NEW YORK -- Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred fired back Thursday against the backlash facing Oakland Athletics owner John Fisher, who hopes to move the team to Las Vegas.
"I feel sorry for the fans in Oakland," Manfred said. "I do not like this outcome. I understand why they feel the way they do. I think the real question is what is it that Oakland was prepared to do? There is no Oakland offer. They never got to the point where they had a plan to build a stadium at any site. It's not just John Fisher. ... The community has to provide support, and at some point you come to the realization that it's just not going to happen."
In a statement to ESPN, the Oakland mayor's office pushed back against Manfred's characterization.
"There was a very concrete proposal under discussion and Oakland had gone above and beyond to clear hurdles, including securing funding for infrastructure, providing an environmental review and working with other agencies to finalize proposals," said a spokesperson for the Oakland mayor's office. "The reality is the A's ownership had insisted on a multibillion-dollar, 55-acre project that included a ballpark, residential, commercial and retail space. In Las Vegas, for whatever reason, they seem satisfied with a 9-acre leased ballpark on leased land. If they had proposed a similar project in Oakland, we feel confident a new ballpark would already be under construction."
The Nevada Legislature gave final approval Wednesday to provide public funding for a proposed $1.5 billion stadium with a retractable roof, approving a bill with $380 million in taxpayer money on a 25-15 vote, including the creation of a special tax district around the stadium -- that would be the smallest in MLB -- to generate money to pay off bonds and interests going toward funding. Governor Joe Lombardo signed it into law Thursday.
The plan in Nevada reignited the debate over public funding for private sports clubs, with representatives for the A's and Nevada tourism stating that the new stadium could add to the growing Las Vegas sports scene, which features the Stanley Cup champion Golden Knights and the NFL's Raiders, who also moved from Oakland ahead of the 2020 season.
Several academic articles -- including a 2015 study from Stanford economist Roger Noll -- came to the conclusion that professional sports stadiums do not generate local growth as advertised. According to one study published by the Journal of Economic Surveys in 2022, overall employment tends to not grow in the stadium's communities and areas with sports teams and stadiums are not associated with greater income growth or business activity.
Manfred pushed back against those studies.
"I love academics; they're great," Manfred said. "Take the areas where baseball stadiums had been built, OK? Look at what was around Truist Park before that was built. Look at the area around Nationals Park before that was built. I lived in that city. Academics can say whatever they want. I think the reality tells you something else."
Cobb County received a $300 million subsidy to build Truist Park, but five years after its opening, the county still had a $15 million annual deficit to service the debt to cover operations of the stadium. While the county experienced spending growth after the stadium opened, tax revenue fell short of covering the money spent on the facility. While the county promised high tax revenue from higher property assessments because of the stadium, that has not materialized, leading to an increase in property taxes to cover expenses.
Oakland fans have vocally pushed back against moving the franchise to Las Vegas. On Tuesday, A's fans staged a reverse boycott intending to fill the Oakland Coliseum, which has averaged 8,555 fans this season. The game drew 27,759 and created a playoff atmosphere, with chants of "Sell the Team!" reverberating throughout the stadium.
Manfred said he was out at dinner with the owners during the game but read the coverage about the event.
"It was great," Manfred said. "It's great to see what is this year almost an average Major League Baseball crowd in the facility for one night. That's a great thing."
The A's went to the playoffs in 2019 and 2020 before the team began trading away its young stars in an attempt to reduce payroll, now the lowest in baseball. While the quality of the roster declined, the team raised ticket prices. In trying to justify the relocation to Las Vegas, the team stated the poor attendance and the condition of the ballpark prompted the move.
"The ballpark's not in good shape," Manfred said. "The ballpark is not a major league facility. I've said it repeatedly."
Prominent Las Vegas baseball voices oppose the move of the Athletics to Las Vegas. Philadelphia Phillies superstar Bryce Harper -- who was born in Las Vegas -- told USA Today on Thursday that the Athletics would be better served remaining in Oakland and that he would rather see the city get an expansion franchise.
"I feel sorry for the fans in Oakland," Harper said. "It's just not right. They have so much history in Oakland. You're taking a team out of a city. I'm pretty sad because of all the history and all of the greatness they've seen there."
"I see the A's as Oakland. I don't see them as Vegas."
The City of Oakland negotiated with the A's to develop a stadium and mixed-use district at Howard Terminal. Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao pulled out of negotiations, believing the city was being used as leverage to get a better deal with Las Vegas. Thao said after the Nevada vote that California's legislature passed three new pieces of legislation to support construction of a new A's ballpark at Howard Terminal.
"The A's have been part of Oakland for more than half a century, and they belong in this city," Thao said in a statement. "There is no city that has worked harder to meet the needs of a team than Oakland."
While the A's might not be in Oakland much longer, Manfred said he hopes the sport did not lose fans in the city.
"I hope they stay baseball fans," Manfred said. "Whatever team they decide to affiliate with."