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A’s chaotic, costly Las Vegas business approach anything but entertaining

John L. Smith
John L. Smith

The Oakland Athletics’ Kings of Chaos Comedy Tour continued its head-scratching Las Vegas run this week. I think the joke’s on us.

We’ve watched for months as top executives from one of the worst franchises in Major League Baseball have toured potential sites for a 35,000-seat retractable-roof stadium that would provide a new home for the poorest-drawing team in the game. It’s remarkable how A’s owner John Fisher and team president Dave Kaval can keep straight faces while offering baseball fans and taxpayers their peculiar brand of slapstick humor and tone-deaf melodrama.

The glorified lounge lizard routine began in May 2021 with the Kings of Chaos using Las Vegas as a second banana in a negotiation with Oakland officials for a multibillion-dollar waterfront stadium at Howard Terminal. (In addition to being the worst team in baseball, the A’s also play at the shabbiest stadium.)

Las Vegas quickly topped a list of five potential relocation cities. The sports-page speculation was rampant, and the A’s improv routine reverberated throughout the Bay Area. Beleaguered fans in Oakland were incensed, but since when have they mattered?

With much of the Las Vegas media largely suffering from “Big League Fever” in the wake of the home-grown Vegas Golden Knights and the arrival of the Oakland Raiders, Big League baseball seemed like the next logical addition. The A’s, of course, did nothing to dissuade the breathless speculation and outright cheering in the fantasy press box.

The potential site visits continued with major landowners taking the team seriously. The A’s received enthusiastic encouragement from resort industry stakeholders on the north end of the Strip in an area where a sports stadium made sense. Apparently, it wasn’t good enough.

The team was offered 22 acres in the shadow of the Rio Hotel & Casino for $1, according to Dreamscape Companies CEO Eric Birnbaum. That also failed to impress.

Just last month, the team signed what it called a “binding agreement” to purchase 49 acres on the grounds of the scuttled Wild Wild West Casino off Tropicana Avenue and Dean Martin Drive from Red Rock Resorts for a reported $150 million.

Binding agreement?

Now there’s a punchline.

That dollar figure was unofficial, we were told. The binding agreement wasn’t final — as it turns out, not by a long shot.

The agreement was dependent on Nevada legislative approval of a $500 million tax deal, which included enabling the team to use tax credits and dollars generated by the project to pay off public bonds used for stadium construction.

One of the proposal’s flaws was obvious. The acrimonious labor strife between the Fertitta family’s Red Rock Resorts and the political behemoth Culinary Local 226 would make the deal politically radioactive in a legislature dominated by Democratic lawmakers allied with the service workers union.

Rather than remain low key, the A’s went further by bringing in the Southern Nevada Building Trades to announce a project labor agreement for the stadium’s construction. Talk of 10,000 construction jobs was batted around. The stadium would open in 2027, but baseball fans could practically hear the crack of the bat.

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred bit hard on the announcement, lauding Fisher and the team’s future and denying Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao’s claim that the franchise had negotiated in bad faith. "Unfortunately,” he observed, “the government doesn't seem to have the will to get it done."

Given the Las Vegas residency of the Kings of Chaos, the accurate picture may be closer to the mayor’s version of events. She told NBC Bay Area: “If the A’s called me back, I’ll pick up the phone. It wasn’t the city that walked away from this negotiation summit. … We were in the middle of negotiations. I think we were the closest we’ve ever been. We very much wanted to get it done, but it was clear they weren’t being good partners.”

Fast forward a few weeks. As an headline put it, “A’s Not So Locked in to Binding Agreement in Las Vegas.” 

With the political optics obvious at the Legislature despite plenty of lobbying, and less than a month to go in the session, the Red Rock deal has been forgotten. The A’s now say they’re positively smitten with a potential stadium site on part of the Tropicana Las Vegas.

But wait, there’s more.

The team might require a measly $395 million in public financing. Hey, sports fans, it’s practically a bargain.

Talk about money ball.

Despite all that chaos and flat one-liners, the Kings still have a chance to hear more cheers than jeers. As The Indy reported Friday, the A’s have reached a preliminary organizing agreement with the Culinary Union. With time running out in Carson City, enabling legislation coming next week.

That still leaves a lot of unanswered questions. And it doesn’t change the fact that credible studies show sports stadiums are bad public policy and a poor bet for the taxpayers in the stands. After the initial thrill of the grass wears off, costly ballparks do more redirecting of entertainment dollars than generating new money.

Win or lose on the field, in the end the joke is still on us.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR.


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