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Death, Taxes, and Teams Toying With Their Hometowns: Oakland Raiders Edition

Getty Images
Getty Images

This weekend brought news that the investment group trying to build a new stadium for the Raiders in Oakland is moving forward. The group, led by 14-year NFL veteran and Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, has earned the endorsement of commissioner Roger Goodell, who coaxed city officials into arranging a meeting to discuss the plan. If successful, the Lott group would keep the Raiders in Oakland, provide the team with a replacement for the aging Coliseum (which opened in 1966), and bring about the first African American owners in the league; a provision of the deal would give Lott and other investors a minority share of the franchise.

If you’re just tuning in now (and don’t have rooting interests to the south), this might seem like an exciting development. The Raiders will stay in Oakland! More diverse NFL leadership is coming! Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, and other members of a nascent squad will take the field in a revitalized Oakland!

Well, let me tell you a little something about modern sports fandom when a stadium is on the line: It’s important not to get too excited.

If you’ve spent any time following professional sports recently, you’re likely familiar with an increasingly common trend: teams forcing taxpayers to pay up. Those in need — or want — of new stadiums threaten to leave their hometowns for fairer, more moneyed pastures; cities, faced with the prospective loss of a beloved franchise and moneymaker, agree to impose often exorbitant taxes, arrange generous loans, ink dubious leases, and fork over hundreds of millions of dollars to build glitzy new arenas in the hope that they’ll keep their team satisfied.

Consider some recent highlights. The Rams jilted St. Louis for Los Angeles in January. Georgia’s Cobb County spent so much money building a new stadium for the Braves that officials now say they must halve a taxpayer-funded budget for parks. The Rangers threatened to leave Arlington for Dallas until talks heated up about a proposed $1 billion stadium (with $500 million coming from taxpayers) to replace their current ballpark, which has stood for a measly 22 years. The Kings floated the idea of leaving Sacramento for so long that the NBA eventually pressured the owners, the Maloof family, to sell.

The Raiders have done more than their fair share of jerking around their hometown over the past few years. They bought land with the Chargers in Carson, California, in May 2015 and released designs for a massive shared stadium that August. They filed for relocation to L.A. along with the Rams and the Chargers in January, and reports surfaced that they had bought land outside of San Antonio as a potential fallback option. Following the Rams’ move to L.A., the Raiders shifted their focus to Las Vegas. Just this week franchise owner Mark Davis insisted Nevada was a real option and “not a pawn in a game.” “We are serious,” he insisted, which is totally the way a serious and committed person would describe what has widely — and correctly — been referred to as a flirtation.

Davis, of course, is the son of Al Davis, who famously ripped the Raiders away from Oakland in 1982. He brought them back in ’95 only after the city promised him a mountain.

Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf has been vocal about her lack of enthusiasm for using taxpayer money to fund a new stadium. “We remain confident that the Raiders can build a new stadium in Oakland without a direct public subsidy,” she wrote in a January statement. Her office initially declined to meet with the Lott group during the early stages of its negotiations.

Then Goodell came calling. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Goodell spoke with Schaaf on May 23 and “urged her to work with the Raiders.” “My recent conversations with Commissioner Goodell and others have given me confidence it’s time to continue our conversations,” Schaaf said of the call.

Take a step back to consider the preposterousness of this: the commissioner of a sports league calling an elected official and telling her, essentially, to fall in line, where “fall in line,” more than likely, means “pay up.”

So. Will the Lott group be successful where others have failed? Maybe. Would the NFL benefit from finally, finally having some diversity among its owners? Absolutely. Would the Raiders staying in Oakland be a good thing? Yes. Emphatically yes.

One way or another, the Raiders are going to get a new home. And if history is any indication, it won’t be a bunch of billionaires paying for it.