BY Art Thiel 04:24PM 04/11/2014

Tiles fell 20 years ago; Oakland sports, take note

Seattle’s experience with a failing stadium should inform Oakland’s thinking on a replacement for the Coliseum, an idea that has drawn the interest of a wealthy Arab prince.

A plan called Coliseum City was disclosed Thursday that features new stadiums for the A’s and Raiders in downtown Oakland. / City of Oakland

A sports anniversary as distinctive as it is dubious is upon Seattle this summer — 20 years ago July 19, waterlogged tiles on the underside of the Kingdome’s ceiling crashed down 180 feet upon unoccupied seats, a couple hours before a Mariners game.

Sheer luck avoided death and injury. The episode ignited an astonishing chain of civic events that transformed the Seattle sports scene and, to some extent, the political landscape. It led to two controversial, publicly funded stadiums that retained the Mariners and Seahawks and led, fairly directly, to the departure of the NBA Sonics and the arrival of the MLS Sounders.

See what happens when a thing is not done right the first time?

With the A’s in town this weekend for three against the Mariners, the anniversary comes to mind for another couple of reasons:

  • Last week in Oakland, a Mariners-A’s game was postponed because the field conditions at the decrepit Coliseum were deemed unsafe;
  • Thursday on local radio, the Oakland mayor disclosed a proposal to remake with oil wealth from Dubai the Oakland sports scene with two sports-specific stadiums to keep the A’s and NFL Raiders in downtown Oakland, as well as the NBA Golden State Warriors.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan told 95.7 The Game radio that the future ruler of Dubai has partnered with a development team working to build sports stadiums and an entertainment center at the Coliseum complex.

Called Coliseum City,  the massive project has been in discussion for two years. An Oakland Tribune story Friday did not include a price tag for the project, but identified Hamdan bin Mohammaed Al Maktoum as the crown prince of Dubai, a Persian Gulf emirate ruled by his father, Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who was said to have a net worth of more than $4 billion.

Quan said that the developers working on Coliseum City “are partnered literally with the prince of Dubai, who is next in line to lead Dubai. And they have capital.”

In October, the city hired Colony Capital, the world’s third-largest private real estate company, and Hayah Holdings, a firm headed by Dubai-based businessman Rashid Al Malik, to study the project. Colony Capital’s majority owner is another Gulf emirate, Qatar.

Whether anything will come of this disclosure is hard to say. In any sports market, entrepreneurs, dreamers and well-meaning civic boosters offer stadium plans that come and go. I claim no expertise in the stadium politics of Oakland/San Francisco.

But I do know the A’s lease Coliseum lease is up in 2015, and I do know that the Mariners-A’s postponement was, rather than a game-time rain, a facilities failure. They didn’t cover the infield during overnight showers, creating what Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said was “the worst conditions I’ve ever seen.” GM Jack Zduriencik was said to be irked because the schedule disruption was avoidable.

The poor field drainage follows persistent water problems in the stadium itself, built in 1966 and 22 feet below sea level. The Mariners were again victims after a June 17 game against the A’s that became a national joke. According to the San Francisco Chronicle:

Raw sewage backed up into both clubhouse shower areas, the umpires’ room and all bathrooms on the clubhouse level, as well as both managers’ offices and the Mariners’ training room. The umpires left without showering, as did much of the Mariners’ coaching staff and manager Eric Wedge.

In the post-game words of Oakland A’s pitcher A.J. Griffin, ”Make sure everybody finds out about this sewage thing. We need to get a new stadium.”

As a frequent visitor to Oakland, the Mariners — and to a lesser extent, the Seahawks — have an interest in a solution because they have expensive talent prancing upon the ever-wretched sod. In the bigger picture, once a public stadium becomes a safety hazard to players and fans, woe be to the electeds, who will be forced to pay millions of tax dollars to fix the problems/pay the settlements.

