November 16, 2023

A’s owner ‘gratified’ as Las Vegas relocation approved by MLB owners

by Howard Stutz & Tabitha Muller
The Nevada Independent

When Oakland Athletics owner John Fisher began exploring Las Vegas as a potential relocation option for his Major League Baseball franchise, he was enthused by the number of people he saw wearing team gear for the Vegas Golden Knights and Las Vegas Raiders.

But it was a brief conversation with a couple of military members stationed in Las Vegas that sold him on the city.

“They were talking about how great Las Vegas was and it was a place where you would want to live,” Fisher told The Nevada Independent in a brief interview Thursday. “That kind of was the start, about two-and-a-half years ago.”

Hours before that interview, representatives of the 30 Major League Baseball (MLB) team owners unanimously approved the relocation of the A’s to Las Vegas, a key step in allowing the team to officially obtain the many approvals needed in Southern Nevada for the construction of a partially publicly funded $1.5 billion ballpark on the Strip.

Fisher said he was “gratified” by the vote from his fellow owners, which took place in Arlington, Texas, following three days of meetings.

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He called the pending move to Las Vegas “a significant moment for our franchise,” which will see its fourth home since coming into existence as the Philadelphia Athletics in 1901. The team spent 13 years as the Kansas City Athletics before moving to Oakland in 1968.

The vote clears the way for the A’s to move forward on obtaining financing and gaining approvals for a 33,000-seat ballpark that would be located on 9 acres of a 35-acre site owned by Gaming and Leisure Properties (GLPI) that currently houses the Tropicana Las Vegas. The Rat Pack-era hotel and casino, which is operated by Bally’s Corp., is expected to be closed and demolished by the end of 2024.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said during a Thursday press conference in Arlington that there wasn’t a viable path for the A’s to remain in Oakland, even though it was his and Fisher’s preference to remain in the Bay Area.

“I know this is a terrible day for the fans in Oakland [and] it’s a great day for Las Vegas fans,” Manfred said, adding that MLB would waive any relocation fee for the A’s. He said it was “inappropriate” to implement the undisclosed price to move since Fisher and the A’s were building a new stadium.

However, supporters of the team in Oakland including the mayor have criticized team management and Fisher for not making a genuine effort to keep the team in Oakland and not investing recently in the Oakland Coliseum so that they could leave for a new home on the Strip. The mayor even went so far as to say that the team had negotiated in bad faith with the city.

“We tried very hard to make a deal in Oakland,” Manfred said, adding that the 57-year-old Oakland Coliseum was no longer a viable option.

“We did that out of respect for the fans in Oakland,” Manfred added. “If you look at the situation objectively, we had no choice but to move on.”

Las Vegas Stadium Authority Chairman Steve Hill said ahead of the vote that the A’s need numerous approvals from the board and several Clark County agencies before the team can touch up to $380 million in public financing approved by the Legislature in a special session for the stadium (a combination of tax credits and $120 million in Clark County-issued bonds).

Fisher said he and his family are committed to privately financing the remaining $1.1 billion needed to construct the stadium. In August, A’s President Dave Kaval said the team was working to secure that financing, which would include a commitment by the Fisher family to “make one of the largest equity contributions” ever by a major league owner toward the cost of building a new ballpark.

Kaval said Thursday the debt and equity financing that will come from Fisher was spelled out in the stadium funding legislation.

One of many questions remaining after the vote is where the A’s will play before the stadium’s expected completion in time for the 2028 MLB season.

The A’s have a lease agreement to play at the 57-year-old Oakland Coliseum in 2024, but the lease expires at the end of the year. Kaval has suggested the team could share Oracle Park with the San Francisco Giants, play in Las Vegas at the 10,000-seat Las Vegas Ballpark in Summerlin or go back to Oakland for three additional years before moving to Las Vegas.

In a statement, the A’s said the team is working with MLB to “evaluate multiple options for interim play following the 2024 season.”

After the vote, Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo touted the relocation as an opportunity to bring thousands of jobs to the state and generate “a return on public investment.”

“Las Vegas has proven itself as a sports town, and we’re ready to play ball,” Lombardo said in a statement.

Legislative leaders who backed the public funding for the stadium also applauded the owners’ unanimous vote, with Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) saying it will “create thousands of good-paying jobs and generate additional revenue to invest in our communities, including public education, health care services, and infrastructure improvements.”

A heavy burden rests on tourism

In a separate interview Thursday, Kaval said the A’s have hired an architect for the stadium and have been showing updated renderings of the planned ballpark as the team has met with Clark County officials and community leaders in Las Vegas. Those renderings have not yet been made public, though Kaval said the team would hold an unveiling in Las Vegas “relatively soon.”

MGM Resorts International CEO Bill Hornbuckle met with Fisher recently and called the renderings “spectacular.” Five of MGM’s properties totaling more than 13,000 rooms are located directly across from the stadium’s future site.

Fisher confirmed the meeting with Hornbuckle and said he’s met with “most, if not all, of the casino leaders up and down the Strip.

