At least it’s not 1979. On April 17 of that year, the Oakland A’s set the record for the lowest attendance in modern baseball history with just 653 fans at a single game. But it’s close enough. In fact, this may be perhaps the lowest point in the history of professional sports at McAfee Coliseum, even surpassing the early 1980s. The Oakland A’s are limping toward the end of a truly disappointing year, and the Raiders aren’t expected to rise far above their last few years of mediocrity, humiliation, and low morale. Even for a city used to bad news, the news is dismal.
Take the A’s, the Coliseum’s only bright spot in recent years. It’s not just that the rebuilding team is setting new records for most consecutive series losses and hovers around twenty games behind the division leader. More depressing is the dispiritingly low attendance, fueled by the almost inevitable prospect that its owners will move the franchise out of Oakland sometime in the next four years. There comes a time when a team is clearly going to leave a city — the 1994 season of the Los Angeles Rams come to mind — and the last games become a death spiral of bitter fans and lackluster performance. This may be one of those moments.
Meanwhile, Al Davis can’t be happy with his Raiders. It’s not just that his team has been a mess on the field for the past five years. Last year, Forbes magazine estimated that the Raiders were the fifth-least valuable team in the NFL, and that’s actually an improvement over previous years. Davis was apparently so hard up for cash ten months ago that he sold a 20 percent stake in the team to some silent partners, reportedly including former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, according to County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, who sits on the Coliseum Joint Powers Authority.
What do the five most valuable NFL teams have in common? New stadiums, where owners can rent luxury boxes, sign sponsorship deals, and draw sell-out crowds for television advertising dollars. The shabby concrete ugliness of the Coliseum has been a running joke for years, but this summer, two media outlets exposed its flaws to a national audience, bringing a fresh sting to the usual humiliation. First, Portfolio magazine dubbed the Coliseum the second-filthiest baseball park in the country, citing 493 health code violations, including dirt, rodents, vermin, and chemical contamination. Then ESPN’s Anna Katherine Clemmons wrote up a walking tour she took of the facility during an Athletics game. Clemmons found a sparse and dismal tailgate scene, a hallway the color of jaundice, and fans who admitted they couldn’t even care that the A’s were moving to Fremont. The only bright spot was the stadium’s “all you can eat” section where, for $35, fans can nurture their heart disease with hot dogs and nachos.
Readers who don’t follow sports too closely may imagine that Oakland and Alameda County brought the Raiders back for good in 1995 by spending $300 million to renovate the Arena and Coliseum. But in fact, the Raiders could be gone once again as soon as their lease expires in 2010. After all, the team’s latest tenure in Oakland has been marred by bitter lawsuits, the personal seat license fiasco, and surprisingly indifferent fans. Al Davis has already demonstrated a willingness to move his team to cities that offered him a subsidy, having left both Oakland and then Los Angeles in pursuit of public cash. And just last January, representatives from the Raiders personally approached the mayor of Dublin with a proposal to build a new stadium there.
In short, by 2012, Oakland could go from being the home of three major sports teams to just one, and the Coliseum could be hosting neither baseball nor football. McAfee Coliseum would be nothing but a vast, empty cipher, and Oakland and Alameda County taxpayers would still owe $22 million a year to retire the debt. By 2012, it’s entirely possible that debt will be all we have at the Coliseum.
How likely is this doomsday scenario? What are the odds that the Athletics and Raiders will both leave, and what, if anything, can and should our civic leaders do to stop them? Finally, what will we do with an empty, debt-ridden Coliseum?
Don’t imagine that Oakland and Alameda County need either team around for the money. The amount of cash the teams provide is negligible. The Athletics pay for all game-day operations and keep the revenue; the only money the Coliseum Authority sees is rent, which works out to just under $1 million a year. The Raiders lease is a little more complicated, with the authority paying for game-day operations and splitting some of the proceeds, but the city and county come out just a little ahead. Proceeds from football and baseball don’t come close to paying off the Coliseum Authority’s debt, which currently stands at $164.9 million. All we get is the joy of watching 89 games of professional sports a year, 81 of which are baseball. Which is why Oakland’s decision to spend millions luring back the Raiders, infuriating the owners of the Athletics and doing nothing to keep their team in town is so mystifying; city officials sacrificed 81 days of baseball for eight days of football.
But despite a history of snubbing the Athletics over and over, some city leaders still say there’s a chance Oakland can keep them. When Athletics co-owner Lew Wolff recently told a reporter how frustrated he was by the delays in moving to Fremont, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums declared — completely out of the blue — that his city might be able to retain the team. City Council President Ignacio De la Fuente, who sits on the Coliseum Authority Board and has negotiated with the Athletics for years, agrees that Oakland’s not out of the picture just yet.
