The John Fisher interview: Oakland A's owner talks Vegas, backlash and future plans

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Oakland A's owner John Fisher, in an interview with NBC Bay Area's Raj Mathai, discussed the team's future and why plans to build a new stadium have not worked out in Oakland.

The full transcript of our 30-minute interview with Fisher can be read below. Our questions are in bold followed by Fisher's responses.

Why so private?

I would say with respect to the team, it was important to me that the guys really doing all the work here. The guys running the team, the ones making the decisions about our players. I'm talking about Dave Kaval. I'm talking about Billy Beane. I'm talking about David Forst and the people working for them, to be empowered to be the sort of face of the franchise. I thought that that was the right thing to do. But, you know, this is a momentous decision. And I think people want to hear from me, as the owner of the team as to why... why we are doing this.

Do you owe it to A's fans, to the fan base to explain what's happened here?

Sure. You know, I feel like, on some level, you never really own a sports team. You're really just the caretaker of that team for a period of time and your duty is to try and do everything you can to win and to give something to the fans that they deserve and that they're paying for.

These are really difficult decisions. Obviously, moving a franchise is something that has rarely, if ever, been done before. And so, you know, I for sure owe it to the fans to explain why we're doing this.

Why are you doing this?

I'm doing this because A, I want to win. I got into this because I am a fan and it's very difficult to be consistently great in this game if you don't have a new stadium to drive the revenues to make it all work.

Since Lew Wolff and I bought this team in 2005, we've been working hard to try and get a new stadium built. Over the last six years, that focus has been on trying to get a stadium built in Oakland and the last two of that following a parallel path with Las Vegas. What gets me excited is to try and find a way for the A's to be consistently one of the best teams in the league and that starts with having a great place to play.

Why not sell the team? Why go through all these headaches when you can make a huge profit by selling?

I won't comment on what the profit might be here. But, I will say that I got in the game to win and I knew getting in the game to win meant getting a new stadium built. And I put everything I had into trying to get a new stadium built the last six years in which, you know, were done in Oakland.

We spent $100 million trying to get those approvals, trying to do the designs, dealing with litigation with our neighbors, our industrial neighbors and we paid all of the costs for Oakland to support all the people they need to hire to get the project approved. So we did everything. We were as committed. We're more committed than, frankly, I can imagine any other sports team owner anywhere has been to try and get this to work in Oakland.

We most certainly put our money where our mouth was in our time to try and make it work. And, we had no end in sight. I had to make a decision as to whether I thought we were going to be able to do, you know, to successfully get to a binding agreement in Oakland. And I concluded we would not, certainly not within the time frame that we had to meet.

Foul words and frustrations as fans react to our interview with Oakland A's owner John Fisher. Velena Jones reports.

Is it hurtful to see the 'SELL' shirts and hear the chanting at the various ballparks?

Of course. It shows that the fans are passionate about wanting to keep the team and that they're upset with me for taking away that dream. And in that sense, I take responsibility and I feel bad about it. There's a part of me that actually looks and says that Oakland fans are great fans and there is incredible passion in our fan base. And, seeing that passion, even though that passion happens to be directed against me, has a sort of an ironic twist to it where I can kind of appreciate the passion, even though at times it's hurtful.

In a protest that garnered national attention, thousands of fans in green T-shirts bearing the word "SELL" packed the Coliseum, calling on A's owner John Fisher to sell the team instead of moving it to Las Vegas.

I'll get personal here. I've been going to A's games for 40 years. It's gut-wrenching to see what looks like is going to happen. What's your message to A's fans?

My message to fans is, hey, we did an awful lot of great things for this team. Over the last 20 years or 18 years, we've been involved with the team, the A's made it to the playoffs six years. We've had some great players along the way. We made changes at the Coliseum. We did an awful lot to really reach out and be a good steward of the franchise for the fans. And, you know, I'm sorry that it hasn't worked out.

It's a difficult proposition to move a team, especially from an area where you grew up. But at the end of the day, I felt that Las Vegas offered the team and the A's the best chance for success, the best chance to build a new stadium and to be able to kind of give Oakland or give Athletics fans wherever they may be, you know, the opportunity to see great players and know they would be able to stay with the team over the long term.

Such a public position you're in, but you're so private. Are you the right guy to be an owner of any franchise?

I don't think being an owner of a franchise is like being a politician. Some people may disagree with that. But, for me, I got into the game because I'm a fan and because I love the game of baseball. It's been part of my heritage since basically I was born.

