Re-Rooting the Oakland A’s
Season ticket holders tell the A’s what they want from a new ballpark
Last week I participated in a focus group of Oakland A’s season ticket holders (or as we marketers call them, ‘heavy users’). This is what happened in the room and what the team heard.
The Starting Lineup
This was one of four sessions held throughout the Bay Area during the week of July 11–19, 2017. About 25 people came to my session in Oakland, and we were divided into two groups.
The firm conducting the focus group said that it had worked on similar projects for 12 other teams — both new ballparks and renovations. The facilitator in charge of our group definitely knew her stuff and was able to comment knowledgeably on both MLB and minor league parks and their facilities.
At my attendance rate of roughly 7–12 games/year, I was probably the least ‘heavy user’ in my room. (My family shares a 25-game plan among 4 of us.) Nearly everyone else there said they head out to 25–50 games every year.
I may not have been the most intense fan in my cohort, but as a guy who started going to A’s games in the early 1970s, I did have plenty of seniority. The younger attendees didn’t have to take part in the 70’s Finley selloff years or the boring late-90’s seasons when duds like Jack Cust and Matt Stairs were the A’s most “exciting” everyday players.
My group had a solid representation of the different kinds of season ticket holders I see in the Coliseum’s various seating areas, each of which deliver different kinds of game day experiences. There were older affluent folks who sit behind the plate in the first or second deck, young families who like to be close to the bullpens down the foul lines, and a couple of dudes who sit in the outfield seats in what passes for ‘bleachers’ in Oakland.
One big omission: There was only one non-white, and he came in all the way from the Sacramento metro area. My unscientific observation is that A’s games bring out less diverse crowds than the Raiders or even the upper deck of a Warriors game. When you only consider the subset of fans who are season ticket holders, things are apt to become even more homogenized. All in all, it points out that the A’s are going to have have to take a different approach to capture the preferences and concerns of the full variety of Oakland’s many sub-cultures.
The Coliseum today
We started by discussing what we like and dislike about the A’s current stadium, the Coliseum. (I can’t bring myself to call it by any other name.)
The biggest Positives cited by the group were: ticket prices, easy parking, the ease of getting to the stadium (both for drivers and on public transportation), sightlines, the new food truck pavilion outside the stadium, and the ease of getting children out to a game.
The biggest Negatives were: the bathrooms, walking through the food concourse, the extreme weather conditions (both too hot AND too cold), the in-ballpark food options and service, sight lines for short people in first deck, Mount Davis, and sharing the stadium with the Raiders and its impact on late season games & the ballpark experience. The lack of “ballpark tech” (including wi-fi) and the sound system were also mentioned, but less important to the group.
The character of Bay Area sports
We were then asked to name which three teams best represent the Bay Area sports scene and were important to us.
The facilitator said we were the only group to unanimously name the A’s as our #1. Other teams consistently cited were the Warriors and Sharks. Cal and the Quakes also received a few votes.
The 49ers were also discussed and got a mixed reaction. Some people put them on their Essential list, while others were angry about the exclusivity and expense of Levis Stadium and the recent poor management of the franchise.
There was a lot of anger directed at the Raiders. Nobody put them in their Top 3. A couple of people declared that they can’t wait for them to leave. That’s quite a statement at a time when interest in the Silver & Black is probably at its highest level since the franchise returned from its Los Angeles adventure.
Curiously, the Giants and Stanford went unmentioned. Among this cross-section of Oakland A’s loyalists, it was as if these teams didn’t exist.
Location, location, location
Next they showed us the three sites under discussion for a new ballpark and asked which we prefer and why: Howard Terminal, Peralta College or the current Coliseum site.
Most around the table preferred Peralta. I voted for Howard because I like the idea of a bayside ballpark, the opportunity to foster a new business district outside downtown, and keeping the ballpark away from the freeway. (The initial designs for the Peralta site show home plate backed up against Interstate 880.)
The people who preferred to rebuild on the Coliseum site like its parking facilities, multiple driving routes to the stadium, and the proximity to BART. In particular, people with kids and longer drives wanted to stick to the current location.
The biggest reservation about the new Peralta and Howard sites is the walking distance from public transportation, BART in particular. This could be especially painful for the elderly and families with kids.
