Could the A’s really play in Las Vegas’ minor league park? Recent history says yes
May 18, 2023, 4:27 PM
(AP Photo/John Locher, File)
LAS VEGAS (AP) — A major professional team playing in a minor league venue would’ve been unheard of just a few years ago, which is what the Oakland Athletics likely will do if they move to Las Vegas.
There is recent precedent for a major professional team making a similar transition while waiting for the new venue to be constructed. The NFL’s Chargers played in an MLS stadium after moving from San Diego to Los Angeles, and the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes have called a college arena home while awaiting what they hope is a new building of their own.
A’s president Dave Kaval has said he would like to break ground next year and move into a new Las Vegas stadium in time for the 2027 season. The team has an agreement with Bally’s and Gaming & Leisure Properties to build a potential $1.5 billion park on the Tropicana hotel site along the Las Vegas Strip. The A’s are asking for nearly $400 million in public support from the Nevada Legislature, which could vote on a proposal this week.
The club’s lease at Oakland Coliseum runs through 2024, and there is a chance the A’s would play the 2025 and 2026 seasons at Las Vegas Ballpark, home to their Triple-A affiliate, the Aviators.
Las Vegas Ballpark is 53 years younger than the Coliseum and has been voted the nation’s best Triple-A park three years in a row (minus the COVID-shutdown year in 2020) by Ballpark Digest. But it seats only about 10,000. The A’s proposed stadium on the Strip would have a seating capacity of about 30,000.
The A’s are drawing 8,695 fans per game in Oakland this season — the only franchise pulling fewer than 10,000 per game. Another lame-duck season in Oakland isn’t likely to boost those numbers, which may incentivize the A’s to try relocating even sooner than 2025.
“Any time you’re a short-timer like this, that final season is going to be terrible no matter what it is, so most teams try to move as quickly as they can when that happens,” said sports economist Victor Matheson, a professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. “Once they say, ‘Hey, we’re going,’ you know you’re going to lose it in your local market.”
The Montreal Expos were the most recent Major League Baseball team to relocate, moving to Washington in 2005 and becoming the Nationals. They averaged 9,356 fans for home games split between Montreal and San Juan, Puerto Rico, with a stripped-down roster that won only 67 games.
Other franchises have taken the temporary step of playing in much smaller venues while waiting for a new place to be built.
The Chargers left San Diego in 2017 for the Los Angeles area, playing three seasons in the 30,000-seat stadium that houses the MLS’ LA Galaxy. The Chargers had hoped to play there two years, but construction delays at state-of-the-art SoFi Stadium in Inglewood forced them to remain an extra season.
Having left behind a fan base in San Diego angry over their departure for an area that was at best indifferent to the Chargers, they regularly played before fans cheering the away team during that three-year stretch. Even now, the Chargers are the secondary team at SoFi to the Rams, who moved back into the area from St. Louis in 2016.
Unlike the Chargers, the Rams played at a stadium more conducive to pro football, at the spacious though aging Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum next to the University of Southern California campus.
The Coyotes just finished their first season at Arizona State University’s Mullett Arena, a 5,025-seat venue that is ideal for college hockey but far from suitable for an NHL team. Nevertheless, the Coyotes are scheduled to play there two more seasons after getting booted from the arena in suburban Glendale after negotiations broke down over a lease extension.
Unlike with the Chargers, however, the Coyotes don’t for certain have a new arena in the making. This week, Tempe residents voted against a $2.3 billion entertainment district that would include a new arena for the Coyotes.
What the Chargers and Coyotes have in common is moving into venues considered far below the standard of their leagues, even if just temporarily. That’s the path the A’s could follow, hoping that fan interest in Las Vegas greets them even if the big league stadium isn’t ready yet.
“For the most part, this is a little unusual of not having the facilities,” said Scott Stempson, a sports history expert at the University of Nebraska. “It doesn’t seem like they’re clamoring to get the A’s in Vegas that I’ve heard of.”
That also was the situation in Memphis, Tennessee, when the NFL’s Oilers left Houston in 1997. While waiting for the stadium to be built in Nashville, the Oilers promised to play two years at Memphis’ Liberty Bowl.
One problem: Nashville and Memphis are two cities that share a state but little else. Memphis residents weren’t going to show up in droves to cheer on a team that would one day be Nashville’s, and those who live in Music City weren’t in much of a hurry to make the six-hour round-trip drive eight times a year.
So one season after drawing sparse crowds, the Oilers moved to Nashville early and played at Vanderbilt Stadium for a season. The next season, the Oilers changed their nickname to the Titans, played in front of sold-out crowds in their new digs and came a yard short from winning the Super Bowl.
That could be something for the A’s to hold on to. As they play in front of dwindling crowds in Oakland and ponder the idea of playing in a minor league park for at least two years, the long-range plan is what matters most.
It might just be a little bumpy before they get there.
“They have totally destroyed that (Oakland) fan base through their actions over the last couple of years,” Matheson said. “When you finally announce, ‘OK, we’re done with you people,’ what do we expect ‘you people’ to do at that point?”