My grandparents went to every San Francisco Giants game from 1958 until it was too cold at Candlestick Park to keep going. And my great uncle was the owner of the Tacoma team that played in the Pacific Coast League. My grandparents brought me to lots and lots of games. So that was kind of my introduction to baseball and that's the game I love. I felt that I could do a lot to improve the A's and have worked really hard to make that happen.

How close were you with to getting something done in Oakland? I just talked to Mayor Sheng Thao literally last week and she said there was a deal in place: 'We were very close, but, all of a sudden John and his team backed away at the last second.'

Starting six years ago, we dedicated ourselves full time to trying to make things work. And in Oakland. We hired architects, we created all of these great plans. First we started with (the) site at Laney College that didn't work out and we moved to Howard Terminal and dedicated our efforts there. But it was very clear from the beginning for us and for the city that the offsite infrastructure costs were going to be borne by the city itself. That would include things like, you know, vehicular bridge, pedestrian bridge, streets, sidewalks, things that cities and municipalities generally, you know, cover the costs on.

And that we, the A's and our family would cover building, you know, building a billion-dollar plus privately financed stadium and covering all of the onsite infrastructure costs, all of our own streets and pedestrian walkways. In fact, the city council voted in July of 2021 to basically support that plan, that the city would pick up 100% of the offsite infrastructure.

So this sounds like it's pretty close.

Except for they never reached that. Even, though they made a commitment in 2021, it was an unfunded commitment. They knew that it was a non-binding vote and they knew that following that vote they would have to go out and raise the money to be able to cover the offsite infrastructure costs. And as of two months ago, when we finally announced we were going to focus exclusively on Las Vegas, the city still hadn't raised the money that they had committed to raise in July of 2021.

We were running out of time. We had been working on it now with Oakland for six years, the last two of which were parallel paths. But as you know, in the last collective bargaining agreement, there was an agreement between the players union and the owners that that the A's had to have a binding agreement on a new stadium by January of 2024, or we would lose our revenue sharing.

So you felt that financial pressure of money pressure.

I felt the pressure from the collective bargaining agreement. I had to have a path for a binding agreement toward a new stadium and having spent at that point close to six years working with Oakland, trying to get to that agreement and still not having it in place led me to the conclusion that my best bet was to sign on in Las Vegas, which I think will be a fantastic market, but also is a really difficult choice.

Moving a team, especially a team out of my hometown and my home area, is not something that I relished the idea of doing, but I felt like it was the right path forward for the team and for our fans and for the ability to put a winning club together.

The DNA of your ownership hasn't been necessarily to sign big time, big money free agents. Would that change in Las Vegas?

What I think would change in Las Vegas is our ability to keep our best players. Somebody told me that in the last baseball All-Star Game, there were six A's players playing for, you know, that weren't playing for the A's anymore. We had the ability, if we had the revenues, to drive things, to be able to retain that core group of players. Now, I'm super excited about the new core group of players who we have coming up. But, our ability to retain those players is driven by being able to be into a stadium that can drive the revenues to be able to do that.

John, is there a scenario where once the shovel is in the ground or the stadium is built in Las Vegas, that you would then sell the team?

No. My goal is to bring another World Series to the A's organization. I was visiting at Candlestick Park - I lived out of town at the time in 1989 when the A's won their last World Series. And I'd like to bring another World Series to the A's. And I'm looking forward to this process of building a new home for them.

That new home, is it just you and your family's money or do you have other investors for this new ballpark?

You know, right now it's just me and my family's money. I do think that having local ownership can be a real positive, as we've seen with the Warriors and with other franchises, with the San Francisco Giants, etc.. So that's something that definitely I'm considering. But right now it's just been my family.

You're candid and genuine in your comments. Why not do this months ago or years ago?

Well, first of all, there was no conclusion to really talk about. There was just a process. I felt that it was important to have a direction in place before I reached out to our fans and to the community to explain what that direction was. It felt to me like the announcement that we had submitted our application for relocation to Major League Baseball was the right time to do it. Having said that, should I have spoken earlier? Maybe, you live and learn through these processes and would it have been better if I had communicated earlier? Maybe. I have felt that we have an incredible team of people in place and Dave Kaval, Billy and David Forst and Billy Owens and so many other people in our organization who do speak to the media and I felt like really they were well representing my views.

Speaking of Billy Beane, who is a baseball legend now through his time with the A's. I actually haven't heard him speak publicly about the A's in the media in quite a while. Is there a reason for that? Is he happy with his role with this franchise?

