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Despite their longstanding difficulties drawing fans — they again rank next-to-last in attendance in the big leagues this season — it's not true the Oakland Athletics can't give away tickets to their games.

Tuesday night should prove that.

Facing the Chicago White Sox, the majors' worst road draw, the A's are expecting a full house at the much-maligned Oakland Coliseum, with the tarps removed and seating normally used for football also accessible. More than 65,000 could be on hand.

Why? Well, they're giving away tickets.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of their first game in Oakland — at the then-2-year-old Coliseum — the A's are offering free admission and parking, and some 70,000 have sent RSVPs indicating their intention to attend. By comparison, Oakland has drawn a total of 121,698 to its first eight home games, an average of 15,212, with two games of crowds below 8,000.

The rare large turnout and the birthday bash in honor of the franchise's colorful history should make for a festive atmosphere even with a matchup of teams that went into Monday night's game with a combined record of 10-18.

But this latest brainchild from the fertile mind of club president Dave Kaval has also drawn skepticism, especially from those who believe the A's are devaluing their product with a freebie.

Kaval disagrees.

"It's important to understand this is a one-time event. You only turn 50 once," Kaval said. "The way I look at it, we're giving back to the community. We're going to have a great fun time at the ballpark together and we're going to get a lot of people excited about the very bright future of A's baseball in Oakland."

The A's recent past has been bleak, with three consecutive last-place finishes, and the prospects for this season don't look much better. Even more troubling for the fans has been the team's penchant for trading away its stars just as they're about to start getting expensive. In the last few years alone, the list of players who fit that profile includes Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Sonny Gray and Josh Reddick.

On top of that, the club has explored moving to Fremont, some 25 miles to the south, and farther south to San Jose, as it seeks to build a ballpark. An ownership group trying to bring a big-league team to Portland is sure to look into the Athletics' availability, even as the team proclaims it's "rooted in Oakland."

That instability has eroded a fan base that has long been known for its devotion, if not necessarily its large numbers.

"Their problems are bigger than giving away free tickets and diminishing any kind of value," said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert based in San Francisco.

"(The free admission) certainly could build interest in the team with casual fans who may not otherwise go to a game. They may take this opportunity to be there for this and say, 'Hey, this is a better experience than I thought.'"

Dorfman points out the A's wouldn't typically draw a big crowd on a Tuesday night — likely in the 10,000-12,000 range — so it's not like they're forsaking a large payout. That's part of the reason he likes the freebie initiative, though the larger issues remain.

"I think the intentions are good," Dorfman said. "Ultimately, it's got to come down to a better, consistent team and a cool place to play."

Since Kaval's arrival in November 2016, the A's have taken steps to make the Coliseum more appealing, improving the food offerings at the concession stands, setting up an outdoor plaza with food trucks and establishing unique new sections such as the Treehouse and the Farm.

The club has also focused its search for a stadium locale in Oakland and plans to announce a site by the end of the year after its top location option became unavailable in December.

The expected revenue from a new ballpark, with a hoped-for opening date in 2023, would be critical for the Athletics' hopes of holding on to talented young players such as third baseman Matt Chapman, first baseman Matt Olson and lefty Sean Manaea, instead of continuing the practice of trading them away.

"We want to make sure they're the players who open the new ballpark," Kaval said. "We have a great young nucleus. We're doing everything we can to make sure we can lock them up and they can be here for a long time. That's not something that happens overnight, but that is a commitment."

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April 17, 2018


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