In the Seattle experience, if the Kingdome tiles, saturated by an exterior power-washing that leaked through the porous concrete, had fallen two hours later atop fans, the deaths would be civic wounds felt to this day.

As it was, the Kingdome was closed and the Mariners were forced to play 22 consecutive games on the road before labor strife ended the season prematurely for all of MLB. The dome re-opened Nov. 4 for a Seahawks game, after $51 million in emergency funding was spent to remove all the tiles and spray on an insulating foam. The hasty project resulted in the deaths of two workers.

The repair money was rolled into the cost of the Kingdome’s replacement, the Seahawks football stadium, approved by a statewide vote in 1997. That means taxpayers will be paying for the roof failure of the Kingdome — a building that lasted just six more years — for the 30-year life of the construction bonds.

While the cities and circumstances are a little different, Seattle and Oakland shared a 1960s vision for economical, multi-purpose, publicly funded stadiums that served the primary purpose in bringing pro sports to town. But both buildings had design flaws that doomed them.

Seattle fixed its problems with more than $1 billion worth of stadiums that were built in a 1990s era in which the federal government had budget surpluses and state government had funds to spend on projects that weren’t necessarily needs but wants.

Circumstances have changed. Government at any level, any place, is not operating well, and neither Oakland nor Seattle is likely to get new sports arenas that have much, if any, public participation.

A’s owner Lew Wolff has in the past made clear his desire for a replacement stadium on the site of the current Coliseum, not the Coliseum City location. His implied threat is if he doesn’t get what he wants, he might attempt to move the team to San Jose.

I’m not sure who or what to believe. What I do know is that in the last couple of visits, the  Mariners have found themselves ankle deep in the Coliseum in either mud or crap, which is rarely a good thing for guests.

Worth considering: Seattle owes its retention of the Mariners to a Japanese video-game maker. The NBA Nets owe their new digs in Brooklyn to a Russian oligarch.

If an Arab prince has shown an interest in reviving Oakland’s downtown core through private investment in sports stadiums, I would recommend Lew Wolff,  Mayor Quan and A’s manager Bob Melvin scurry over to Dubai this weekend to see if His Royal Highness wants to see them jump.

If he says yes, they should inquire as to how high.

And then, as a favor to Seattle sports, ask him if he likes basketball.


  • poulsbogary

    Another fatcat owner threatening to move a team if he doesn’t get his way. Will this ever stop?

    • Trygvesture

      Oh, I have the answer for that:

      • art thiel

        The threat always works, as long as the industry is a monopoly.

        • RadioGuy

          Agreed. Neil De Mause’s “Field of Schemes” website is devoted to billionaire owners wanting new stadiums and arenas paid for by taxpayer dollars, with the threat of moving the team always implicit (if not explicit). And it’s always being updated with some new demand, many of them beyond outrageous. It’s an industry with these guys.

          Having said that, the Oakland Coliseum is the worst ballpark in MLB, the Baker Bowl of the New Millennium, and needs to either undergo a major renovation or be replaced altogether. I put the last “rainout” there on the groundskeepers, though (and I’m usually very sympathetic to those guys)…it’s hard to blame a facility for not putting a tarp over itself when rain is on the way.

          • Jamo57

            A Baker Bowl reference. I am very impressed! Don’t see that every day. :-)

            BTW in terms of odd ‘rain-outs’ we have to put the Seattle Center Colosseum on the list for the night a Sonics game was ‘rained-out’ due to the roof leaking. And there copious reports over the years of large rodents having the run of the place.

          • art thiel

            Spencer Haywood sued the city for a knee injury from the Coliseum’s wet floor.

          • RadioGuy

            I remember that well. He and Dick Snyder both went down late in the 1971-72, and the Sonics’ playoff hopes went down with them. Snyder is all but forgotten now, but he was integral to that team because he was their best outside shooter, played solid defense and was the only rotation guard over 6’2″ tall. Very underrated.