Well, you know, so Billy has now been with the A's for probably close to 30 years. And, he has been sort of a critical part of our team and our team's success ever since he first became general manager of the team. About a year or so ago, we restructured things with Billy so that he became a special adviser to me and allowing him to pursue some of his other passions, including soccer. So, he is still very much a part of the of the A's and works really closely with David Forst, our general manager with the rest of that team. And I know he watches every game and I know he gives David and Mark Kotsay some encouragement when things aren't going well. This season has certainly been a difficult season for the team. And so Billy's role, being a strong supporter of, you know, especially behind the scenes internally for the people who are working so hard to make this work, has been greatly appreciated.

There's so much we don't know about you publicly. Do you go to a lot of these games and maybe this season, notwithstanding?

John Fisher This season's a little different, of course. But, in the past, I've definitely gone to a lot of games. I don't like to sit in a box. I've sat out in the seats off of, over the A's dugout. I've sat in the seats behind the dugout. Sometimes I like to just sit anywhere in the stadium and be completely sort of unknown and enjoy the game just for the game.

I know Mark Davis had some critical words for you earlier this year. Is there a way to salvage that relationship, considering both of you have left Oakland, or you are on the way?

When the Raiders left the Coliseum, we were co-tenants at the Coliseum, as you know. And I think that they felt like we were not the best of partners when they exited the Coliseum. And, I understand that criticism and I feel bad that was the situation that we created, that was ultimately my responsibility. I talked to Mark on the very first trip that Dave Kaval and I took to Vegas two years ago. He was very gracious with me. I told him that I wanted to spend some time with him because we do have a lot in common and I had a lot to learn. They've been an incredibly successful franchise for Las Vegas and I think they've done a really terrific job. He and I have spoken a couple of times and I look forward to kind of getting together with him in person and finding out what are the learnings he can teach me and what are the things that we can do together, you know, to support each other.

What missteps have you made here that you want to correct for Las Vegas?

Well, I don't want it to take as long to get a new stadium built. And because, you know, the time that we've put in to being successful here has been, you know, really challenging. And at the end of the day, we weren't able to get it done. And so, I want to get it done in Las Vegas.

I think, look, the ability to you know, the ability to retain your best players is something that we have not been able to do in Oakland - losing Marcus Semien, Matt Chapman, Matt Olson and, Murphy and Bassett, etc., has been incredibly difficult for us as an organization, for me, as a team owner and especially for our fans. I want to be able to retain this next core group of fans, our core group of players. I think it'll be a real positive that so many of those players will have actually played just down the road in Summerlin, in Nevada, about 20 minutes outside of Las Vegas. So, many of the fans from there will have seen these young players play as Triple-A ballplayers and they'll be able to follow them to the major leagues.

Ill will towards the Giants?

We made a lot of effort to try and get a stadium built in San Jose. It was something that they were strongly against. But, I understand why they took the position that they did and we're moving forward and looking to the future. It's always been my goal to sort of see what was created by the Johnson family, and Larry Baer and Peter McGowan, and that whole group in building, now Oracle, in 2000 to see that they were able to create something really special. What you can do with the baseball stadium is a fantastic and wonderful thing for a community. It also allows you to have consistency around great teams that they've been able to demonstrate. And they're truly one of the great fan franchises in baseball.

Talk about this ballpark as we wrap it up here. Mortenson-McCarthy you've hired to do the ballpark. Just coincidence that they did the Raiders stadium and Chase Center or was there some symmetry there?

Coincidence that the work that they did was related to any of the Oakland team for sure.

But not a coincidence at all that they did Allegiant.

They know their way around, so to speak.

They know, Mortenson and McCarthy, they know the Vegas market and all the subcontractors there and that was going to be an important part of why we chose them.

Where do you play next season 2024 and 2025?

So next season will be at the Coliseum. Our lease expires there at the end of the year. So we will need a home after that and we'll be working closely with Major League Baseball. We for sure will be talking to Oakland about whether there's an opportunity for the A's to continue to play there. But ultimately, it's going to be Major League Baseball's decision in consult, that we will be working closely with to make that decision.

What would your dad say about all this drama?

My father taught me that it was important to follow your dreams. My father taught me that sometimes things are really hard and sometimes you have to make decisions that are unpopular. I think my learnings from him, especially about being passionate about what you do and trying to be successful and win at the things that you partake in is important in this effort.

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