las Vegas, where they have just announced they have secured land for a new stadium.

While it is undoubtedly sad for fans to see their team leaving after so many years in Oakland, the city is not to blame for failing to finance the A’s dream ballpark. City governments and taxpayers need to be realistic about the economics of professional sports. As tempting as it may be to accommodate sports teams, there are serious economic risks associated with building new sports stadiums, which taxpayers usually fund. These projects fail to generate the expected economic benefits, leaving taxpayers with millions of dollars in debt. This is not just a problem in Oakland but across the country, as cities and states continue to offer lucrative incentives to lure professional sports teams to their communities. For this reason, a St. Louis Federal Reserve paper reports that most economists oppose public spending for sports stadiums. Las Vegas is already on the hook for $750 million in bonds paid for by hotel taxes to house the Raiders, who, ironically, left Oakland after decades of calling it home. 

It is true that in the proposed waterfront ballpark deal, the city would not have paid “hundreds of millions of dollars” for the stadium itself. Still, city funding did rely on state and federal grants for infrastructure upgrades. In addition, the A’s were asking the city to create a tax district to pay for “soil cleanup, seismic work, utilities, sidewalks, streets and other improvements needed to prepare the Howard Terminal site.” Keeping the A’s would likely mean the city throwing more public money at the development. 

Nobody can say for sure that the A’s will be successful in landing in Las Vegas. It is still far from a done deal, and Las Vegas would have to go through a similar process that Oakland is currently going through regarding planning.

While the news that the Oakland A’s could be leaving Oakland is a sad moment for fans of the team and the city as a whole that has already lost the Raiders and Warriors, it is essential to recognize that the economics of professional sports are complex and that cities and states should be cautious when offering incentives to lure sports teams to their communities. Rather than focusing on pro sports teams, they should ensure their cities can achieve long-term economic benefits for their residents—corporate welfare is not a part of that recipe. 

Jonathan Hofer is a Research Associate at the Independent Institute. He has written extensively on both California and national public policy issues. He holds a BA in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include privacy law, student privacy, local surveillance, and the impact of emerging technologies on civil liberties.
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