Raiders prepare for new era in Las Vegas with everything to prove
After a combined 47 seasons in the city of Oakland, the Raiders have officially began their transition to Las Vegas.
Following a divorce with Oakland in 1981, which led to a 13-year stint in Los Angeles, most Raiders fans in the Bay Area never imagined they would have to go through an agonizing breakup for a second time. But another two decades of failed stadium proposals in an attempt to replace the 54-year old Oakland Coliseum left the team with no choice but to explore other options outside of Northern California. Although there is more than enough blame to go around amongst Oakland politicians and team executives, it has become increasingly clear that neither party had the wherewithal or resources to strike a deal that suited everyone.
Narrowly missing out on a return to Los Angeles, where the Rams and Chargers are preparing to open a new stadium together, the Raiders eventually had to set their sights on “Sin City”.
The team is expecting to move into the brand-new Allegiant Stadium — a 65,000-seat domed venue with an estimated price tag of $2 billion — in time for the 2020 season, which begins in August. Although the project has faced some recurring problems with the roof installation, team officials say the building is still on track to open its doors in July.
This state-of-the-art structure, located just across the freeway from the Las Vegas Strip, will likely host a future Super Bowl, in addition to other major sports and entertainment events. Las Vegas already took a big step in this direction by successfully bidding to host the upcoming NFL Draft at the end of April.
The financial details of the Allegiant Stadium’s funding can be best described as questionable and bizarre. The primary reason why the Raiders settled on Las Vegas was because Clark County pledged a $750 million contribution in public funding to support the construction costs of the stadium. This unheralded donation of taxpayer money, which most cities in America would never consider, was secured through the sale of municipal bonds that will be repaid through increased hotel and tourism taxes in Las Vegas.
Nevada is taking a risk in gifting such a lucrative sum to a private entity like the Raiders. This stems from the state’s optimism about the economic benefits of housing a professional football team and the revenue that traveling fans will produce each time they’re in town for a home game.
The politics of how this piece of legislation was passed by Nevada lawmakers are quite a mystery, but prominent casino owner and billionaire Sheldon Adelson was rumored to have played a pivotal role in persuading politicians to get on board with the plan.
Adelson initially agreed to provide the Raiders a separate loan of over $600 million to cover a large chunk of the costs but later backed out of the deal altogether. Goldman Sachs then appeared ready to step in and provide the necessary financing, but later withdrew from negotiations.
The Raiders finally found a partner in Bank of America and secured a mammoth $650 million loan that will go toward construction costs. If that wasn’t enough, the NFL also chipped in a $200 million loan.
The Raiders will reach into their own pockets for the remainder of the cash, which will bridge the final $500 million funding gap. This money will mainly come from the sale of personal seat licenses, naming rights and other sponsorships. Conversely, the team must pay a $378 million relocation fee to the NFL, but they have received a special extension to pay off this debt over the next few decades.
For those keeping track at home, that’s over $1.2 billion in loans and fees that will have to be repaid in the next 20-30 years. For some perspective, the entire franchise itself is currently valued at $2.9 billion.
The long-term viability of an NFL team in a small market like Las Vegas has been the subject of much debate. The Raiders are leaving a top-ten media market in exchange for a region with well under half as many people. The team managed to quickly sell all available personal seat licenses, generating $478 million, but 40% of these sales came from fans residing outside state boundaries. It will be interesting to see the level of commitment from those outsiders if the team disappoints on the field in upcoming years.
If season ticket holders decide to sell their seats on the secondary market, there could be a high degree of demand from visiting team fans. Even with the expansion of sports gambling around the country, Las Vegas remains a very attractive destination for a weekend getaway. NFL fans love to travel to new cities and see their teams play on the road, so the home field advantage at the new stadium could be negatively affected in this way.
So what’s left of Oakland? Has the city officially written the last line in its long, storied football history?
It’s hard to imagine Oakland landing another professional football team again. The possibility of expansion in the NFL always remains on the backburner, but recent history suggests the league would pursue international expansion in Mexico or the United Kingdom before adding another franchise stateside.
Other startup leagues, such as the XFL or the recently deceased AAF, have taken their swing at breaking into the football market in the offseason, but those experiments have typically been short-lived. Even so, Oakland lacks a suitable facility to house such a team, considering that the Coliseum is still home to the MLB’s Oakland Athletics for the foreseeable future. The Athletics are in the midst of an ongoing stadium search of their own but are locked into a long-term lease at the Coliseum for the time being.
At the end of the day, two separations between Oakland and the Raiders in the span of four decades has seemingly diminished the need for another team in the Bay Area. The Raiders have long played second fiddle to the San Francisco 49ers, who have dominated the entire Northern California region since the early 1980s. The 49ers have enjoyed plentiful success on the field and were able to build Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, which opened in 2014.
