Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente has a favorite story about Al Davis. In September 1997, Coliseum officials, Oakland Raiders representatives, and leaders of the Taiwanese tech company UMAX had assembled for a press conference announcing the $19 million deal to rename the football team’s home the UMAX Coliseum. The champagne was on ice, the limos were parked outside, and Coliseum officials had even printed new UMAX T-shirts for the occasion. As the press conference began, Raiders official Jim Otto got a call on his cell phone. He listened silently for a few minutes, hung up, and, as everyone watched in confusion, walked out of the conference.
Shortly thereafter, Coliseum representatives received a letter from Raiders attorney Amy Trask. The team was demanding a $1 million finder’s fee for its role in the UMAX deal, and it also had decreed that it was not acceptable for baseball’s Oakland A’s to get any piece of the action. Then Trask rolled out the big guns: Coliseum officials, she wrote, must not “mislead UMAX or any other party” into thinking that the Raiders would stay in Oakland much longer. After receiving what former Oakland City Hall staffer Zennie Abraham tallies as $64 million and a Coliseum renovation that cost the taxpayers $220 million just two years earlier, Davis was threatening to walk away — again. UMAX representatives took the next flight back to Taiwan.
“That’s the Raiders tactic,” De La Fuente says. “They wait for the last minute, and then they force you to fish or cut bait. … It’s this mentality they have the right to make outrageous claims on the public at the expense of everyone else. You give them a million dollars, they want ten. You give them ten million, they want fifty.”
It’s been seven years since Al Davis darkened our door again; seven years of cost overruns, budget crises, and lawsuits — a staggering number of lawsuits. In fact, when the Raiders claimed two weeks ago that the Oakland A’s were illegally withholding billboard advertising revenue — and served the team a subpoena demanding that it release all of its confidential marketing documents — the Raiders passed a new milestone. The team has now taken legal action against every single major business partner it has.In a few months, the mightiest and most fearsome of all of these lawsuits finally goes to trial, the Raiders’ suit against Oakland and Alameda County for $1.1 billion — that’s right, $1.1 billion. If all goes well for the city, Davis will be laughed out of court. But don’t count on Davis acquiring a sense of shame anytime soon. If his courtroom history is any indication, he will go to any length to pursue his financial interest. He’ll lobby jurors. He’ll play one city off another. He’ll even set in motion a chain of events that would drain mid-level cities across America of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Oakland obviously had plenty of experience with Davis’ tactics, but it still gave away the store to get the Raiders back, blinkered by its desire to cast off its reputation as a squalid, post-industrial ghetto. Coliseum officials agreed to finance the construction of “Mount Davis,” the wall of bleachers near right field that has rendered the Coliseum barely usable for either football or baseball. They even agreed to farm the job out to Davis’ friends, the construction firm Tudor Saliba, whose cost overruns are now legendary. Now the city of Oakland must pay $11 million each year to settle the Coliseum debt, a figure that exceeds the amount the city pays out annually to retire every single lawsuit filed against it. When word broke that Deputy City Manager Ezra Rapport, who helped broker the Davis deal, was leaving for a new job at Tudor Saliba, it seemed grimly fitting.
But Davis’ fellow owners in the National Football League, who pleaded with Davis not to leave the second-largest advertising market in the country, took umbrage at some of the Oakland deal’s details. In 1995, the NFL sued the Raiders, claiming that under the League’s revenue-sharing arrangement, Davis must kick down $30 million from his sale of personal seat licenses at the Coliseum. Davis promptly countersued, claiming the NFL’s usurious policies had essentially forced him to move out of LA, and that despite moving out of the city, Davis still had proprietary rights to the market and demanded $1 billion as the price for surrendering them.
Last May, in an enormous setback to Davis, a Los Angeles jury agreed with the NFL’s argument that, far from ruining a new stadium deal in LA, which Davis claimed was the event that finally forced him out of town, the League actually offered to subsidize that stadium deal by waiving $60 million in Raiders ticket revenue. Indeed, the NFL claimed, the League had done more for Davis than any other owner in history. But Davis wasn’t so willing to give up. According to the San Jose Mercury News, a juror named Joseph Abiog joked during the deliberations, “I hate the Raiders because I went to Las Vegas and lost my bet one time.” Hearing about this, Davis personally called other members of the jury and asked them to sign an affidavit swearing that Abiog had been gripped with a deep personal hatred of Davis and could never render an impartial verdict.
