On Monday, NFL owners will likely vote to approve a prospective move by the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas. The signs strongly suggest that the Silver and Black are headed for the desert, and soon: It was reported weeks ago that the Raiders already had the necessary sign-off from at least 24 of the 32 team owners to lock down the move at the annual league meeting, and owners have reportedly solved one of the proposal’s trickier problems — the financial contribution asked of Raiders owner Mark Davis — by settling on a relocation fee of somewhere between $325 million and $375 million, well below the $650 million that the Rams (in 2016) and the Chargers (in January) agreed to for their respective moves to Los Angeles. Together with a promised $650 million contribution from Bank of America and another $750 million from taxpayers in Clark County, Nevada, the Raiders appear to have everything they need to make the move a reality. After years of botched attempts and false starts, a departure from Oakland finally feels all but inevitable.
But isn’t this a weird time to be gearing up to leave? Oakland, part of the country’s seventh-largest metro area, is booming, courtesy of Silicon Valley’s gold rush. The Raiders are booming, too: Last season, they went 12–4 and earned their first playoff berth in 14 years, and likely would have had a shot at a deep run had quarterback Derek Carr not broken his leg in Week 16. With the 49ers now anchored in suburban Santa Clara and various shades of dismal, it should seem like a prime chance to grow the franchise’s famously rabid fan base. “There’s a smart deal to be done [to keep the team in Oakland],” says former Raiders CEO Amy Trask. “A responsible deal to the taxpayers, to the citizens, to the community, to the team, to the NFL.”
No decision to relocate a sports franchise happens in a vacuum. Yet sorting through the details, it’s worth asking: Why take off from a boomtown full of loyal fans for a destination with more than a few question marks about viability? What, in short, is the case for Las Vegas?
The Lure of the Desert
There’s an argument that it makes sense for the team, league, and region to bring an NFL franchise to Las Vegas, which will get its first professional sports team later this year with the arrival of the NHL’s Golden Knights. The Las Vegas Valley area came in at just under 2 million souls in the 2010 census, making it the largest metro area in the country without a professional team. The move would also put the team in range of Los Angeles, where many fans from the Raiders’ 12-season sojourn there (1982 to 1994) remain.
Fan groups have started to spring up in advance of Monday’s vote on the move; the biggest “Las Vegas Raiders” group on Facebook already has nearly 2,500 members. “If the Raiders move and you plan on throwing away your jerseys,” read one post, “D.M. me so I can give you my mailing address.” Assuming the vote goes its way, a group of fans in Vegas have already planned a Monday-night welcome party for the Raiders by the iconic “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign on Las Vegas Boulevard.
But dropping a team into a franchise-less metro area doesn’t mean automatic success, particularly given that Las Vegas would instantly become the league’s fifth-smallest media market.
“Las Vegas ranks near the bottom of NFL cities in terms of population, per capita income, and presence of corporate headquarters,” says Roger Noll, a sports economist at Stanford, via email. “Thus, I would expect that attendance and ticket prices would be below average. The financial analysis that underpins the decision to subsidize the stadium recognizes this, predicting that total attendance per game among Vegas residents will be lower than the Raiders’ current season-ticket sales.”
The Raiders insist that a significant percentage of tickets in the proposed 65,000-seat stadium — perhaps as much as one-third — will be sold to out-of-towners in Vegas for a weekend, enough to cover the shortfall of the reduced ticket sales. But it’s not clear that this approach would succeed.
“There is no basis for this assumption — tourists are not a major source of ticket sales for any NFL team, including the teams that are located in major tourist centers,” Noll says.
Even if successful, relying on tourists would amount to giving up home-field advantage, says Trask. “They would be yielding a tremendous home crowd,” she says. “They’re yielding Raider Nation filling the building. You may have a building with thousands, or tens and tens of thousands, of visiting-team fans. And you’ve got to factor that into the analysis.”
