Will Raiders remain in Oakland or are they destined for the desert?
Financing for 2020 move to Las Vegas is now in question as NFL owners set to vote next month
“Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”
– Kahlil Gibran
The great Lebanese poet was not a fan of the Oakland Raiders. Gibran died long before he could set foot inside the crumbling, cavernous relic that is the Oakland Coliseum. Nonetheless, Gibran was a lover, who knew the joys of a love fulfilled, and then, finally of a love unrequited. And so, the romantic would probably have felt quite at home, rubbing shoulders among Raider Nation as they witness what could be the longest goodbye in the history of professional sports.
Late last month, news emerged that the beloved Raiders – Oakland, California’s, first big league franchise – had officially filed papers with the NFL to relocate to Las Vegas when the construction of a $1.9 billion, state-of-the-art stadium is finished in 2020.
The team, which has called Oakland home for 57 years (except for 13 seasons, when the Raiders played in Los Angeles) said it intends to fulfill the two remaining years on its lease with the coliseum. The third season is up in the air. (The 40,000-seat Sam Boyd Stadium on the campus of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, which is not NFL-ready, could conceivably be upgraded.)
That was before the Vegas deal hit a major snag last week. Gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson, who had agreed to spend $650 million to help build a new stadium on The Strip, abruptly pulled out. Goldman-Sachs, which initially agreed to finance the deal, also canceled, leaving the whole stadium project in doubt. Local Nevada officials indicated they were ready to repurpose $750 million in public financing, saying they would look to spend the money on other public projects.
Despite these developments, there appears to be little doubt that Raiders owner Mark Davis still intends to move his team out of Oakland for a second time. An 11th-hour attempt by an investment group led by San Francisco 49ers and Raiders legend Ronnie Lott to build a new stadium and keep the Raiders in Oakland remains on the table. But Lott’s counteroffer has been found wanting by both the Raiders and the NFL and falls far short of the $750 million in public funding – the most ever pledged to build a sports stadium in the United States – promised by Las Vegas and Clark County.
With financing for the Vegas stadium apparently vanishing like a desert mirage, a vote by NFL owners to approve relocation next month appears unlikely.
The current confusion, however, has only increased the painful realization in the Raider Nation that the team’s eventual departure from Oakland is inevitable.
“They’re [the Raiders ownership] obviously resolute,” said Jim Zelinski, vice president for public relations with Save Oakland Sports, a local nonprofit group that has tried to build a grassroots campaign to keep the Raiders, the Golden State Warriors and Oakland Athletics in Oakland. “But I think at this point, the only thing left is for all Raiders fans to contact the NFL owners to vote to keep the team here. It’s disappointing and sad.”
One of the biggest remaining questions is how the Raiders’ telegraphed departure to Las Vegas will affect its passionate local fan base, which regularly sells out the decrepit coliseum.
“I think attendance will drop,” Zelinski added, “especially for an older segment of the fan base that remembers the first move [to Los Angeles in 1982]. We’re incredulous that the Raiders ownership would consider doing this for a second time. Moving says to the fan that the individual doesn’t matter, that loyalty doesn’t matter. They [the NFL] seem to forget that some people took out second mortgages on their homes to pay for PSLs [personal seat licenses], when the Raiders came back.”
Raider Nation fans, players were one of a kind
Since its inception, Oakland has always been a blue-collar town, a city of dock and factory workers, African-American immigrants from the Deep South, Okies and Arkies, and Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, co-existing for decades. Sport has bound the town together, ranging from a thriving high school athletic scene and semi-pro leagues to the old Oakland Oaks minor league baseball club.
The Raiders were the first big-league team to call Oakland home, even though the franchise played its first three seasons across the Bay in San Francisco. It was not until 1966 that the Raiders finally found success, when they moved into the new Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
With Al Davis at the helm, the Raiders had a roster replete with a succession of great players and outsize personalities. Among the characters were Big Ben Davidson, with his trademark handlebar mustache, Hall of Fame guard Gene Upshaw, linebacker “The Mad Stork” Ted Hendricks, John “Tooz” Matuszak, Otis “The University of Mars” Sistrunk, Jack “Assassin” Tatum, Lyle Alzado, the swashbuckling Ken “Snake” Stabler and, of course, the boisterous head coach John Madden.
The Raiders were anti-heroes, many the cast-offs and rejects of other teams, the sporting world’s outlaws. They led the on-field counterculture social revolt that was bubbling up from the streets of Oakland and the East Bay. In the turmoil of the 1960s and early ’70s, Oakland embraced the silver and black.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, before player salaries skyrocketed, Raider players mixed freely in the community. There are legions of stories of Raiders hanging out at biker clubs, of linebacker Phil Villapiano lifting weights with members of the Hells Angels, Stabler and others drinking until the early morning hours of game day.
“Our relationship was amazing,” said career backup quarterback and Raiders broadcaster David Humm. The longtime Las Vegas resident earned Super Bowl rings in two stints with Oakland. “It was insane. I had so much fun in Oakland. It breaks my heart.”