            Considering all the injuries (Don Smith, who was really contributing, also went down and Bob Rule showed he’d lost it after the Achilles tendon tears a year earlier), the disruption with Jim McDaniels coming in and Fred Brown reporting out of shape and essentially wasting his rookie year, it’s a miracle those guys won 47 games. And as a reward for a stellar coaching job, Lenny got shipped off to Cleveland for Butch Beard. I always felt sorry for Butch, even then…he was a decent guard but never had a chance in Seattle because of all the booing (as if the trade was his idea).

          • art thiel

            Wow. You DO remember. Next: RadioGuy recites the poetry of Tom Meschery.

          • RadioGuy

            Sorry Art. Way off topic, but you got me on a roll. I even remember when you were at the J-A.

          • Roslyndawg

            Hi Art. Way off topic, but I was just looking for a way to contact you. Many sports fans in the area are unaware of one of the best success stories around right now–the Husky baseball team. They are now, I think, 24-6-1 and lead the PAC 12. Their new ballpark is spectacular, parking is easy and only $8 and admission cheap too. To this fan, this is WAY more fun that toughing it out in the crowds and paying through the nose to go to the Mariners. The Husky young men play like they love the game, not just the overblown contract. The games are much more exciting and every seat puts you right there, almost on the field. This is baseball as it’s meant to be experienced–it feels local and, frankly, a lot of fun, without the hassles of going to a big-league game.

            How about checking it out and writing a story?

            Disclosure: I do have a family connection interest in the team.

          • art thiel

            As I pointed out, the Coliseum doesn’t drain well because the field is below sea level. The absence of a tarp was an error but the game was 12 hours after the rain stopped. The field couldn’t dry out fast enough.

        • Trygvesture

          Right. Then I have to wonder: What if it wasn’t (a monopoly)? We’d maybe have a startup Wolrd League Baseball, for example? They’d go to cities where stadiums don’t exist and … build their own? They’d jump into cities where MLB teams have moved… like, for instance…where? Ya gotta hate the owners, in most cases; ya gotta hate the gift of legal monopoly status, ya gotta hate it that Lincolnite losers can control what is really a civic entity… but it would be perpetuated even without the monopoly gift, right? I’m not seeing any difference in the NBA m.o.– or am I missing something? Seems Big Money behaves in the arrogant, narcissistic monopolistic manner of feudal lords rooster-strutting around their fiefdoms no matter what the era or setting. To be on the top rung in free market capitalism is to effectively have monopolistic control, usually. Just sayin.

          • art thiel

            Remember the ABA? Remember the AFL? Remember the WFL? It’s all been tried before. The industry has matured past that. Consolidation is inevitable in almost all businesses that thrive. In sports, there aren’t enough cities, stadiums and players to make a credible threat to the existing empires.

            Besides, in baseball, if you don’t like the big boys, the game exists reasonably well in the minors.

          • Trygvesture

            I remember. My point exactly.

            Gotta love the minors in Tacoma, Everett, gotta love the Bellingham Bells. Gotta love the game.

  • Edgar Martinez

    It is interesting how foreign investors come to save these franchises, rather than local ones. Even though it’s been proven that it’s an amazing investment.

    • Kirkland

      Interestingly, a lot of the new owners in England’s Premier League soccer are foreigners, not British. That includes 3-4 teams owned by Americans. Is the sports investing grass greener on the other side?

      • Edgar Martinez


      • art thiel

        Lots of rich folks in other countries like to be just as silly as rich Americans/Euros. Many of the horses in the Triple Crown races are owned by Middle East wealthies.

        • poulsbogary

          Art, no coverage of Emerald Downs at SportspressNW?

          • art thiel

            Like Emerald Downs, we need more horses.