“As much as they’re working on Fremont, it’s going to be years and years,” De La Fuente said. “They haven’t gotten approval yet. And even if they do, it’s gonna be years before they can break ground and build a new stadium. And that doesn’t even count all the lawsuits that you and I know are going to happen. … I’m one of those naive people that thinks it’s not going to be a good deal, and it’s not going to happen. But that’s me.”
De La Fuente’s comments are probably more of a public bargaining position than a realistic assessment of the city’s chances. One day after Wolff’s remarks were printed, the team’s co-owner immediately reiterated his commitment to move the team to Fremont. And even when he worried about the pace of the Fremont deal, he still maintained that he would never stay at the Coliseum. Supervisor Haggerty, who has spent years trying to lure the Athletics to Fremont, claims the deal is still proceeding apace — and was considerably annoyed that Dellums tried to interfere with his plans.
“I believe they will leave the Coliseum one way or another,” Haggerty said. “I believe they will leave Oakland one way or another. The A’s are committed to Fremont, and if by some chance that doesn’t happen, I believe they’ll leave Alameda County. … Mayor Dellums needs to refocus his attention. He needs to understand that the A’s are gone, and he needs to focus on keeping the Raiders here. I do not want to see Oakland become a one-team city.”
Ah yes, the Raiders. There’s no denying that the team’s Al Davis era is nearing its end. At age 79, the veteran owner has withstood at least one bout with cancer and grown increasingly frail. He uses a wheelchair and walker to get around, and the Raiders installed an elevator at McAfee Coliseum just so he can ascend to the owner’s box. When the face of the franchise dies, he will leave behind an incomparable legacy in Bay Area sports, that of a man who built the winningest record in football over four decades and broke the color barrier in sports, but who also maddened his own fans by abandoning Oakland and petulantly suing the city that broke the bank to get him back. His wife Carol and his son Mark, the latter of whom has been showing up at team practices more and more lately, are in line to inherit the team. If Al Davis is a mysterious, private man — “Even his closest friends don’t know what he’s thinking,” said Tom Flores, the former Raiders coach who calls the games for KSFO — his son Mark Davis is even less well-known. Neither he nor Raiders spokesman Mike Taylor responded to requests for comment for this story.
From just about every perspective, the Raiders’ move back to Oakland has been a mistake for the organization. Given the team’s storied history here, everyone reasonably expected the Raider Nation to swarm back into the Coliseum every Sunday. But according to sports economist David Berri of Southern Utah University, the Raiders have done considerably worse since the move. From 1988 to 1991, attendance at Raiders’ games was 96 percent of the NFL average. Since moving back to Oakland, it has dropped to just 85 percent of the league’s average. “The Raiders have never done as well as they did in LA,” Berri said. “And I would imagine you could charge higher ticket prices in LA”
The Raiders seem to agree. In 2001, Davis lost a $1 billion lawsuit against the NFL in which he sought the right to move the team back to Southern California. Los Angeles, the country’s second-biggest media market, a vast city of money, people, and advertising, just happens to have no football team. And thanks to the Raiders’ presence there from 1982 to 1994, the team has plenty of Southern California fans. And whereas the fan base of the old LA Raiders was the city’s blue-collar, low-rent set, Davis could capture one of the most lucrative suburban markets in the country by moving the team to the Rams’ old stomping grounds in Anaheim. Sure, he’d have to build a new stadium, but according to sports economist Victor Matheson, the Raiders could finance such a project at the drop of a hat. “You can certainly get a line of credit to build a stadium,” Matheson said. “If you were moving a team to LA knowing the sort of audience you can attract, there are a lot of banks lining up.”
At first glance, it makes perfect sense. All the Raiders would need is the league’s permission. But according to sports economists, Los Angeles is more valuable to the NFL empty than full. For all the wealth and potential revenue of the market, the city’s residents were never very enthusiastic about football, simply because there are too many other things to do. Blue-collar cities such as Oakland and Cleveland are presumed to have much less going for them, especially in the winter. Consequently, their leaders are desperate to keep their teams. According to Berri, team owners know this all too well, and have deliberately kept Los Angeles vacant in order to encourage officials in other cities to build them new $400 million stadiums.
“The NFL likes the LA market to stay vacant,” Berri said. “Because it’s a potential bargaining chip for all the other teams. So a team can go to a city and demand a subsidy, and if you don’t give it to us, then we’ll go to LA.”
If Los Angeles is out of the question, couldn’t the Raiders move somewhere else? In recent years, two major metropolitan areas — Las Vegas and San Antonio — have emerged as possible hosts for a professional football team. But according to sports economist Rodney Foot, Vegas suffers from the same problem as Los Angeles; there’s just too much else going on. “People aren’t going to go to Vegas to watch football,” Foot said. “You’re going to have to rely on the local fan base. There’s too much competition from the casinos.” And in Vegas, the local fan base consists mostly of casino workers, who don’t exactly draw six-figure salaries. “What I’m hearing from Vegas is it’s not likely you can make much money by building a stadium with a single professional franchise.”
