Blair Walsh’s missed 27 yarder against Seattle – the latest in a long line of stunning Vikings playoff losses.
After another soul-crushing, how-in-the-hell-did-that-happen, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me Vikings playoff loss, my mind turned almost immediately to baseball. For some reason, after the sports world failed me in spectacular fashion once again, I was looking for solace in another game that will likely fail me as well.
The way I view sports has changed. Over the years, my passion for the Vikings has dimmed a bit. The loss that ended the season definitely hurt, but not as much as that kind of a defeat would have 5 years ago. It’s hard for me to feel attached to the NFL anymore. As much as I might admire what Adrian Peterson does on the football field, there’s not much else to respect. The NFL has a lot of great men, but the stars of the game simply can’t relate to the average fan. Neither can the owners, or the general managers. Anyone who makes a profit off of professional football in this country just simply isn’t someone people can identify with.
Don’t get me wrong, I still LOVE the game. It’s as grandiose and entertaining as it’s ever been, but the governing body of the game, and those who play it, have worn thin on me. The parallels between soccer and football are becoming more and more apparent. FIFA is universally despised, but the game it enforces is beloved by hundreds of millions. It feels like the NFL isn’t far off. After what the owners just did to the cities of St. Louis, San Diego, and Oakland, and after hundreds of issues with players who just can’t stay out of trouble, it’s become impossible to mention the NFL as a whole in a positive light.
For completely different reasons, I feel a very similar way about Major League Baseball. Far fewer baseball players give fans real reasons to hate them or to question their moral fiber. Yes, I suppose the equivalent to the perpetual criminal issues in football would be PEDs in baseball. I get it. Becoming artificially stronger or recovering quicker is a crime against the game, not against society. The main reason I feel like the league is losing me is the influx of corporate influence into the game.
Player salaries are higher on average in MLB than in any other league or sport on earth. Media deals (for local TV markets) have soared into the 10-figure range for some teams. Ticket prices continue to rise. And yet, the seats remain full. How? Teams are upgrading. Upgrading to newer, more modern facilities. Upgrading their product, with more advanced stats and more well-run front offices. Most alarmingly, however, they’re upgrading their fan base.
Many teams across the league have effectively swapped their original base for a new, more affluent base. There was a time where profits were tied to ticket sales, and ticket sales tied solely to affordability and the product on the field. This is no longer the case. Teams strategically put a premium on seats to price out their less affluent fans, forcing them to watch at home. This has a two-pronged effect.
First, it brings greater revenue to the team at the gate. When more and more 6+ figure salary fans show up at your stadium, they are more likely to spend on additional goods and services at the park. Businesses are more likely to buy these seats and luxury boxes, sparing no expense for themselves or their clients.
Secondly, and by far most importantly, it drives the less affluent fans away. But not away from the team, it drives them to their televisions. As more fans tune in to stay connected to the team that just sent them into exile, local TV networks see their ratings jump. In order to keep these ratings and stave off competitors, these stations offer more and more money to teams to be their exclusive TV home. This is why profits are at an all time high. This is why a league-average pitcher now makes 10 million dollars per year.
It’s brilliant. It’s shameful. It’s the work of the best businessmen in the world. It’s the new model of the NFL, MLB, and NBA. Build an opulent stadium, cater to the corporate world, drive your poorer fans from the stadium to their TV, rake in media-rights money, repeat. Absolutely brilliant. Absolutely shameful.
As I’ve written countless times before, I’m always looking for something, someone, anything to believe in in the sports world. I’ve idolized countless athletes, obsessed over teams. I’ve been pulled in by amazing stories from other sports, namely Lance Armstrong. I’ve fallen in love with golf thanks to Tiger Woods, who isn’t exactly a role model. Time and time again the sports world fails me. Heart-stomping Vikings playoff defeats. Public crucifixions of my sports heroes. Spectacular falls from grace by teams and athletes I put my heart and soul into supporting. The sports world is supposed to be our escape from the world. Yet the real world interferes time and time again, reminding us how imperfect it all is. The greed of the owners, the conduct of the players, the cynicism of the media. Why, oh why, do I keep coming back?
The Oakland Athletics.
It’s as simple as that.