  • Da Kid

    One thing you forgot to mention, oh Great Franchise One. The ’94 M’s, resigned to their fate of having to play the entire rest of the season on the road, looked inward for their very first SoDo Mojo and turned around their up-to-then terminally tawdry season. They actually made a run at the division title. They were two games behind and closing fast when the strike shut everything down. If not for the strike, we may well be remembering 1994 as the year it was finally fun to be a Mariners fan. And the street might be called Tino Martinez Drive.

    • art thiel

      I remember it well. I left it out because the subject was more ballpark and less ball. But the 95 guys said the long 94 road trip actually toughened them and helped make 95 work.

  • Jamo57

    A baseball park, football stadium and arena all within blocks of each other? I can see from the mock-up this is doomed for failure on the surface of it. The Port of Oakland is clearly visible in the drawing. Job killer!!!!

    BTW, I have heard Tim Eyman say in interviews that it was Safeco Field and it’s financing plan being rammed through the legislature that got him involved in politics.

    Those darn tiles are responsible for yet another scourge on our community!!!!

    • art thiel

      Oakland does have two advantages: Freeways and BART.

      Yes, the ballpark imbroglio was Eyman’s inspiration. He’s managed to do a lot to slap the brakes on legislative spending.

      • Da Kid

        For which every affected entity has found work-arounds. Remember the $30 car tabs? Mine were $93 this past re-up for a 36-year-old work van. If this bogus $60 tab thing passes, I’ll be paying nearly half the truck’s Blue Book value in annual fees.

        Let’s not also forget the original Safeco “financing plan” was a huge, regressive sales tax increase. Bad legislation from the git go, so I voted against it the same day I went to the Dome to watch the M’s stomp the Rangers. Somewhere I’ve still got my “Populist Crapper” t-shirt.

        Let’s also not forget THAT work-around: A 5% sales tax increase on restaurants, a 17% tax on rental cars and 15% on hotel/motel rooms. The M’s FO hype machine worked overtime to sell the public and the Legs on the M’s being Seattle’s great amenity, but soon as the ink was dry they went full tilt marketing them as a “regional” team. Of course, it already was, being the only AL team north of the Bay Area and west of Minnesota! But to this day, nobody outside of King County pays those additional taxes, despite the fact the M’s have farms teams in Tacoma and Everett. (And thanks for adding the ridiculous $120 million roof, Chuckie Cheesehead.)

        • art thiel

          Boy, you don’t forget anything. You would make a good Republican.

  • jafabian

    A nice plan but as everyone in Seattle knows getting it to happen is quite another thing. I’m not sure the city of Oakland has the resources to get this to become a reality. It would certainly give the city a more firm image. Ever notice when the M’s play in Oakland when they show images of the local community where they’re playing they show images of SF and none of Oakland?

    Based on this image I’m wondering if the plan calls for renovating the Coliseum and the A’s to continue playing there? Bet they won’t like that though I liked the Coliseum before Mt. Davis was put in the OF. Dave Niehaus used to always comment how he liked seeing the “rolling green hills of Oakland” out beyond the stadium.

    Don’t blame the city for reaching out to Dubai. It’s incredible there. I kind of wish Seattle would do that in renovating the South Lake Union area, because though it’s growing quickly there the new architecture has no imagination ot it.

    • art thiel

      Oakland doesn’t have the resources. The stadiums need to be privately financed, like the SF ballpark. That’s why you need a emirate prince in the project.

      • jafabian

        Probably the only way they can keep the A’s and da Raiders because Oakland is in very serious danger of losing both teams. Doubt they want that after losing the Warriors to SF.

    • Kirkland

      I’ve also heard that most sports teams who play the A’s or Raiders prefer to stay in San Frisco hotels instead of Oakland ones. I wonder what the ratio between Oakland’s, uh, “grittiness” vs. S.F.’s pizazz is in that decision.

      When it was younger, the Coliseum looked like it must have been a fun place for a game, especially for day games. Those bleachers would’ve been great for soaking up warmth, especially as Oakland is far warmer than S.F. for reasons I’d have to ask a weatherman to explain.