Sometime this summer, the second of Davis’ billion-dollar lawsuits will begin, this time against the elected representatives of his own fans. In this lawsuit, Davis’ attorneys will claim that the city of Oakland, Alameda County, and local developer Ed DeSilva lured a gullible Davis back to the East Bay by overestimating their capacity to sell the personal seat licenses that were supposed to be so lucrative. This happens to be exactly the opposite of the argument Davis used in his suit against the NFL — a fact not lost upon Oakland City Attorney John Russo. “How can you simultaneously say ‘We wanted to stay in LA but were kicked out,’ and then say ‘We were defrauded into coming into Oakland’?” Russo asks. “Where else were they gonna go? For a jury to agree with Davis, they must believe that the people that Davis has characterized as inept and incompetent suddenly became geniuses and hoodwinked him in the last hours of negotiation. I don’t think that’s a very compelling story.”
Davis’ legal history in the ’90s is the stuff of grisly California entertainment, but his legal successes in the ’80s have far more sweeping consequences. Indeed, you can make a case that Al Davis, whose lawyer did not return phone calls, forever changed the face of professional football in a courtroom twenty years ago. Cities from Baltimore to Phoenix have been paying for it ever since.When Al Davis first announced his intention to move to Los Angeles in 1977, the prospect of teams moving from city to city was unthinkable. Fans take a long time to woo, NFL experts declared, and frivolous abuse of loyal football watchers would be repaid in rapidly declining revenue. In addition, the Rams were already ensconced in LA, and the NFL declared that no team could encroach upon another’s rightful territory. But Davis filed an antitrust suit against the League, claiming that by restricting a team’s movement, the NFL acted as an anti-competitive cartel. When he won in 1982, the game of football was never the same.
Soon, team owners were jumping from city to city every few years, exploiting the insecurities of mid-level cities and suckering them into financing the construction of ever-more opulent and expensive stadiums. Art Model, who was one of Davis’ most virulent opponents during the first NFL lawsuit, actually emulated Davis in 1995 when he moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. Bud Adams moved the Houston Oilers to Tennessee in 1997, Bill Bidwell moved the St. Louis Cardinals to Arizona, and Georgia Frontiere moved the Rams to St. Louis. Each of these teams got brand new stadiums, built overwhelmingly on the public’s dime. Even those teams that haven’t moved, such as the Detroit Lions, the Denver Broncos, and the Cincinnati Bengals, have used the threat of moving to blackmail their host cities into building them new stadiums.
Sometimes the city doesn’t even get the team. Consider the way Davis treated Irwindale, a small town of not even 1,000 people in the San Gabriel Valley. In 1988, the Irwindale city fathers had heard of Davis’ discontent with Los Angeles and floated an idea: why not move here? Irwindale leaders promised to build a new stadium entirely out of pocket, and even lent Davis the first $10 million as a gesture of good faith. When the deal fell through due to financing problems, Davis walked away — but kept the money. Shortly afterwards, according to the Entertainment Law Reporter, officials with the Internal Revenue Service noticed that Davis hadn’t paid taxes on the Irwindale cash, and requested their cut. In response, Davis sued the IRS, claiming that the $10 million was a loan — albeit one he never intended to repay.
New stadium construction is the key to the NFL’s profits — indeed, without the ongoing civic blackmail, the League could barely claim to be making a profit at all. Hundreds of luxury boxes are built in new stadiums, and each box rents for up to $50,000 a year. Club seats, where fans enjoy the fine dining of upscale restaurants, net a tidy sum each year. Naming rights, concessions, billboard advertising — all of these cash cows are contingent upon new stadium construction, and because of the NFL’s revenue-sharing agreement, much of this money gets spread around the League, whose owners see the value of exploiting cities all too clearly. Perhaps most important, a new stadium inflates the value of a football team. For example, owners of the new Houston team, which doesn’t even exist yet but will be housed in a new stadium, paid the league $700 million for the privilege. Team owners can then borrow against their own team’s increased value to secure credit lines that extend to the sea. The plague of extortion and publicly financed stadiums built by panicky medium-sized cities all started with Al Davis’ first NFL lawsuit.How do we know all this? Al Davis’ second NFL lawsuit. During the trial, Davis forced the NFL to release confidential financial records of every team in the League, and the Los Angeles Times wrote an exhaustive, thoroughly damning story about this clever little scheme. Hundreds of millions in public money, all handed to team owners on a platter — this was the phenomenon Al Davis started in 1982, and this was what he exposed to the world in 2001. This is Al Davis’ legacy. We’ll see him in court.