One person made the point that she would not want to see a Peralta ballpark force out the surrounding neighborhood’s existing racial and socio-economic character. Others seemed conflicted and sympathetic on this point, but there was also a sense of resignation that Oakland is already well down the path of gentrification. This will be something to think about for the A’s as they continue their outreach, and it will be interesting to see how they handle relations with neighborhoods potentially impacted by stadium development.
There was brief talk about trying to renovate the existing Coliseum rather than build something new. There are certainly 50-year old concrete facilities in the world in better shape than the Coliseum; it’s a failure of upkeep, not just design. We touched on this briefly, then moved on. People want a new park.
As an aside, there was LOUD agreement that public money should not be approved to fund stadium development. This was a given to everyone in the room. The question was: “Should there be a new stadium?” The panel all said Yes, enthusiastically, before one person said “Ummm, except if public money is involved…” Then everyone else joined that thought. Several cited the egregious annual payments that the City of Oakland will still owe on Coliseum improvement bonds long after the Raiders leave town.
Ballpark design and amenities
We were then shown photos of other ballparks and asked what we thought was important in a new stadium.
The ‘inside the park’ priorities most cited by the group were sightlines, getting seats closer to the field, ease of egress/ingress, and better food options. (It was interesting that people generally like the sight lines at current Coliseum; I think they stink if you’re low in first deck or anywhere outside the infield.)
It was also thought that the park should be “open-facing” to take in the surrounding environment like Dodger Stadium or PNC Park, in contrast to a fully enclosed environment like Yankee Stadium or Citi Field.
The group was clear that any new stadium should express an essential “Oaklandness.” It should be inclusive, open, and show off what makes the city unique — both in terms of its communities and its landmarks like Lake Merritt. Everybody liked the idea of having a “stadium neighborhood” with a lively pre- and post-game vibe, like Wrigley Field or Target Field.
We buzzed through a number of photos of in-ballpark bar and food spots that have views of the field, like those in Seattle and Cleveland. These got a lot of support from the group. Swanky restaurants like those at Yankee Stadium and Marlins Park were dismissed.
We were shown some luxury seats from other parks, but we were running over time so didn’t spend a lot of time on this. People liked these andsome of the on-field seating options, like those recently installed at Dodger Stadium. I didn’t get the sense that folks in the room were hankering to sign up for these.
Private club areas were considered desirable by the group but not essential. Levis Stadium, ironically, was cited as something that nobody wants — ironic because the A’s new COO Chris Giles was instrumental in getting Levis built.
Aside from the Raiders, the Yankees were the clear losers of this focus group. Everyone was strident that a new stadium should not have the arrogance or museum-like ambience of Yankee Stadium. Basically nobody wanted the A’s to do anything as the Yankees do.
Miami’s Marlins Park also came up frequently as a disliked ballpark, maybe because it was featured in the news this week as part of the All Star Game festivities.
The cost of upgrading
Now that we’d seen all the carrots, it was time to talk sticks.
The final question was (essentially) “How much more are you willing to pay for seats at a new ballpark with all of these goodies?” I sit in the second deck, which is currently $25–35 per game, depending on the opponent. The folks in our level said they would be willing to go to $40 but would start to reach a choke point at $50. Nobody wanted PSLs, another area of loud resistance. (This was another area where people are still angry at the Raiders.)
People were unsure if they would be able to keep their current level of commitment when prices go up. Based on what I heard if I were the marketing researcher, I’d probably err towards telling my client to expect people to reduce their ticket orders at a new park.
Unasked by the facilitator, the group said that the A’s should honor loyal customers who have stayed with them “through all this” with preferred pricing — or preferred something.
One guy who had been a San Francisco Giants season ticket holder at Candlestick Park said the transition to the new park was an area where he felt disrespected because they hadn’t done anything to grandfather him over. It was a key reason he eventually renounced his Giants fandom.
Some things we were not asked about: corporate entertainment options, player personnel policies, and on-field performance. I overheard a number of folks say they are happy with the team’s current direction and in particular that the A’s should be prepared to open the checkbook to re-sign Barretto.
In general, everybody seemed really happy just to have been asked for their thoughts. The session gave everyone the sense that the A’s are sincere in their intention to use and respect these findings. It felt like everyone believed they were heard and had an opportunity to get some things off their chests. One guy said it was like a therapy session to hear from others on these issues who agreed with him. And of course everyone is delighted that the prospect of the team moving to San Jose or beyond is now apparently off the table.
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