San Antonio is a slightly more likely candidate. Although the Raiders would have to build an indoor stadium to protect fans from the heat, the San Antonio Spurs have already proven that the city can support a major sport team. But according to Foot, the other owners would never let Davis move there, because they’d prefer an expansion team to fill that slot instead: “I don’t see the value of the Raiders in any other location except LA to be very high. And I don’t see the value of the league in letting them move there.”
So in all likelihood, the Raiders are probably stuck in this market. But that doesn’t mean they’re stuck with the Coliseum. “It would be much more likely for the Raiders to move somewhere else in the area,” Foot said. “The name brand capital is all back in Oakland, not LA. They just weren’t exploding on the scene as they hoped, and Davis went crawling back to Oakland. Like the A’s, they’re probably thinking about moving somewhere within the jurisdiction. That way, they can keep the brand. The Cowboys are moving to Arlington, the A’s are moving to Fremont, but they’re keeping the name. I suspect the Raiders are going to do the same thing.”
In fact, Davis’ son Mark has already shopped around for a new East Bay stadium. In January, Dublin Mayor Janet Lockhart was attending a conference where developers reviewed a proposal to acquire 180 acres of surplus Army land, right in the middle of town and just off of Interstate 580. As Lockhart pressed the flesh and murmured niceties, Mark Davis and a colleague approached and asked if Dublin would be interested in the Raiders building a new stadium on the site. “They said, ‘What do you think about the Raiders being here?'” Lockhart said. “And I said I don’t think it would be a good idea. … I think they were a little shocked that I said no right offhand. But we’re a small suburban community, and having a stadium here doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
Lockhart doubts that any other East Bay suburb would be any more interested in the Raiders than she was. Fremont is just big enough to handle the parking and traffic, she said, but every other bedroom community would say no at the drop of a hat. “The impact of a major stadium on a community is tremendous,” she said. “And most people who move out into the suburban areas aren’t looking for that impact. That’s why they left the cities in the first place.” The Raiders might not be welcome anywhere in the East Bay but Oakland.
On the other hand, building a new stadium in Oakland or very near it has been very much on the mind of Scott Haggerty lately. He dreams about the Raiders adopting Lew Wolff’s Athletics model, in which a stadium developer also builds a ballpark village of high-end condos and retail outlets. He doubts that public agencies could fund any part of the actual construction — Oakland’s deficit is currently projected to be as high as $60 million — but the city and the county could help with zoning, entitlements, and perhaps eminent domain.
Relocating the Raiders while a new stadium is built at the old Coliseum would be too difficult, he said. The Golden State Warriors would be inconvenienced by the construction, the Raiders would probably want to move on the project before the A’s leave town, and the existing site’s underground utilities and viaduct would complicate matters. But the swap meet just north of the Coliseum complex is underutilized, right next to BART, and very tempting, Haggerty said. “Oakland already has control of some of that land in the area,” he said. “There are opportunities for high-density housing and retail and entertainment. How Oakland deals with that is up to them.”
According to De La Fuente, the city isn’t ruling out any options at this point — not even some sort of public-private partnership. “The reality is only a couple of NFL teams have their own stadium,” he said. “Everything is possible. Who’s gonna pay for it and how the deal will be structured is the question.”
But if Oakland really wants to keep the Raiders, who will step up and take the lead? Haggerty has been encouraged by the temporary return to the city of former Oakland City Manager Robert Bobb, and hopes that his business savvy and enthusiasm for sports will have some effect. But what about Ron Dellums, the man in charge? “I think that team owners, and more specifically the Raiders, need to know that the mayor of the city will work to keep the Raiders in town,” Haggerty said. “However, outside of [City Councilman] Larry Reid and Ignacio De La Fuente, I have seen no commitment for anybody else to try to work with these sports teams.”
None of this leaves much hope for McAfee Coliseum. The departure of the Athletics would give the Raiders an opportunity to remake the Coliseum into a football-only facility, but they’d just be slapping a few new coats of lipstick on a forty-year-old pig. Unless the Raiders take that road, it is likely that the Coliseum, which is still encumbered with a $164.9 million debt, will be an empty, concrete husk.
That’s not to say that the building won’t be used now and again. According to Reid, the Coliseum Authority regularly earns more revenue from concerts by the Rolling Stones or major country acts than it ever did from baseball or football. “We have internally been discussing if in fact the A’s are gone, what are the options of the Coliseum,” he said. “We’ve hosted a number of soccer tourneys at the coliseum in the past. We’ve had the Promise Keepers, which is a big group that has put on these concerts.”
But somehow, the notion of the house that invented the grittiest smashmouth football, and gave us Reggie Jackson and Vida Blue and Dennis Eckersley, hosting a Promise Keepers prayathon just sticks in the craw. The Coliseum is ugly, old, and apparently teems with rats. But it’s been home to the East Bay’s glorious sports dynasties for forty years. Now, its time may be almost up.