How San Francisco came up with baseball’s billion-dollar blueprint

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In two decades, the San Francisco Giants went from being sold as scrap to Florida to baseball’s $2 billion model franchise. Below, how it came to be in five steps:

By Andrew Pridgen

Step 1: Find a franchise with a history of success and distress

In early August 1992, the fifth-place San Francisco Giants were en route to a 72-win season playing to crowds of 5,000 or fewer in a broken football stadium that had been ravaged by an earthquake during what would be the team’s final World Series appearance in San Francisco.

Owner Robert Lurie, frustrated over the repeated failure of voters to approve financing of a new stadium, agreed to sell the team to a Tampa Bay-based group fronted by Vince Piazza, owner of the Philadelphia-based Piazza Management Co. Piazza, a lifelong friend of Tommy Lasorda, was set to move Lasorda to the Giants’ front office. Piazza’s son, Mike, then a Dodgers’ catching prospect and Lasorda’s godson, would also come over in the deal.

The Florida outfit already had a domed stadium built in St. Petersburg, and the Giants would open the 1993 season in the new digs.

The investors offered $110 million for the struggling ballclub. A great deal to take the team off Lurie’s hands; and extract it from a city that was strapped and a fanbase that was apathetic. One of the oldest and winningest franchises in baseball history, founded in 1883 and owners of five world championships, the team had fallen far from the halcyon days when it brought baseball to the West Coast in 1957.

This deal is not done. San Francisco does not agree to sell the Giants to Tampa Bay. — San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan

Florida was a natural fit: a move back east to a community heavy with native New Yorker retirees who could well remember the days of Willie Mays playing stickball with neighborhood kids in the alley before he took the field at the Polo Grounds.

Step 2: Show an underserved community who thinks they don’t need baseball that they, in fact, need baseball

Early ‘90s San Francisco was not a town to be trifled with baseball.

Baghdad by the Bay had a transitioning economy. It had lost its port to Oakland and its textiles overseas. Banking was retreating to the East Coast and the tech industry was beginning to boom, but 40 miles south in Silicon Valley. The neighborhoods that had once housed the city’s working-class: the Tenderloin, the Mission, Hunters Point and Western Addition were vacated in favor of the suburbs—poverty, crime and desolation left in their wake.

The Embarcadero Freeway collapsed in 1989’s Loma Prieta quake. Even columnist Herb Caen, who now has a street named after him on the revitalized waterfront, opposed the structure’s removal: “Once again, there is ‘serious talk’ about tearing down the Embarcadero Freeway, an even worse idea than building it,” he wrote. “It no longer blocks views, it provides some exciting ones. And while the drawings of a tree lined boulevard that would replace a torn-down freeway are alluring, so were the renderings of the New & Improved Market St. and look how that doggy-bow-wow turned out.”

While the old guard haggled about the waterfront’s future, years of neglect had left the area bereft.

It’s as if the city’s gateway had just gotten its braces off only to find its teeth had rotted—and the rest of its parts weren’t aging much better.

The Tampa-based investment group, five strong, merely needed a rubber stamp of the sale at a major league owners meeting in St. Louis Sept. 9, 1992.

Step 3: Shame a local politician into wooing you to help

It was mayor Frank Jordan who put himself in the way of the fire sale of the Giants to Florida. “This deal is not done. San Francisco does not agree to sell the Giants to Tampa Bay,” he said during a press conference the day Lurie announced the sale. “I can tell you I’m not going to let it happen without a fight.” Jordan started a coalition which asked for the team’s financial records in order to assess a fair market value offer for the club and try to lure investors.

If it seems like Jordan’s move was genius in hindsight, he was simply following the lead of the late George Moscone, who was the first SF mayor to rescue the Giants from themselves less than twenty years prior.

At the end of the 1975 season, Giants’ attendance was the worst in the National League and owner Horace Stoneham was fielding multiple offers for the team: one from a Japanese consortium and another from the Toronto, Canada-based Labatt Breweries, Ltd.

In 1976, Stoneham accepted the Canadian’s $13.25 million bid with an extra $5 million thrown in for the legal costs of breaking the Candlestick lease. Moscone, who was newly elected and didn’t want his first term marred by the departure of the team, helped Lurie, then on the teams’ board of directors, take the team off Stoneham’s hands. The sale coincided with a renegotiation of the lease at Candlestick and the elimination of a 50-cent city tax on tickets. By 1978, Lurie had sole ownership.

The team continued to flail both on the field and at the turnstyle. In 1984, the Giants had their worst finish since arriving in San Francisco and Lurie decided after that season the team would permanently be on the market unless he could get a ballpark built.