Humm says much of that love was for owner Davis.
“[Davis] had good relations with the Black Panthers and the Hells Angels. He’d send crates of Raiders gear to them. He was friends with every counterculture group in the area. He would take under his wing anybody who would fight against the establishment.”
There are no shortage of legendary tales of Raider players socializing with the locals at biker bars and other watering holes such as the Cactus Bar. Members of the Black Panthers and the Hells Angels once sat side by side in the stands at Raiders home games, rubbing shoulders with accountants, lawyers, grandparents, small children and housewives.
“The bond between the Raiders and their fans was indelible, real and intangible,” said Zelinski. “You’d see Raiders players in the community. You’d go into the parking lot before games and see mile after mile of Raiders fans, waving flags with the skull and cross swords. You’d see every race, culture and age group represented. Every economic stratum was represented and represented well. It was unique.
“On game day, the streets of Oakland would be empty. Everybody was watching the Raiders. If the Raiders were playing a day game, the priests at some of the churches would cut their sermons short so people could go home to watch them. It’ll never be re-created. There was a bond between Oakland and the East Bay community.”
Oakland loved the Raiders. And their favorite sons repaid their love by becoming a playoff fixture and bringing home two Super Bowl victories.
Tailgating in the parking lots surrounding the coliseum became a wild, and at times, postapocalyptic affair, often lasting entire weekends. Raider Nation was a true melting pot, embodying every race, creed, color and gender, all smeared in black-and-silver body paint, wearing eye patches, rhinestones and the most outlandish outfits that challenged both the imagination and common decency. Raider Nation has always been out and proud.
Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, himself a member of Raider Nation, once infamously described his silver and black brethren as “beyond doubt the sleaziest and rudest and most sinister mob of thugs and wackos ever assembled.”
Humm said part of that reputation was undeserved.
“I had friends, Bronco fans, come in from Colorado, dressed in their Broncos gear,” added Humm. “They told me they were never treated more kindly or more friendly when they went into the parking lot for the tailgating.”
There’s no disagreement that the Raiders were iconoclasts, tough, intimidating and dirty, bullies on the field, gregarious with the faithful off it. They drafted players from all over, especially historically black colleges and obscure schools. They were also trendsetters. The Raiders were the first NFL team to hire a Latino, Tom Flores, and an African-American, Art Shell, as head coach.
Nobody can be sure when it happened, but the team adopted Oakland’s gritty, underdog mystique, and vice-versa. The Raiders and Oakland were inseparable. With an upraised fist of the turbulent ’60s, Davis coined the phrase, “Just win, baby!” It wasn’t just a throwaway line; it became the mantra of not only a community, but of an era.
Owners follow the money
For Oakland, forever in the shadow of well-heeled San Francisco, the golden city across the bay, the Raiders gave residents an in-your-face civic pride, a combative identity, a reason to beat their chests with pride.
Davis accepted the love of the faithful, but it became increasingly clear that Oakland would never be enough for him. As the coliseum grew more obsolete, the maverick owner turned his sights on taking his brand to a bigger market, moving the team – without league approval – to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1982. Raiders fans never got to a chance to say goodbye and watched their team win their third Super Bowl the next season.
Unable to build the stadium of his dreams in L.A., Davis brought the team back to Oakland after 13 seasons, only after extracting a $220 million upgrade to the coliseum from the city, which added 10,000 seats to the stadium, dubbed “Mount Davis.” Those seats have been unfilled for the past several seasons, covered under a black tarp bearing the Raiders insignia.
Except for a return to the Super Bowl in 2002, the Raiders became synonymous with losing. The aging, hands-on Davis had grown out of touch, hiring and firing a succession of coaches, none of whom could return the Raiders to their winning ways. Still, Raider Nation sold out the coliseum, enduring 12 straight nonwinning seasons.
The NFL owners seemed poised to approve the Raiders relocation to Las Vegas in March. In the interim, the league will be watching to see how the long goodbye from Oakland plays out.
Will there be a backlash of fans abandoning the team en masse, like those of the 1983 Baltimore Colts, the 1996 Houston Oilers? Both of those franchises had fan bases that were arguably as passionate as any in the league, but the inexorable march to relocation finally took its toll.
If the recent history of relocations is any guide, the Raiders’ planned move to Las Vegas does not augur well for the team or the league. None of the previous relocated franchises proved to be winners at the box office or made the playoffs in the seasons immediately before they moved.
- In 1981, with a move to L.A. on the horizon, the defending Super Bowl champion Raiders opened their home schedule with a 20-10 victory over Seattle before a less-than-capacity crowd of 45,725. They only drew sellouts against traditional rivals Denver, Pittsburgh and San Diego. Only 40,834 showed up to watch the Raiders close out their initial run in L.A. with a 23-6 loss to the Chicago Bears.
- In May 1982, after unsuccessful negotiations with the city of Oakland and Alameda County on upgrading the coliseum and a mistrial in their case against the NFL move to stop their relocation, the Raiders announced their move to Los Angeles.
