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California city wants team, sues Major League Baseball

A baseball ready for export is pictured at the Rawlings factory in Turrialba, Costa Rica March 3, 2010. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate
A baseball ready for export is pictured at the Rawlings factory in Turrialba, Costa Rica March 3, 2010. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate

By Sharon Bernstein

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Weeks after a fight over the Sacramento Kings basketball team ended with promises of a new arena and a decision to stay in town, a tussle over another ball club is roiling professional sports in California - this time involving baseball.

In an action that highlights the big dollars at stake when teams move to a new community, the city of San Jose sued Major League Baseball on Tuesday, alleging it was holding up a proposed relocation by the Oakland Athletics.

San Jose's argument - that a new stadium and the presence of the Athletics would add thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in needed revenue - is a key element in an ongoing series of relocation fights among cities and sports teams.

In California, some cities have been loath to spend money that teams are demanding for new stadiums, said David Carter, a sports business expert at the University of Southern California.

"California is leading the nation in an unwillingness to allocate taxpayer dollars to keeping teams in town with respect to new arenas and otherwise subsidizing these owners," Carter said.

A key reason is the example of Staples Center in Los Angeles, which is highly successful and was built with more private money than many of the deals demanded by teams and their owners, he said.

Staples Center's owner, Anschutz Entertainment Group, "proved that private dollars can create a successful venue," Carter said, "and that has spawned a ripple effect that has affected every major league sport."

In neighboring Arizona, a similar fight is heating up over a professional hockey team. A group seeking to buy the National Hockey League's Phoenix Coyotes is asking the suburb of Glendale, where the team plays, to contribute up to $15 million a year to help manage the team's arena.

The league, which took ownership of the team almost four years ago, has rejected all attempts to relocate the team. But if the new ownership group is unable to negotiate a lease with Glendale, moving the franchise may be the only solution.

AGING STADIUM

In the Northern California city of Oakland, next door to San Francisco, the owners of the Athletics have long been frustrated with the city's aging stadium.

In 2011, the team signed an agreement with San Jose, in nearby Silicon Valley, that granted the Athletics, owner Lew Wolff, partners and family members the right to buy land there for a new stadium. The land would cost $7 million, both sides agreed.

But San Jose's lawsuit, filed in federal court, says that Major League Baseball views San Jose as part of the territory of the San Francisco Giants - meaning the Oakland team cannot move there without permission.

Joseph Cotchett, the lawyer representing the city in the suit, said that amounted to a violation of federal anti-trust laws, which regulate monopolies, even though a Supreme Court decision decades ago exempted baseball from some of those laws.

Major League Baseball, he told Reuters, had not acted in a timely way to consider the San Jose deal, costing the city more than 1,000 construction jobs and millions in lost revenue.

He said that Major League Baseball, long a proponent of the idea that stadium deals bring needed money to cities, was expected to argue that San Jose had not been harmed by its slowness in approving this one.

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig "is going to make that argument along with the other owners," Cotchett said. "And we know it's false."

Neither Selig nor a spokesman for Major League Baseball was immediately available for comment on Tuesday.

Wolff, the Athletics' owner, cited a desire to move to downtown San Jose, but said his team would respect "agreements that govern our participation in MLB."

"We seek our needed new venue based solely on the merits of the move and the benefits to MLB, the A's and our fans and sponsors," he said in a statement.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Washington; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)

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