I don’t like teams moving, but in San Francisco, something has to be done. — MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent

Then fate intervened, twice: Led by the farm-raised young talent of Will Clark, Robby Thompson, Matt Williams and that year’s NL MVP Kevin Mitchell, the Giants started winning and Lurie, to capitalize, rushed a downtown stadium onto the November 1989 ballot. The stadium measure looked like a lock until the Loma Prieta quake shook the team to its core and Candlestick off its foundation. Rebuilding the city, not building a new stadium, became a priority and the measure was defeated by fewer than 1,800 votes.

After the vote was cast, Lurie made his intentions public telling the Chronicle he would move the team to “anyplace that wants us.”

Lurie first tried out the region: in 1990, Santa Clara County voters voted down a stadium measure, and again in January 1992, voters in the city of San Jose rejected another stadium proposal. Lurie said he’d run out of local options. In the wake of the San Jose defeat, baseball commissioner Fay Vincent told Lurie he could move wherever he could find a buyer for the team. “I do not like teams moving,” Vincent said, “But in San Francisco, something has to be done.”

Step 4: Surround yourself with people who know the business of business better than the business of baseball

In the final weeks before the team sale to the Tampa investors was to be made official by baseball, mayor Jordan cobbled together locals who knew nothing of baseball and everything about business. The hometown investors were fronted by then-Safeway CEO Peter Magowan who passed National League president Bill White an offer just moments before owners were to sign off on Florida.

White, a former Giant, rubber-stamped the local group’s bid and the Giants were staying.

On September 8, 1992, the Magowan & co. paid $100 million for the team. While the sale was pending, the Giants signed Barry Bonds to a six-year, $43.7 million deal, the biggest contract in MLB history. Lurie, who was about to make his investment back ten-fold, refused to sign Bonds’s contract.

In March 1993, Magowan was given the reigns to the team and resigned as the CEO of Safeway. He took on additional investors, improved f&b at the ‘Stick, added day games and drew more than a million that year. The Giants started a community outreach program (AIDS Day, Junior Giants), hired a new marketing team and started planning a waterfront stadium to be built without use of public funds.

Once again, there is ‘serious talk’ about tearing down the Embarcadero Freeway, an even worse idea than building it. —San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen

In December 1995, those stadium plans were released with more than half the funding to be offset by park operations and the rest from advertising and seat licenses. By a two-thirds majority, the voters of San Francisco approved the construction of a ball park in an abandoned shipyard district on the southern end of the waterfront known as China Basin.

Ground broken, by November of 1998, the value of the Giants in the Magowan era had already doubled and Magowan now owned more than 15 percent of the club.

On October 1, 2008, Magowan stepped down and was succeeded by Microsoft’s first attorney and early investor, Bill Neukom. Neukom was replaced after the team’s World Series win in 2010 by front office man Larry Baer who acts at the behest of the shareholders, the largest of whom currently is Charles B. Johnson, an 82-year-old Florida-based businessman who has a 25-percent stake in the team.

Step 5: Sign TV deals. Develop real estate around the ballpark. Market the shit out of the team. Win. Repeat.  

The Giants’ ownership is now the third-richest in baseball. The Yankees and Dodgers, with recent behemoth TV contracts, are the top two. The Yankees generated $508 million in revenue last year and the Dodgers are valued at $2.4 billion just three years after Chicago-based hedge fund Guggenheim Baseball Management bought the team and stadium for $2 billion from Frank McCourt. The first thing the new ownership in blue did besides increase payroll to almost a quarter billion dollars was ink a 20-year, $8.35 billion deal with Time Warner Cable.

Forbes estimates the Giants doubled in value from 2014 to 2015 and are now worth upwards of $2 billion.

The Giants have yet to land the big TV whale, but are the most aggressive merch sellers in baseball. The ownership has real estate holdings stretching along the waterfront south of the stadium at Pier 50 and the team is opening an 18,000-square-foot retail/restaurant space called The Yard there in anticipation of the 2015 season.

The start-up neighborhood, Mission Rock, was named after rocky outcropping in the bay that used to be a popular anchor spot and eventually grew into a floating industrial harbor. Now it’ll be a place to buy $190 fleeces and $18 beers on gameday with future development plans for the old live/work/greenbelt space.

The Giants also enjoy the most actively marketed-to fanbase in MLB and even though they’ve temporarily jettisoned Social Media Night, patrons can still celebrate something almost nightly, including the lives of Frank Sinatra (100th birthday on 5/7) Hello Kitty (6/28) and Jerry Garcia (8/13).

Knowing the team that was once in danger of being shipped to Toronto for less than the cost of a two-bedroom condo in the nearby Millennium Tower, you too can put this five-step plan into motion—with no better time and place to start than right now across the bay.

 

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