Sports, as much as we’re led to believe otherwise, has never had a golden era. There was no perfect past, where it was infinitely better than it is today. There was less money, and therefore less corporate influence. The game was purer, I guess you could say. In actuality, it was very similar to the way it is now. Owners made less money off their teams, so perhaps instead of today’s greedy con-men, we can refer to them as stingy penny-pinchers. They fought hard to keep salaries low. They wanted bare-bones facilities. But they also knew that their profits were solely determined by how many butts they could put in the seats. Prices were exponentially lower then than they are now. So were TV ratings for the games.
It was, as they say, a simpler time. Everyone could afford to go to a baseball game. With a few exceptions, famous athletes were everymen, who you could relate to and honestly root for. As a guy in his early-20s, I never experienced this time. I wish I had. There were no “jewel” ballparks or corporate ploys to commercialize the game beyond repair. It was the game, the players, and the fans. As pure as sports can be. There were warts, work stoppages and teams moving out of necessity, but it was decidedly better than it is now.
There is only one show left in town for fans of that simpler time. The Warriors, despite fervent and unprecedented support from their fans, are charging outrageous sums for their games in preparation for their move to greener (#thecolorofmoney) pastures in San Francisco. The Giants started this trend in 2000, leaving Candlestick Park for the corporate confines of AT&T Park. The 49ers followed suit in 2014. The Raiders are in the midst of a saga that will undoubtedly leave Oakland with either a massive bill for Mark Davis’ attempt at his own version of the owners’ scam, or no football team altogether. The A’s are all that remain.
It’s easy to imagine a Bay Area with only one affordable sports ticket left. We’re already living it. (Sorry, Sharks and Earthquakes, the demand isn’t the same for hockey and soccer and the prices are still pretty outrageous). When the Raiders leave or get a new facility, the Bay Area’s less-affluent fans will have only one option left if they want to see a major professional sporting event in person.
Average ticket-at-the-gate price, 2014-15: 49ers $388.18, Raiders $161.13, Giants $97.14, Sharks $76.61, Warriors $75.70.
These numbers paint a clear picture. But it’s not the only reason why the A’s are the Bay Area’s working-class team, and my one beacon of hope in the cloudy sports universe. If the Bernie Sanders corporate America v. working America route doesn’t explain it, maybe irrational homerism will.
Why do we all love sports? One reason: fun. Watching sports is fun. Playing is fun. Being at a stadium for a crucial game is insanely fun. Am I the only one on this planet that feels like sports are more fun when you’re attached to the players? Or are we all just rooting for the laundry? It’s the great debate. How important is the man inside the jersey compared to the logo on the front?
It’s been said that a team would sign Hitler if he could hit .300. Hell, the A’s almost signed Barry Bonds in 2008. We all wish our sports heroes could be saints, but really all we’re asking for is a good guy that we can relate to, and a little personality wouldn’t hurt. Can you honestly say that the overly polished NFL superstars (Manning, Wilson, Watt, etc.) with a positive image are people you relate to? What about those around the sports world with undeniable talent (LeBron, Adrian Peterson, Cam Newton, Bryce Harper)? You’re definitely aware of the Ray Rices, the Greg Hardys, the most troublesome athletes.
Who is left to root for? For me, it’s the baseball players who haven’t been in the spotlight their whole lives. The closest thing we have to everymen in the sports world nowadays are the ballplayers who worked their way up from the sports netherworld. Guys who might’ve made as much or even less than you at some point. Guys who’ve never been on TV, much less endorsed products on every other commercial. Guys who wouldn’t know what in the hell to do with the kind of money the owners use as pocket change.
There are smatterings of players like this across the NFL and NBA. There are dozens upon dozens of these guys across the baseball world. And nowhere is there quite as high a concentration of these cast-offs than in Oakland, where payroll constraints and an aging facility that literally leaks sewage leaves the team little choice but to rely on these guys.
In theory, this should be baseball’s worst team, and one of it’s worst franchises. For some reason, it’s the opposite. Since their move to Oakland in 1968, the team has won their division 16 times. They have won four World titles. 6 pennants. A total of 18 playoff appearances. How does a team that has always operated with one of baseball’s lowest payrolls have levels of success only bettered by the game’s richest team (NY Yankees)?
