Picture this: On the second Sunday in October of 2020, the 3-2 Tennessee Titans are visiting the struggling 0-5 Las Vegas Raiders beneath the dome in Big Pharma Stadium. The roof is closed because it’s 129 degrees out—but hey, it’s a dry heat.
Derek Carr, the promising young Raiders quarterback who once famously said that he counted “faith” ahead of “family” and “football,” left the franchise after it decamped from Oakland to Sin City. Christians don’t ply their trade in Gomorrah. Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack, the team’s other stars from its last years in the Bay Area, also sought out new uniforms in new cities, largely because they wanted to play in front of, like, actual people.
Attendance on this day will be announced as 21,113—that’s season tickets sold, mostly by casinos doing favors for high spenders—but a CBS television camera, scanning the stands just before kickoff, reveals no more than a few thousand lost souls, clumped in random, distant patches, clinging to the inside of the huge, futuristic stadium like the last few lonely Rice Krispies stuck to the sides of a really big cereal bowl.
It didn’t have to be this way. A few years earlier in Oakland, Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie finally had moved past former owner Al Davis’ increasingly bizzaro drafts to build a fun, legitimate team. The rabid fans in the Black Hole were rocking the south end of the aging Coliseum like never before, enjoying their own beer label and a salsa sponsor for their tailgate parties.
But by 2020, the bars around Jack London Square are half-empty, and the remaining costumed crazies are bitching into their brews. Meanwhile, the real black hole is in the National Football League’s heart: a dark void where its funkiest franchise used to be, before the league’s endless panting for infinite profit exiled the Raiders to a plastic-neon fantasyland, commissioner Roger Goodell’s supreme and final admission that it’s the corporate economy, stupid.
Today, as 2016 winds down, the franchise already seems halfway gone. Nevada lawmakers have approved a financing plan for a 65,000-seat, $1.9 billion domed stadium in Las Vegas, with $750 million of that coming from the public. An Oakland group is countering with a $1.3 billion stadium proposal of its own, putting up $200 million of taxpayer money. Team owner Mark Davis reportedly is “committed” to a move and plans to officially file for relocation in January, which can only happen if 24 of 32 NFL team owners approve.
Should that come to pass, mark my words: if the Raiders end up in the Nevada desert, then it will be game over for the franchise—and whatever remains of the league’s once-populist rebel soul.
I know, I know: NFL teams move semi-regularly. And as a rule, the impact of those moves on the big picture—the league’s image, heritage, and especially its ability to generate a profit—is negligible.
The Baltimore Colts’ flight from their proud port town to the bland Midwest felt pretty sleazy at the time, but Peyton Manning eventually erased Johnny Unitas’ ghost. Today, the Colts are Indianapolis’s team; meanwhile, Baltimore belongs to the Ravens, who once belonged to Cleveland, which used to be home to the itinerant Rams, who after an extended stay in St. Louis just bounced back to Los Angeles, which soon may be home to San Diego’s Chargers.
The wounds heal, and pretty quickly. But the Raiders feel different. If the franchise bolts—idiot prince failson Mark Davis seems all-in on the idea, whatever that’s worth—it will be heretical. A betrayal. Hell, it even figures to be bad business.
Turning your back on 50 years of a gloriously psycho, deeply committed fan base to cash in a few more chips in a comic book city of transient tourists? That’s a seismic shift, a move toward making the NFL more corporate, more vanilla, and more like an airport Starbucks kiosk, all at a time when a league obsessed with football deflation, PR puffery, and rulebook minutiae has never needed a silver-and-black outlaw vibe more.
The Raiders were badasses from the start. While the helmets of their original AFL rivals featured cartoon images of dancing dolphins, bucking broncos, and a slumping buffalo that looked as if it knew it was on its way to the slaughterhouse, Oakland’s logo was a crossed-swords pirate—beholden to no one, loved only by his crew, sailing by the autumn wind.
A little cheesy? Sure. But a corny mythos helped the NFL blow past baseball for pop-cultural dominance. Besides, the on-field Raiders played a beautifully brutal brand of football, perfect for a game forever steeped in violence. They were Gene Upshaw’s hardened-plaster forearm casts, clubbing opponents into submission; George Atkinson’s clothesline gonzo tackles; Phil Villapiano’s insistence that a play that didn’t end in blood—his or the other guy’s—wasn’t really a football play. They had a mojo that fit their era. They were Silver and Black and belonged to the city of the Black Panthers, back when Bobby Seale hung out at practice. They vibed black as much as white, in a sport and a league that too often sublimates the former for the latter.
Even after the Raiders moved to Los Angeles and then moved back again, they never really lost their swagger, because Raider Nation endures. But attempt to replant that in a theme park city, and the eye patches and crossed swords will become just another piece of kitsch, like the fake Eiffel Tower and the fake New York skyline and the fake breasts at Spearmint Rhino. Beneath its R-rated neon packaging, Las Vegas is basically a dry-heat retirement town, a place that vibes bland as hell. People there won’t appreciate the Raiders, not the way that Oakland has. Desert roots are pretty shallow.