- In 1983, during the Colts’ last season in Baltimore, the aging Memorial Stadium, once known as the “world’s largest outdoor insane asylum,” saw crowds steadily dwindle. Amid incessant threats to move the team by irascible team owner Robert Irsay, the 53,000-seat stadium would sell out for only two of the eight games. Only 20,418 fans watched the team’s final home game, a 20-10 victory over the Houston Oilers. On the night of March 29, 1984, a fleet of Mayflower vans arrived at the Colts headquarters in Owings Mills and moved the team to Indianapolis.
- In 1987, in St. Louis, the football Cardinals, who were flirting with several cities, drew 47,000 fans to the 60,000-seat Busch Memorial Stadium for the 1987 season opener. They never drew a larger crowd. The stadium was less than half full when the team closed out its home schedule on Dec. 13, with a 27-24 win over the New York Giants. Owner Bill Bidwell moved to Arizona the following season, ending a 27-year stay in St. Louis.
- Perhaps the biggest box office success stories in the NFL’s recent history of franchise relocations is the original Cleveland Browns. On Nov. 6, 1995, after years of fruitless negotiations with the city of Cleveland about refurbishing or replacing the decrepit Municipal Stadium, Browns owner Art Modell announced that he was moving the storied franchise the next season to Baltimore.
Under head coach Bill Belichick, the Browns made the playoffs the previous season and made it to the second round. They opened their home season on Sept. 10, 1995, with a 14-7 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Browns drew well for the rest of their home games that season in the 78,000-seat stadium, even after Modell announced he was relocating the team.
The Browns drew an emotional crowd of nearly 56,000 to their final home game, Dec. 16, 1995, a 26-10 victory over the rival Cincinnati Bengals. Several Browns players embraced fans in the stands after the game. Others fans dismantled parts of the stadium, taking away rows of seats as souvenirs. The team finished 5-11 and Belichick was fired.
Adding to the bitterness, Cleveland voters had approved a $175 million stadium initiative to upgrade the old stadium the day after Modell’s announcement. It was set aside and subsequently repurposed for the $300 million demolition of Municipal Stadium. In 1999, the expansion Browns returned to the league, playing their games at First Energy Stadium, built on the very site of the old stadium.
- In 1996, in Houston, owner Bud Adams’ complained about the obsolete Astrodome, once dubbed “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” The Oilers failed to sell out any of their home games. Attendance for the final home game against Cincinnati on Dec. 15, 1996, was an announced 15,131 – less than a quarter of capacity. After Adams failed to reach an agreement with the city of Houston and Harris County on a new multipurpose stadium, the NFL gave the Oilers permission to move to Tennessee for the 1998 season, but Adams moved the franchise to Memphis, Tennessee, the following season and to Nashville, Tennessee, a year after that.
- In Los Angeles, the Rams and the Raiders played their final games on Christmas Eve 1994. The Rams failed to sell out any of their games in the 69,000-seat Anaheim Stadium, drawing fewer than 27,000 fans for their last game.
Meanwhile, at the 92,516-seat Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Raiders played to crowds of 40,000 fans. About 60,000 watched the Kansas City Chiefs eliminate the Raiders from the playoffs, 19-9, in their final game in LA. After the season, Davis reached an agreement to upgrade the Oakland Coliseum and returned to Oakland for the 1995 regular season.
Will there be a similar reaction this time in Oakland? Will a dramatic plunge in local support prompt the Raiders to move to Las Vegas earlier than planned?
“I see the fans, the majority will still come to the games, because it’s a cult, it’s a community vibe,” said Rich Walcoff, a longtime sports broadcaster who worked Raiders games from 2005-09.
“People in Northern California live for Raider Sunday,” Walcoff added. “And even with one foot out the door, people will go. If they’re gonna be good, again, like last season, they’ll still say, ‘Let’s see ’em while you can.’ If you cut these people, they’ll bleed silver and black.”
As passionate as Raider Nation may be about keeping the team in Oakland, Walcoff said, those feelings have never been fully reciprocated by the Raiders ownership.
“Al Davis never cared if he heard the word, ‘Oakland,’ ” added Walcoff. “For him, it was always Raiders, Raiders, Raiders. He felt the brand was much larger than the city. Mark Davis is just like his dad.”
The younger Davis is gambling that a large contingent of the Raiders’ Bay Area fans will follow the team to Las Vegas, just as many did when the franchise relocated to Los Angeles. Only time will tell if a twice-scorned fan base will flock to the desert.
In some ways, history appears to be repeating itself. Under second-year head coach and childhood Raiders fan Jack Del Rio, the Raiders are clearly a team on the rise – just like the franchise was before it moved to Los Angeles. Besides losing their team again, what would add further insult to the injury of local Raiders fans? A Raiders team returning to the Super Bowl before they leave town, or winning a championship after they depart for Las Vegas?
Perhaps, then, local Raiders fans will be left to ponder the true import of Gibran, who wrote: “If you love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. If they don’t, they never were.”