Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Potential move to the Giants has River Cats taking a beating

Perhaps the most family friendly business in Sacramento, the River Cats, has been getting pounded on social media all week.

River Cats owner Susan Savage has had coarse words hurled at her as she walked through Raley Field, the luminous park her late husband, Art, built in 2000. When the River Cats won an award for local small businesses in June, they posted a picture of Savage accepting it on their Facebook page.

The catcalls outnumbered the congratulations.

Under normal circumstances, I would interview Savage and get her to explain what’s going on – but these aren’t normal circumstances.

Savage is not allowed to talk about why some people are so angry with her. It’s against the rules of her business, and the Texas native is nothing if not faithful to the rules.

So here’s what she can’t discuss. Savage and the River Cats became controversial for the first time in late May, when a Bay Area newspaper quoted unnamed sources with interesting news:

After 14 years of being an affiliate of the A’s, the story said Savage was holding off on re-signing with Oakland and instead wanted to partner with the far more successful San Francisco Giants.

This sent a segment of A’s fans into near convulsions. They see the Giants as an evil empire of blue bloods who stand in stark contrast to blue-collar supporters of the A’s.

“Attended my last River Cats game (last) weekend,” wrote one person on Facebook recently. “My family will NOT be coming back …”

Beneath a post thanking fans for ensuring that the River Cats had the highest attendance in their league this year, one genius wrote: “What a joke!!! Guess I’ll have to go to Stockton next year.”

Why should it matter who is affiliated with the River Cats? The hot dogs. The play area for the kids. The grassy berm in the outfield where Little Leaguers in a rainbow of uniforms congregate on hot summer days – the whole scene is an essential part of Sacramento no matter the River Cats’ parent club.

So, why can’t Savage address all of this?

If the Giants or the A’s were caught tampering with the minor-league affiliate of the other, there would be big fines to pay from the ruling bodies of minor-league and major-league baseball.

The same goes for Savage if she even hinted at wanting to be with any other franchise while still contractually linked to the A’s. The River Cats’ 2014 season is over, and so is their present contract with the A’s.

We also know that the Giants have not renewed their affiliation with their long time Triple A partner in Fresno.

According to minor-league officials, teams have until Wednesday to petition for an affiliation change. On Sept. 15, it is revealed which teams are available, and potential suitors can begin talking with them without fear of punishment on Sept. 16 – a little more than a week away. By Sept. 30, all 30 big-league teams must be paired up with an affiliate in Triple A, a ballplayer’s last developmental rung before the big leagues.

Under that enforced silence, the River Cats have been getting crushed.

The story is less about sports and more about bad behavior on public forums by adults who act like children. It’s also about a popular business in Sacramento at a crossroads during uncertain times.

The River Cats risk getting lost in a changing world where the Kings are building a new downtown arena and Sacramento Republic FC is pushing to move from minor-league soccer to Major League Soccer.

In such a competitive environment, exploring a new business relationship with the hugely popular Giants makes perfect business sense.

In April, The New York Times created an interactive map of fan loyalty based on data provided by Facebook – a map that showed how the Giants rule from Fresno to southern Oregon and throughout much of Nevada.

In Sacramento County, 55 percent of Facebook users were identified as Giants fans compared to 11 percent for the A’s. All the major counties around Sacramento showed similar numbers.

Despite the A’s affiliation with the River Cats, the Giants drew massive crowds the two times the organization brought the World Series trophy to the Capitol. People lined up around the block.

Some fans bashing Savage predict she will see a decline in business if she partners with the Giants because the A’s minor-league teams win more.

But a study by the North American Society for Sport Management Conference debunks this idea. It showed that the performance by the team on the field was less important to Triple A success than being affiliated with a successful big-league team.

The A’s are very good at developing players, but not so good at marketing and growing their fan base. The Giants are a marketing force and draw full houses for every game.

For all we know, the River Cats could remain with the A’s next year and appease all the trolls on Facebook. (What’s wrong with you people?)

But if the team does switch to the Giants, it would be because it’s trying to stay relevant in a changing, tough market. It’s not easy doing business in Sacramento under any circumstances, but especially in an age of social media where interested parties need to seriously get a life.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of the photo caption with the picture accompanying this story included an incorrect first name for the River Cats’ owner. Her correct name is Susan Savage.

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