Of course, if the franchise relocates, it won’t be about the fans. It will be about the stadium, full stop. NFL owners already are bitching about not wanting to put the Raiders in a small market. But if Nevada agrees to cover most of the costs of a new stadium, and Oakland balks at doing anything similar, does anyone doubt the league will rubber-stamp a move? To keep profits coming, money-mongering corporations need modern factories, and (surprise!) they’d rather not pay for them. Boeing won’t go into Wichita if Topeka is offering a bigger series of tax breaks.
Early last year, Goodell said that he wanted all of the NFL’s teams to stay in their current markets. He called it a “shared responsibility.” So much for that. The Rams have skipped towns, the Chargers are contemplating the same, and the Raiders appear to have one foot out the door. The only “sharing” the league has in mind is from public coffers to its owners’ pockets. And frankly, the city of Oakland has bigger priorities, better ways to spend taxpayer money.
That said, the NFL’s combined franchise value of $37 billion is larger than the GNP of 119 countries, including Nicaragua and Cambodia. Given that the Raiders are more or less a public trust, couldn’t—shouldn’t—the league make an exception and bear more of the cost? For just one time, couldn’t they refrain from attempting municipal blackmail?
If the New York Giants had threatened to leave Gotham because state and local city municipalities had decided they couldn’t afford to subsidize a new stadium in the Jersey swamps, would the NFL have let them decamp to a dome in San Antonio? Or would they have found a way to get MetLife Stadium built? If Pittsburgh hadn’t ponied up enough for Heinz Field, do you think Goodell would have kept the Steelers from moving to Hartford?
The league is on the verge of making a very big mistake, trading tradition and continuity for a short-term cash infusion. That’s right, short term. Business 101: people need to want what you’re selling. In cities where the NFL has taken profitable root, customers identify not only as football fans but also as citizens of that area. The Packers are Green Bay. Green Bay is the Packers.
When was the last time you met someone who was born in Las Vegas? Me neither. What’s the city’s sports tradition? A minor league baseball team, the Area 51s, that ranked No. 14 out of 16 teams in attendance last season, a full 3,000 fans per game behind the Albuquerque Isotopes. Vegas is getting a NHL team, just like warm-weather Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina—which rank No. 27, 28, and 29 in attendance in a 30-team league—but all that really tells you is that professional hockey would play in Oxford, Mississippi, if someone ponied up an expansion fee.
Clark County, Nevada, ranks No. 793 nationally in terms of per captia income, just north of $26,000 a year. That’s well below the Raiders’ current home of Alameda, California, which ranks No. 109 at over $36,000. Ten grand less per household means less money for local sponsorships, merchandise sales, parking fees, and all the other ways sports franchises stay in the black. Can Strip tourists make up the gap? Please. Sunday morning is a time for Uber-ing to McCarran Airport and getting the hell out of Dodge, not for tailgating under a blazing desert sun after a bottle-fueled night of bad decisions.
Even the league’s real source of income—the television money that accounts for two-thirds of its overall revenue—could be hurt by moving the Raiders to Vegas. In the long run, the NFL’s ability to land ever-bigger broadcast deals depends on its ability to deliver a primo product: games played by teams with tangible tradition and raucous rivalries, teams that inspire and demand emotional investment, teams that feature star players. Lame teams in lame towns that can only attract lame players are the exact opposite of this. Imperceptibly at first, and then all at once, they dilute the overall product. Or are the Jacksonville Jaguars secretly must-see TV?
Speaking of money, how do you fill a new Vegas stadium during the 40-something weeks a year the Raiders won’t be playing? The city already has a world-class convention center, sports arenas, places for concerts and major events. How many monster-truck races do you need?
“I actually thought the NFL had a vendetta against the Oakland Raiders,” George Atkinson once told me, reminiscing about the franchise’s old days, back when it seemed the league would do anything to keep Al Davis down. Of course, he was right. The powers-that-were hated Al, and hated it even more when he won Super Bowl rings.
That was then. Today, Al is gone, and his son, Mark, is more harmless doof than true heir to a rebel owner who was forever a thorn in the NFL’s side. But maybe, just maybe, the vendetta endures. It has to, doesn’t it? Why else would Goodell and company even consider letting the Raiders move, if not to finally destroy the team by erasing its heritage?
Football is Family. That’s the league’s new slogan. But allow the Raiders to end up in Las Vegas, and, well, as fucking if. The family was—and is—in Oakland, where Tooz and the Snake and Foo and Dr. Death and an army of crazies laid a foundation like no other. They’ll live on in the East Bay, no matter what. As for the franchise? Don’t count on it. What makes the NFL worth watching, worth caring about, isn’t rights deals and seat licenses and stadium leases. It’s echoes and memories; irrational, non-transferable passion. You can put a price on everything, except your soul.