Oakland Raiders  

 

Raiders' move to Las Vegas leaves some feeling ambivalent

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In the end, the divorce was so expected that, like many failing relationships, there wasn't even anything left to talk about before it became official.

On Monday morning, NFL owners heard reports from the league office, got an update from their stadium and financing committees, received final thoughts from the Oakland Raiders management, and then it was over. No questions. No discussion. Just a perfunctory and unsentimental vote -- 31-1, the only dissenter the Miami Dolphins' Stephen Ross -- and it was over. Raider Nation gets prepared to move just a bit east -- after at least two more seasons in Oakland, and then one more season at an undetermined site before the new stadium is completed -- with what amounted to a well-shod shrug.

The reluctant relocation ended a bizarre, two-year stretch of frantic activity that seemed to leave owners -- and even Commissioner Roger Goodell -- weary. It all was summed up perfectly by one league executive: If someone had told you five years ago that the NFL would have two teams in Los Angeles and one in Las Vegas, what would the odds have been? No pun intended, of course.

That's because, even up to only a few months ago, there was still some hope that the Raiders could have remained in Oakland. Nobody -- including Raiders owner Mark Davis -- wanted to see another team move, least of all from one of the nation's booming economies to one with decidedly less juice. And so the word "disappointed" was uttered plenty, even in official remarks from Goodell and Davis. They might not feel the sting of the Raiders' move as acutely as the fans who wear face paint and shoulder spikes to games and the small clutch that gathered outside the manicured grounds of the Arizona Biltmore in their silver and black jerseys. But the lack of overt enthusiasm was palpable -- "Congratulations, Mark," Houston owner Bob McNair said flatly -- and was an acknowledgement that the Raiders and the NFL had failed at a pursuit of at least 20 years.

None of this is a repudiation of Las Vegas. On the contrary, any place that can come up with $750 million in public funds for a stadium will always be welcomed by sports leagues. And even early worries that casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who dropped out of the deal in January, might create headaches now seem unfounded. His company released a congratulatory statement and Davis thanked Adelson from the podium, saying none of this would have been possible without Adelson's vision. Adelson, after all, is a businessman, too. He's a wildly successful businessman, one who recognizes this move for what it is: good for his bottom line, just as it will be for the Raiders.

Still, of all the moves the NFL has made, literally and figuratively, this is the one that will certainly cause an occasional longing glance at what is left behind -- a booming, lucrative area for one that is famously susceptible to the vicissitudes of the economy. The NFL almost certainly will try to place a team there again someday. But one league executive noted how long it took to return to Los Angeles after it was left empty. And in the meantime, the NFL probably will be happy to use Oakland as its latest leverage for teams seeking new stadiums.

For all but a few of the relocation's biggest boosters -- Jerry Jones, among them -- there was the unmistakable whiff Monday afternoon of ambivalence.

"We're all concerned," one team owner said before the vote. "I don't think it's a slam dunk at all. I think we're all concerned about whether there is enough of a market to support a team. One of the things that will happen, you're going to have big visiting-team fans there. I think that would be a destination for people. As long as tickets are sold, I don't think we really care about that. The short answer is there is a concern.

"I wish they would stay in Oakland myself. They are in such a poor stadium and there is no reasonable solution out there. How do I look at [Davis] and tell him, 'No, I'm going to oppose this'? That's how I feel. Oakland is a great area, a great market, great population, but they play in a terrible stadium. They've got the A's there in a long-term lease. There is no great alternative there. That's what convinced me."

It is tempting to let sentiment invade the analysis of such a decision, but it's probably more accurate to look at this solely through the prism of business. Davis knows what it is like to lose out -- he wanted to move to Los Angeles in a shared stadium with the Chargers and was stunned when that project went to Stan Kroenke and the Rams instead. Since then, Davis has turned his attention to Las Vegas, but his pursuit of a stadium had gone on much longer. His father, Al, had sought a stadium solution, too, moving his team once out of Oakland to Los Angeles, then back to the increasingly decrepit Oakland Coliseum when there was no solution to be had in Southern California. With each season, with each leak of the ceiling, and spilled refuse on the floor, it was obvious the Coliseum would not be tenable much longer. It was no secret Mark Davis did not have the financial wherewithal to privately finance a Kroenke-like palace, but the NFL insisted there was no solution in sight in California. On Monday, Davis claimed that Oakland had played hardball from the start, and that was the beginning of the final unraveling.

"I believe it turned during the L.A. part where, before the vote for Los Angeles, Oakland had an opportunity to come in and make a presentation for the league," Davis said. "They came in with a five-page piece of paper that had nothing to do with anything. They claimed that they would wait for us to lose the vote and then to come back and they'd have all the leverage. We lost the vote, we came back to Oakland, we negotiated a one-year lease with the two years of options and talked about getting together and talking about a long-term future together. A week later, I got a call from one of the county board of supervisors to tell me, 'Mark, I'm sorry but the lease we just negotiated, the three years of leases are not going to be valid. We're going to raise the rent three times on you.' At that point, we ended up signing that lease anyway, but then decided we had to start looking elsewhere to see if we could find a long-term solution."

That is a reminder that, at bottom, football teams are businesses, not public trusts. And they behave -- using all the tools businesses use to increase their bargaining position and reduce their risk -- and should be treated as such. It would probably insulate fans from heartbreak to occasionally remember that. Among the first words out of Goodell's mouth Monday was a reminder that the NFL is always looking to create stability for its teams. That is what this was: a lifeline for a franchise that will need money, a lot of it, to pay its young stars, to provide better training facilities, to afford the best coaches and scouts, to steady a wobbly team, to give fans something to cheer about wherever the team is headquartered.

For Davis, this is a muted victory. He encountered Raiders fans in the lobby and spoke to them, a rare moment of connection for the fans who often feel forgotten by the decision makers. But Davis always has been different, from other owners and from his dad. He has worked hard to earn the respect of and ease tensions with owners who had long distrusted -- and in some cases openly disliked -- his father. He paid off his father's debts. And now, among his ownership peers, there is even some bemused admiration for how Davis, out of the ashes of a failed bid to move his team to a new stadium in Los Angeles, managed to create the softest of soft landings, a stadium that will be built with $750 million in public money and that, given the league's worries about the Rams' and Chargers' popularity in Los Angeles, may wind up being the least problematic relocation of all.

"My father used to say that the greatness of the Raiders is in its future, and the opportunity to build a world-class stadium in the entertainment capital of the world is one opportunity that will give us the ability to achieve that greatness," Davis said, before continuing. "I think he'd be proud that two young kids, myself and (Raiders president) Marc Badain, who started out as waterboys in this organization, are taking this organization now into the future in a world-class stadium in, like I said, the entertainment capital of the world. I think he'd be proud."

Probably so. After all, Al Davis saw the merit in moving to try to get a better deal. The Raiders always have felt like a nomadic franchise, having left Oakland once for Los Angeles, only to return. That makes this doubly cruel for fans in the Bay Area, who lose their team twice. And perhaps fittingly, the Raiders now turn to the American city with a reputation that the NFL hopes applies -- Las Vegas, after all, promises that, with a little bit of luck, it will deliver great riches.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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