The Raiders, on the other hand, were in complete shambles for much of their second tenure in Oakland, which spanned the past 25 years. With the exception of a few playoff runs in the early 2000s, the Silver and Black were plagued by laughably-bad management and decision-making through the entire organization. Late owner and general manager Al Davis, who served the team for nearly 50 years, progressively ran the organization into the ground in the final years before his death in 2011. The Raiders have never fully recovered from those dark days and continue to be caught in a never-ending cycle of incompetence under current owner Mark Davis.
Under the leadership of a dozen different head coaches, the Raiders went 160-240 over their final quarter century in Oakland and suffered through 16 losing seasons, including seven of the last eight. The .400 winning percentage during this span was the third worst in the NFL, ahead of only the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions. Despite picking near the top of the NFL Draft on a yearly basis, Al Davis was notorious for his head-scratching player selections, most of which were total busts. You could put together a Hall of Fame-worthy roster with the collection of top talent that he passed on in the first round over the years.
As losing seasons became the norm, fan support at the Coliseum took a noticeable hit. From 1995 to 2012, 80 of the 144 Raiders home games were blacked out on local television in Northern California because of the team’s inability to sell out the stadium. After 2012, the front office decided to place tarps on the towering “Mount Davis” seating structure on the east side of the stadium, which reduced capacity by over 10,000 seats. This made it easier for the team to meet ticket sales quotas so home games could be shown on local TV.
Regardless, the greatness of Raider Nation has always been in its vast presence across the country and around the world. Wherever you go, you will find passionate Raider fans perpetually willing to support their team. What other NFL team could play in three different cities within thirty years and still retain an undying loyalty from its fan base?
In spite of that, many of the original Oakland Raiders fans from the 1960s never forgave the organization for leaving the first time. Although a lot of locals welcomed the team with open arms upon its return in 1995, things were never quite the same.
For the past 25 seasons, Sundays at the Coliseum have featured a blend of Raiders fans from up and down the West Coast. Many travel up north from Southern California on a weekly basis to follow the team, but have no real connection to Oakland or any reason to care about relocation threats.
No matter where they came from, Raiders fans displayed an unmatched loyalty to their team during one of the most dreadful stretches of any team in football history. Although the Coliseum was not always packed to capacity, the ample core of long-time season ticket holders never failed to show up each week with an animated level of passion rarely seen elsewhere around the league.
The Coliseum is renowned for its epic tailgate scene across the spacious parking lots of 66th Avenue and Hegenberger Road, where fans would indulge in extravagant cookouts and typically consume obscene amounts of alcohol. For many years, the most diehard fans would start lining up outside the parking lot on Saturday evenings and spend the night in their cars, in eager anticipation of the gameday to follow. The Sunday morning tailgate parties would often be so intense that Raiders fans became accustomed to arriving at their seats fashionably late, almost never making it inside the stadium before kickoff. All in all, the Coliseum crowd was rightly recognized as one of the rowdiest and most unique in sports worldwide.
The Las Vegas Raiders will be in a better position than ever before. They finally have a home to call their own and modern facilities for players and fans. Ideally, this will provide the organization with the stability it so desperately needs and the necessary resources to put together a competitive roster.
But with all this optimism comes just as much skepticism and pressure. Mark Davis has undertaken a historic amount of debt and his tenure as owner solely hinges on the Raiders’ ability to be a profitable and successful operation both on and off the field. If things continue along the same trajectory as the last few decades, Davis will soon be swimming in debt and have no choice but to forfeit control of the team. The shine of a new stadium will only last for a limited period of time. After that, the Raiders have to give fans a reason to keep showing up.
No matter what happens in the next chapter of Raiders football, one thing remains clear: the fans of Oakland and the East Bay deserved so much better. They are a group that stuck by this team through thick and thin, with threats of relocation hanging over their head for two decades. In return, the Raiders delivered nothing but ineptitude and misery on a yearly basis, before ultimately turning their back on the city that provided so much support through it all.
Oakland was doomed from the very beginning and was never in a position to dish out a dime of precious tax dollars that could be better utilized elsewhere. The city has a lot bigger problems to worry about solving than a multi-billion dollar sports team. Hopefully, down the road, rich sports franchises around the world will eventually realize that they are nothing without the fans that invest so much of their time and money to keep them afloat.
But for now, the Raiders are on to Sin City and there’s no going back. As Al Davis always said, “the greatness of the Raiders lies in their future.”
Just win, baby.
Written by: Brendan Ogburn — email@example.com