Lew Wolff often says attendance in Oakland is partly why he wants to move the A’s to the South Bay. Like every other excuse Wolff gives, it doesn’t hold up under factual scrutiny. The reason is simple. If San Francisco can take its image as a windblown, flake-filled terrible baseball town and transform it almost overnight into a great baseball city, then certainly Oakland can do the same. Before the Giants moved into Pacific Bell Park (now AT&T Park), their attendance was terrible as they shared the Bay Area market from 1968 to 1999. Meanwhile, A’s attendance in Oakland during this period was better than San Francisco’s, more often than not.
Oh, we’re not saying A’s attendance over the years has been perfect. Far from it. But we are definitely saying that the A’s attendance, when studied in a larger context, indicates that the A’s could match or exceed the Giants’ post-2000 success once they move into a new Oakland ballpark. How do we know this? Well, first, the answer definitely is NOT found by looking solely at the A’s attendance in a narrow vacuum. No, the answer instead is found by studying the issue in its proper context — that is, the history of Oakland AND San Francisco attendance — and by studying the A’s and Giants’ attendance when nearly all things were equal between the two teams and their similar multi-purpose stadiums. The last time that was the case was from 1968 to 1999 — pre-AT&T Park. Check it out.
The Giants’ attendance from 1968 to 1999 was remarkably awful. For single seasons, the Giants:
- Drew more than 2 million fans only three times.
- Drew above the National League average only once.
- Drew above the National League median only twice.
- Never drew better than 4th among National League teams, and they did that only once.
- Finished in the bottom third among National League teams in 23 of 32 seasons.
- Finished at least third-to-last among National League teams in 15 of 32 seasons.
By comparison, from 1968 to 1999, the A’s:
- Drew more than 2 million fans six times. (Twice as many times as the Giants)
- Drew above the American League average six times (Much better than what the Giants did in the National League)
- Drew above the American League median at least seven times. (NOTE: You could argue it occurred nine times, but in two seasons, they’re just slightly above the borderline, so to be generous, we’ll toss those seasons out. Seven times is still way more than what the Giants achieved in the National League.)
- Outdrew the Giants 17-15 in those 32 seasons, and outdrew the Giants 17-8 in the first 25 seasons they shared this market.
- Drew 2.9 million fans in 1990, setting a Bay Area single-season attendance record that held for a decade. The New York Yankees did not reach that milestone until 1998, eight years AFTER Oakland accomplished this.
The difference is pretty clear. The A’s attendance was much better than the Giants in the 32 years they shared this market, when nearly all things were equal with the teams’ multi-purpose stadiums. As a result, San Francisco for decades was considered a terrible baseball town. The old joke was that San Francisco was the only city that would cheer Kruschev and boo Willie Mays. The joke was bolstered by the fact that the Giants (before AT&T Park) rarely made the playoffs and consistently had awful attendance. It’s no wonder they almost moved to other cities on several occasions, including 1992, when they were all but gone to Tampa.
What change occurred that allowed San Francisco to transform its image as a baseball town? Just one but crucial element: Ownership.
After the ’92 season, unpopular owner Bob Lurie sold the team to an ownership group led by Peter Magowan, who immediately did several things that Lurie never did. Namely, the new owners:
- Announced that they would never leave San Francisco.
- Stopped badmouthing their stadium and Bay Area fans.
- Improved the Candlestick Park experience by serving better food, installing a new bleacher section in left field, playing more day games and having employees pick up food wrappers blown on the field to try to remove the stadium’s windblown image.
- Spent money on players and consistently tried to win.
- And marketed their team in ways that showed they had a good feel for their unique fan base.
In short, in a sport that is built almost entirely on nostalgia and tradition, Magowan & Co. rightly concluded that there was no need to throw away more than 40 years of San Francisco baseball nostalgia and tradition. In fact, they decided it was something on which to build. Even though the Giants attendance was mediocre-to-awful right up until they moved into their new ballpark in 2000, the team’s owners took a leap of faith and it has paid off beautifully for them.
The same thing easily could happen in Oakland. After all, the A’s in Oakland were more successful at the box office than the Giants in S.F. during the years they were on mostly equal footing in terms of ownership and stadiums. So, it’s logical to figure the A’s will match or exceed the Giants again in a new Oakland ballpark, as soon as their ownership and stadium situations are equal once more. The problem now is, the A’s ballpark situation will never improve until its ownership situation improves. And the A’s ownership won’t improve until Wolff and John Fisher sell the team — just as the Giants needed Bob Lurie to sell to Magowan & Co. in order for moving threats to stop and for AT&T Park to be built.
Last attendance stat of the day: From 1988-2005, the A’s drew 2 million fans in 11 seasons out of 18. They haven’t drawn 2 million fans since. Hmmm, who bought the A’s in 2005? Yep, Wolff and Fisher.
Long story short, Oakland can get this done. We just need the current A’s owners to get out of their own way. It’s all in the numbers.