A sold-out Sutter Health Park on March 24 during the Sacramento River Cats-San Francisco Giants exhibition. (Photo by Steve Martarano)

Will Sacramento Get a Permanent MLB Team?

A’s stay in West Sacramento may boost odds for the Capital Region

Back Web Only Jun 28, 2024 By Graham Womack

The Oakland Athletics’ impending short-term tenancy in Sacramento was news to Fay Vincent. But he wasn’t overly optimistic.

Vincent, who served as commissioner of Major League Baseball from 1989 to 1992, had known of the A’s plan to move to Las Vegas, which has been in the works for years. He’d been previously unaware, though, before being reached by Comstock’s in May, that while the team constructs its ballpark in Sin City, the A’s will play home games for three seasons at Sutter Health Park in West Sacramento.

There’s a chance that if the A’s deal in Las Vegas falls apart, the team could wind up long-term in Sacramento. There’s also the chance that even if the team ultimately goes to Nevada as planned, strong enough fan support in Sacramento might help pave the way for a future MLB expansion franchise.

Count Vincent among the pessimists.

“It puts Sacramento in a terrible position,” Vincent says. “Because baseball is gonna hope that people turn out, but the people in Sacramento are saying, ‘We’re in the back room, and you’re running baseball into the back room where we are and then expect it to leave and have us feel good about being in the back room for a couple years.’ It’s not a good arrangement.”

This is as close as Sacramento has ever been to landing an MLB team long-term, and there’s a higher-than-zero chance it will work out. But parsing Sacramento’s MLB chances also means acknowledging a lot of uncertainty and doing business for three years with one of the worst franchises in baseball in recent years. The team’s record has been 139-265, as of this writing, since the beginning of the 2022 season.

It’s not an impossible needle to thread, but it won’t be easy, either.

How Sacramento reached this point

The A’s temporary move to Sacramento can be traced to at least 2022, when Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé bought the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats, who’ve played at Sutter Health Park since 2001.

“I’m a big believer in this area,” Ranadivé told Comstock’s when he bought the team. “I love sports. I think sports is eating the world. This is right in our backyard. It’s really the best franchise, so we just thought that this was something that we had to have.”

Ranadivé’s ownership of Sutter Health Park allowed him to offer it free of charge to the A’s, whose ballpark in Las Vegas is unlikely to be finished before 2028 but who’d reached an impasse around continuing to play in Oakland.

Really, though, MLB dreams in Sacramento go back a lot further.

The Sacramento Solons of the old Pacific Coast League played at the corner of Riverside and Broadway for decades before moving to Hawaii following the 1960 season. With the major leagues only moving west of the Mississippi River in 1958, some people affiliated with the old PCL hoped to make it a third major league, though this never materialized.

A few years after the Kings moved to Sacramento in 1985, former owner Gregg Lukenbill broke ground on a baseball stadium adjacent to Arco Arena. The stadium was never finished, though the ballpark’s foundation remained for decades. 

The Sacramento Bee even noted in 1992, when Lukenbill’s group sold the Kings, that the former owner got indicted by a San Francisco grand jury for unsuccessfully attempting to lure the Giants to Sacramento.

In April, longtime local leader Roger Dickinson wrote for The Bee about making a trip to Denver in 1996 with other leaders to discuss how that city had landed the expansion Colorado Rockies a few years before.

“The message from Denver was to prepare to take one step at a time,” wrote Dickinson, who has previously served on the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors and in the California State Assembly and is currently running for Sacramento City Council. “They explained how they had used their successful Triple A team as the primary argument to MLB officials and team owners to support their quest to be awarded a major league franchise.”

Bryan Johansen, co-founder of the group Last Dive Bar and one of the organizers of the April 27 protest, leads the group in the Sutter Health Park parking lot before the game. (Photo by Steve Martarano)

The River Cats relocated to West Sacramento a few years later from Vancouver, quickly becoming a successful minor league franchise. There are some, like Sac Republic FC owner and former Sacramento Kings minority owner Kevin Nagle, who think that the city could do more.