It’s enough to give some owners, like Arthur Blank of the Falcons, pause: “I think whether or not there are enough people in Las Vegas to support a team is a question,” Blank told ESPN in May. “I haven’t seen the data on that to support it or not support it. It’s certainly a dynamic market. It’s a growth market. It’s got tremendous tourism, a lot of convention business. So it’s certainly a consideration. We’ll see what the facts bear.”
The Stadium Problem in Oakland
The sponsorless Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum is a dump. The Raiders’ home dates back to 1964, making it the fourth-oldest NFL stadium (and third-oldest permanent facility), as well as the only remaining NFL-MLB hybrid. The venue shows its age: Pipes burst. Toilets flood. Sewage flows. Drains, well, don’t. The turf has been known to resemble your college apartment’s front yard. The amenities, whose concessions stands were once described to me as starting and ending at Coke, coffee, and “a hot dog that tasted like it was made with jet fuel in a Moscow whorehouse,” haven’t exactly kept up with the times. Raiders attendance consistently ranks among the lowest in the league, which is usually attributed to the state of the Coliseum. Even in the midst of a triumphant 2016, Oakland’s attendance rolled in at dead last.
But modern football stadiums, the ones with all the bells and whistles, are expensive. The Rams’ under-construction stadium in Inglewood, California, which will also host the newly arrived Los Angeles Chargers when the venue opens in 2019, is slated to cost $2.66 billion. Across the country, the Falcons are getting ready to move into the projected $1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium, opened in 2016, came in at $1.13 billion. The 49ers put up $1.3 billion for Levi’s (opened in 2014), four years after the Jets and Giants plopped down $1.6 billion for MetLife Stadium. You can make a case — a good one, even — that stadiums shouldn’t cost so much, but in 2017, NFL stadiums are designed, among other things, to appeal to the kinds of people who purchase luxury suites and personal seat licenses. The bells and whistles are just part of the architecture.
You might have heard that the Raiders want a new stadium. Do they ever. They wanted one in 2007, in 2008, in 2009, in 2010, in 2011, in 2012, in 2013, in 2014, in 2015, in 2016. They wanted to go to Los Angeles, to San Antonio, maybe even to London or Mexico City or San Diego — anywhere, really, where they might be able to find a stadium that suited their needs.
The city of Oakland has weighed the Raiders’ demands — which would require, as these bells-and-whistles-y stadiums do, a major infusion of taxpayer money — and declined. For all its recent success, the city is still a place of staggering inequality and deep, thorny, and expensive problems. Oakland has also been burned before, and by the Raiders, no less: To woo then–franchise owner Al Davis, father of Mark, back from L.A. in 1995, the Oakland City Council issued a $70 million bond for the addition of 175 suites and other stadium renovations, which joined a $31.9 million loan from the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Board. This persuaded Davis to return and resulted in the $500 million Mount Davis, a much-criticized section of the Coliseum for which Oakland and Alameda County continue to pay approximately $11 million a year in debt repayments. Disagreements over the deal eventually led the Raiders and East Bay officials to sue each another. The case wasn’t settled until 2003, when a court ordered the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum board to pay the Raiders $34.2 million in damages for overstating the interest of Oakland fans.
“He’s been toying with every city — certainly, Oakland, L.A., Inglewood, and others — and it’s about time he left town,” a Los Angeles city councilman told The New York Times of Al Davis when the team’s return to Oakland was announced. “I predict Al Davis’s rising star will soon fade. From this point on, I don’t think any city other than Oakland would take him or trust him. They put close to $100 million into the L.A. Coliseum, with luxury boxes on the way, and he stabs them in the back.”
Twenty-two years later, here we are.
The city of Oakland has been steadfast in its refusal to offer the team taxpayer money. In December, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors approved a $1.3 billion deal for a Raiders stadium that would have used $350 million in public money — and still Oakland refused to budge. Which isn’t to say that the city wants the team gone: There have been proposals at a variety of Oakland sites, from a redeveloped Coliseum complex to something closer to the city’s newly vibrant downtown.
