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John Fisher’s Wandering Athletics Are Slipping Free Of Reality

8:51 AM EST on February 2, 2024

The Tropicana Las Vegas, a delightfully and/or nauseatingly tacky 66-year-old casino hotel at the airport end of The Strip, will close its doors forever on April 2. Demolition will commence sometime soon after. That's a long process, involving much more than the swinging of a wrecking ball: According the Las Vegas Review-Journal, before anyone can kerplode that sucker they've got to get permits, and they've got to remove furniture and fixtures, and there might even be some necessary remediation. Bally's Corp, which owns the Tropicana, expects this to take at least nine months; sometime in early 2025, when demolition is completed, the 35-acre Tropicana site will be a flat expanse of rubble.

Gaming and Leisure Properties Inc. (GLPI), the real estate investment trust that owns this parcel of land, plans to contribute nine of its acres to the building of an eventual stadium for the Athletics, who have been approved by Major League Baseball to relocate from Oakland to Las Vegas. The announcement of the closing date of the Tropicana means that someone out there is reasonably sure that the Athletics baseball team, you know, exists. It would not be very crazy for anyone to have assumed otherwise.

The franchise is entering the final year of a lease at the Oakland Coliseum, a haunted old husk of a stadium situated in a town where the team's long-antagonized fans have been driven entirely away by the very worst owner in North American professional sports. The stadium in Las Vegas, slated to cost $1.5 billion and funded at obscene levels by public subsidies, is not expected to be completed until at least 2028. MLB gave Athletics owner and slimy coward John Fisher the thumbs-up to move the team in mid-November; two weeks later, on Nov. 30, the Athletics announced a public unveiling of renderings of the Vegas stadium, scheduled for Dec. 4. Just about 24 hours later the team announced that the unveiling would be delayed, citing the hit-and-run deaths of two Nevada Highway Patrol officers. "In light of this tragedy we will postpone our event that was scheduled for Monday, December 4 to a later date," said the team in a press release.

That later date is, to date, yet to be finalized. Fisher said in late January that the ongoing delay started when he asked Bally's Corp and GLPI to spruce up initial renderings with what the Nevada Independent called "conceptual designs of a new hotel, casino and entertainment attraction" to share the plot of land. This process evidently also will take a long time: Fisher told the Review-Journal that they've had to confront thorny matters like "ingress-egress and other really important issues" as they work to figure out how to situate the ballpark and entertainment attraction in relation to one another. A's president Dave Kaval said the team hopes that it will be able to finally present the completed renderings when the team plays a pair of spring training games in Las Vegas in early March. This perhaps raises questions about why Fisher and his associates felt comfortable scheduling an unveiling in early December, but then I am not a developer.

Also hazy, to date, is how precisely Fisher plans to raise the $1.1 billion that makes up his share of anticipated construction costs. Fisher assured the Review-Journal that his family has "the equity" to cover his commitments, but naturally he would prefer to spend someone else's money. “We would actually like to consider raising capital, especially from local investors," he explained, shockingly. "That creates a connection to the community, and we’ve seen that with a lot of other teams become a successful thing.” Fisher was expected to reveal his financing strategy at the event in December, but alas, the troopers. The Athletics are presently hammering out agreements with the Las Vegas Stadium Authority in order to trigger the release of the whopping $380 million in public financing earmarked for stadium construction.

And then there is the confused and crazy-making matter of where in hell the Athletics will play baseball for at least three full seasons after the expiration of their lease at the Coliseum. Jeff Passan of ESPN says MLB set an end-of-December deadline for Fisher to secure some sort of temporary home for his wandering team, but the Athletics blew past that, and then blew past a second mid-January deadline, and then blew past an end-of-January deadline. No one knows at all how this matter will be resolved; MLB typically distributes a preliminary regular-season schedule to teams a year in advance, but the difficulty the Athletics are having finalizing plans for their three-year period of homelessness may soon gum up this process.

There is more than one complication, here. There is the matter of Fisher having completely and forever burned his ties to the team's longtime home city. The office of Oakland mayor Sheng Thao recently torched Fisher when asked by the Review-Journal whether her city would consider extending the team's lease to cover the looming three-year gap. "To my great shock, the A’s have once again failed to provide anyone in Oakland clarity on their genius business plans,” wrote mayoral chief-of-staff Leigh Hanson. "Luckily we make more money with one exhibition soccer game at the Coliseum than we do throughout the entire A’s season. So they won’t be missed.”

Further complicating the search is the matter of the team's local broadcast rights. John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle reported in January that the team hauled in approximately $67 million in revenue last season from NBC Sports Bay Area, via a contract that runs through 2033. Passan says the deal would be good for $70 million for the upcoming season, with the enormous caveat that the Athletics need to play their home games within the Bay Area. The only non-Coliseum venue within that zone of coverage that is reportedly under consideration as a temporary home is, hilariously, the stadium of the San Francisco Giants, an arrangement that Shea says would pose "a logistical nightmare." The other stadiums under serious consideration are in Summerlin, Nevada, and in Sacramento, neither of which are within the RSN's strictly defined geographical limits, meaning NBC Sports Bay Area would be under no obligation to pay its rights fees. Shea and Passan agree that the Athletics and the RSN could probably work out a reduced rate, a potential lowering of team revenue that will cause the blood of all 11 remaining Athletics fans to run ice cold.

The Athletics, as presently constituted, are far and away the cheapest operation in the majors: Per Spotrac, Fisher is gearing up to spend just $47 million on his baseball team in 2024, an incredible $33 million less than the next cheapest outfit in the league. Thank God the team met the Jan. 15 threshold for qualifying for league revenue sharing; without that and without its full share of TV money, Fisher might very well have replaced his at least nominally professional baseball players with plumbers and electricians. Kaval recently told Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic that the A's are "budgeting numbers we think are in the higher side of the league" for both their stay in Vegas and their period of wandering exile; Rosenthal's sources said the Athletics plan to ramp up their payroll into the $130 to $150 million range, and to settle in around $170 million once they're established in their new home. As Rosenthal points out in an enjoyably scathing article, this forecasted munificence, so completely uncharacteristic of Fisher's stewardship of the team, will coincide with the Athletics moving from the 10th largest media market to the 40th, and from MLB's most capacious stadium to what will be its very smallest.

Still, there's no denying the anticipation rippling through Fisher's future home:

All of this assumes, of course, that the Athletics are real. They have no home, no fanbase, no real players, no money, no firm financing strategy, and no concrete plans; they don't even have a drawing of this quote-unquote Las Vegas stadium; if they can't bum a couch at the Giants' stadium for a period of years they might not even have cameras at what we are supposed to believe are their games. They have a conditional IOU from the land of casinos and a set of incredible promises about fortune and glory in the boiling desert. It all sounds pretty made-up to me!

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