“I do believe that baseball, Major League Baseball, would be successful in Sacramento,” Nagle says.

There are plenty of factors that could help Sacramento’s case. The weather is terrific for baseball much of the year. The region is filled with people currently happy to drive to the Bay Area for MLB games. And the region is currently the 20th-largest television market in the United States, larger than other prospective expansion markets.

Now comes the biggest test yet for Sacramento’s baseball hopes: welcoming a moribund franchise in hopes it might lead to good MLB fortunes.

The challenge with the A’s

Things couldn’t go much worse for the A’s than they did last season. 

With the lowest payroll in MLB, at about $57 million, according to USA Today, the team went 50-112 and drew just 832,352 fans, or about 10,000 per game. The team and its owner, Gap heir John Fisher, has developed a reputation in recent years for trading young, talented players at the first opportunity and being content to cash revenue sharing checks rather than win. It has been a bleak state of affairs, harkening to the final days of the Maloof family ownership of the Kings.

The most loyal fans in Oakland haven’t taken A’s the situation lying down either, staging events like reverse boycotts trying to compel Fisher to sell the team. These pleas have fallen on deaf ears, with a mood of resignation among spectators at recent games in Oakland.

In West Sacramento, the A’s will play rent-free for three years, according to the San Jose Mercury News, at a ballpark that currently has capacity for about 14,000 spectators. For Sacramento to host a baseball team long term, it would need a larger stadium. There are a few ways this can happen.

One possibility is to expand Sutter Health Park. The Seminole tribe has offered to build a stadium near Wheatland. There’s also the possibility of using Sacramento’s unsuccessful bid to secure a Major League Soccer franchise to build an MLB stadium at the Railyards, according to Denton Kelley, managing principal for LDK Ventures.

“We have a site that’s entitled for 25,000 seats,” says Kelley (a Comstock’s board member). “It’s soccer. But all that aside, we do have a site that could theoretically accommodate a Major League Baseball stadium.”

Nagle, the Sac Republic FC owner and former Kings minority owner, is still hopeful about building a new soccer stadium, though he says it’s unlikely a multi-use stadium would be built in the Railyards.

Maury Brown, who covers baseball business for Forbes, is optimistic the A’s will ultimately make it to Las Vegas somewhere between the middle of 2028 and 2030. “It would be the most utter failure in Major League Baseball history on the business side in a long time for it to not come together,” Brown says.

Getting an expansion franchise

Sacramento previously didn’t seem to have momentum for an MLB expansion franchise. Vincent doesn’t see MLB, which last expanded prior to the 1998 season, going down the road again anytime soon.

“I think sports business has recognized that their franchises are worth a fortune,” Vincent, the former MLB commissioner says. “And they also began to realize that every time they expand, you increase the number of slices in the pie – national programming.”

While the Oakland Athletics wait for their new home stadium to be built in Las Vegas, the team will play home games for three seasons at Sutter Health Park in West Sacramento. (Photo by Graham Womack)

Brown is more optimistic that MLB expands, saying he’s spoken with current MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred about it. 

The league currently has 30 teams. Were MLB to expand, it would likely add two teams, with the possibility of adding one in the eastern United States in a city like Nashville, which has had serious buzz in recent years, and one in the western United States. Brown, the Forbes reporter, seems more bullish about places like Salt Lake City landing a western expansion franchise, saying that there’s both money and political alignment to make a deal happen.

Greater Sacramento Economic Council CEO Barry Broome, a relentless booster for the Sacramento region, isn’t fazed about Nashville or Salt Lake City. “We will trounce those people,” Broome says. “They’re not even in our league.”

Broome adds, “We obviously sell optimism, and we motivate the community. But we don’t say things that aren’t true.”

As for Brown, he doesn’t count Sacramento out entirely.

“You’re going to get a real bona fide market analysis of Sacramento simply by hosting the A’s there,” Brown says. “You’re gonna get a bunch of data that you would never get otherwise. So Sacramento is going to be in that conversation. I guarantee it.”

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