But years into negotiations, the bad blood with Oakland runs deep, both with the Raiders and the NFL writ large. Participants suggest that bitterness over the 1995 deal continues to color stadium negotiations to this day. And in January 2016, league commissioner Roger Goodell called the situations in Oakland, St. Louis, and San Diego — three cities that refused to put up public money for their franchises to build new venues — “unsatisfactory and inadequate.” The latter two have since lost their teams.
It’s What Mark Davis’s Wallet Wants That Matters
“It’s unfair for people to keep bringing up what if Oakland does this, what if Oakland does that,” Davis told reporters in October. “Las Vegas has already done what they’re supposed to do.”
The idea of the privately financed stadium has assumed something like mythic proportions in recent years, and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s refusal to offer public money to the Raiders has, in certain quarters (these among them), made her into a bit of a folk hero. It’s an appealing solution to the costs of modern stadiums, and there are two examples in the Raiders’ backyard. In January, the Warriors broke ground on the privately financed Chase Center in San Francisco, one month after the Giants quietly finished paying off AT&T Park. But private financing isn’t always as simple as it seems.
“The main reason that full private financing is not more common is that stadiums do not generate enough income to justify their costs — the net profit of a new stadium is not enough to provide a reasonable return on investment,” Noll says. “Stadiums are financially attractive to a team only if the team gets something else, such as development rights and tax breaks on other property (as the Rams did in Inglewood).”
Davis is worth an estimated $500 million, richer than you or me, or probably anyone either of us will ever know. He is rich by most standards — but not the NFL’s. So while Stan Kroenke, who’s worth an estimated $7.6 billion, was able to partially bankroll a stadium of his own — one where he will soon have the added privilege of demanding that the Chargers pay rent — Davis is nowhere close to being in a position to do the same.
The Raiders owner also famously has few friends in the NFL. Many of his fellow owners are said to still hold a grudge against the Raiders for the litigious antics of Davis’s father, who died in 2011. When the Raiders were vying for a move to Los Angeles, it’s thought that the Chargers won out over the Raiders because of owner Dean Spanos’s popularity. In a 2015 story on Goodell’s power, The Washington Post placed Davis in the outermost layer of influence among league owners: The Irrelevant.
Yet the fact that owners have reportedly agreed to knock between $325 million and $375 million off the Raiders’ relocation fee suggests that Davis may already have all the support he needs. According to MMQB’s Albert Breer, this week one owner went so far as to suggest that Davis “should’ve been a candidate for executive of the year,” in part for “the record amount of public funding he’s secured.”
Imagining a More Intimate Stadium
In the end, where the Raiders land may well come down to the public offering. Clark County has put up $750 million through a new hotel tax. “That’s three-quarters of a billion dollars,” says Trask. “That’s not going to be replicated in the state of California.” With the Raiders’ move looking more likely by the day, it can feel like a dispiriting indication that for cities with NFL franchises, they have two choices: Pay up, or else watch the team leave for someplace that will.
Trask has proposed a middle road to keep the team in Oakland, what she calls the “petite stadium”: A luxury venue with fewer seats that takes advantage of the city’s proximity to Silicon Valley by beefing up its technological capabilities in a way that would not be possible with a larger stadium, with ticket prices kept down by greatly reduced construction costs. “I think the future of stadiums can be a far, far smaller building, which is technologically bodacious,” says Trask. “You just make the most technologically spectacular stadium, with seats that swivel so you can face the action. You try to replicate the living-room experience.”
The Chargers will inadvertently be conducting a trial of sorts: While they wait for the completion of the Rams’ stadium in Inglewood, they will play the next two seasons in the 30,000-seat StubHub Center, the home base of the MLS Los Angeles Galaxy. There, fans and team alike will get a taste of a much different and comparatively intimate atmosphere. For the Chargers, of course, the downsizing is temporary — but farther north, the Raiders might see something they like in the trade-offs of a smaller venue. That is, assuming they’re still around to consider it.