“A critical part for our team is to develop a close relationship with all the resort operators. That’s going to be important to our success.”

The renderings were not released Thursday but were provided to the owners.

The vote came after a relocation committee of three owners endorsed the move, although a report by The Athletic Tuesday said the committee’s report didn’t give the move to Las Vegas a glowing recommendation.

The sports news outlet said the relocation committee posed questions about the viability of Las Vegas as the A’s new home including criticizing the size of the city’s media market, which would be the smallest of any major league team, and if the gaming industry would sponsor and support the team.

The report also said the A’s success in Las Vegas would heavily depend on tourism, including how many out-of-town fans would attend A’s games. During testimony in Carson City, proponents backing the public financing for the stadium estimated 81 regular season A’s home games could bring in more than 2.4 million visitors.

Remaining steps

Development plans, a lease agreement, finalization of bonding, construction timelines and a green-light from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are some of the remaining tasks the team will have to finalize over the next year.

Last month, the Las Vegas Stadium Authority board reviewed drafts of documents that need to be signed before public financing can be provided, including a 30-year lease agreement for the A’s to use the ballpark, the development plan for the stadium’s site, a non-relocation agreement that ties the A’s to Las Vegas for 30 years and a community benefits agreement.

“We will work on those documents, and in parallel to that, the A’s will talk to the county about the development agreement for building the stadium,” said Hill, CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority who also testified on behalf of the stadium at the Legislature.

Hill said requesting Clark County to issue the bonds will be the final step in the process.

“There are a number of things that have to happen before we can request the county to issue the bonds,” he said. “All of those documents have to be in place and the A’s have the financing in place to be able to build the stadium.”

The stadium will also need sign-off by the FAA because of its proximity to Harry Reid International Airport.

“We do not have an aeronautical study filing for the [stadium] site,” an FAA spokesman said this week. “Also, it’s important to note we do not approve building proposals.”

Representatives of Mortenson McCarthy, the construction management firm hired by the A’s to oversee the ballpark’s development, told the stadium authority last month that construction on the 33,000-seat stadium has to begin by April 2025, meaning the Tropicana would need to be closed and demolished by the end of 2024.

GLPI has said it will provide $175 million for the Tropicana’s demolition and might consider additional funding. In a statement Thursday, GLPI officials said the planned development “represents a transformational project for Las Vegas, baseball fans, the local community and local employment.”

Rooted in Oakland no more

Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao expressed her disappointment with Thursday’s vote, saying in a statement “We do not see this as the end of the road.”

Thao, who inherited the A’s stadium issue when she took office in January, had negotiated to keep the team in Oakland only to find out in a mid-April phone call with Kaval that the team was planning to move to Las Vegas. She met with Manfred in Seattle during the All-Star game to plead the city’s case.

“We all know there is a long way to go before shovels [go] in the ground and that there are a number of unresolved issues surrounding this move,” Thao said. “We will continue to work to pursue expansion opportunities. Baseball has a home in Oakland even if the A’s ownership relocates.”

If the A’s want to play in Oakland beyond 2024, Thao said it “would be on the city’s terms,” which would include Oakland retaining the A’s brand and franchise history, a guarantee of an expansion team by Major League Baseball, and the city acquiring the team’s ownership stake in the Coliseum.

In a last-ditch effort before the vote, Thao wrote team owners detailing how the more than $900 million in proposed public-sector assistance for a new ballpark in Oakland would nearly triple the $380 million in taxpayer funds pledged in Las Vegas.

Thao’s letter was part of an elaborate “Stay In Oakland” box developed by a group of A’s fans that included supporting clothing companies and designers. Sent to team owners ahead of the meeting this week, the box also includes an A’s cap, a customized baseball card and a DVD of Oakland’s baseball history.

Potential legal challenges remain

Though the A’s have gained broad support from Southern Nevada’s business community and organized labor, a political action committee funded by the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA) is seeking to qualify a ballot measure that would allow voters to either support or reject portions of the public funding.

A Carson City judge last week rejected the ballot question’s proposed language in a hearing over a lawsuit that challenged the ballot initiative filed by “Schools Over Stadiums.”  A spokesman for the NSEA said the union will either appeal the judge’s decision to the state Supreme Court or refile the referendum petition with amended language.

To get a question on the ballot, a petitioner must obtain enough signatures to equate to at least 10 percent of the ballots cast in the previous general election — meaning that at least 102,586 signatures are needed to qualify the measure. At least 25,647 signatures would need to come from each of the state’s four congressional districts.

The petitioners must collect and submit signatures by July 8, 2024. If a petition receives enough signatures and a simple majority of Nevadans vote in favor of the corresponding ballot question, it would pass and change state law.

That lawsuit is not the only step the teacher’s union is taking to potentially block the move. On Tuesday, Schools Over Stadiums issued a statement claiming the law authorizing public funding for the A’s stadium is “riddled with constitutional violations,” and the political action committee will file a legal challenge “in the coming weeks.”

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