There are a lot of reasons why, and they’re the exact same reasons I love the A’s:
The team relies on young, homegrown players out of necessity. Reggie Jackson, Rickey Henderson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, Vida Blue, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Jason Giambi, Tim Hudson, Miguel Tejada, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, Sonny Gray. All these players were drafted by the A’s. All of them are all-stars with abundant talent. Four of them are Hall-of-Famers. Another thing you’ll notice is they all went on to play for different teams despite their immense talent (Gray is still an A, though he’ll soon join the ranks). Chalk it up to all the payroll issues I explained before. However, losing these superstars in the prime of their careers leads to the second reason I love this team….
We can’t afford cookie-cutter superstars or divas. There are two types of athletes that lay the foundation for an unlikeable team. The first is the Cookie Cutter Superstar (©Erik Stenholm 2016). These are commonplace throughout the sports world, your Peyton Mannings, your Derek Jeters, etc. Players who are so widely recognized and so well paid for their talent that they sacrifice all personality and likeability to limit their chances of a fall from grace. They do this to earn endorsements and to protect the cashflow. Nothing will stop them from maximizing their earnings and good PR. Not a political statement, not a tough stance on the game, not an opinion. Cut from the same mold. No straying from the course.
The second is the diva. They are few and far between, but not hard to find. Barry Bonds, Terrell Owens, Randy Moss. Players with undeniable and often times transcendent talent, who just do not get along with their peers, fans, or the media. They are almost exclusively players with sky-high salaries. It’s all about them, and everyone knows it.
Fortunately, the A’s rarely have a player that fits either of these criteria, and if they do, the player is as good as gone. Players only reach this status if they become so talented that the rest of the league pays attention to what’s going on in Oakland, which is a monumental feat in itself. The latest two A’s to reach these levels of talent were both traded in a 6 month stretch for……
Prospects and journeymen. Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes both came from humble beginnings and grew into superstars in Oakland, which naturally meant they had to be traded. Reports came out of Cespedes and Donaldson beginning to fit the “diva” mold, which meant the A’s needed to sell high before the players reached high-salary level and a drop in production ensued. It hurts. I wanted these guys to play in green and gold forever. But this is Oakland. It’s a team built on working class fans, young talented players, and journeymen who know that the O.co Coliseum is one of the only places left that will give them the shot they’ve never had. Out go the superstars…in come the kids and wash-ups. They just want a chance, and Oakland gives it to them. We relate to our players here, because they are either in a similar situation as we are, just trying to make it, or they’re too young to be anointed The Next Big Thing. It’s a formula that seems destined for failure, and yet…….
The product on the field, when compared to the budgets of their competitors, is wildly successful and borders on impossible. The 2002 Athletics won 103 games, more than any team in the league, with a payroll of 39 million dollars. The Yankees spent nearly 4 times that amount that season. The 2012 Athletics won 94 games and stole the American League West title from the back-to-back pennant winning Texas Rangers despite being outspent nearly 3-1. In 2013, the Athletics won 96 games while spending $60M on the team. The Dodgers spent $240M to win 4 less games. The Yankees spent $238M to win 11 less games. You get the point. Michael Lewis said that the A’s have perfected the “art of winning an unfair game.” I can give you statistic after statistic that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that what the A’s do is next to impossible, and yet it’ll keep happening. There’s just one more thing they have to do to finally turn the baseball world on it’s head and give their hard-working, middle class, everyman fans the moment they’ve been craving…..
Winning a title in Oakland, at the Coliseum, with the game, the Bay Area, and the sports world in it’s current state would mean more than any title any franchise has won in decades. The Bay Area is slowly being gentrified beyond recognition. Rent is more expensive here than pretty much anywhere on the map. Tech money flows through this region and despite all the good things it creates, it is removing the very essence of what makes the Bay Area…..the Bay Area. Oakland is still a working class city. We have a working class team, full of everymen and young kids who just want their shot. Our tickets are cheap, our fans are loyal and wild, our stadium is a dump. We wouldn’t have it any other way. The sports world wants us to fall in line. Build an opulent stadium, cater to the corporate world, drive your poorer fans from the stadium to their TV, rake in media-rights money, repeat. It will happen eventually. But not now. There’s a window. It could be 2 years, it could be 20. But it’s there. Our chance to get one last title, one last triumph for the little guy before the sports world caves in on itself and becomes the antithesis of everything we want it to be – fun.
Join me. Join us. I promise you, there’s an open seat with your name on it. And if we do win that elusive title that shakes the sports world, it’ll be a whole hell of a lot of fun.