How’s this for an appetizing NFL proposition: The Tucson–Birmingham Raiders. The Black Hole meets Alabama. Gorilla Rilla takes [furtive clicking] the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Silver and black saguaros! Derek Carr sampling the finest barbecue that Birming—aw, man, who are we kidding?
On Wednesday, the Raiders’ lease at the Oakland Coliseum will expire, and what comes next is, for now, a mystery. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Raiders were reportedly in discussions that would keep them in Oakland for one last season—but given what’s come already, it’s anyone’s guess as to what might follow.
The two-city, Arizona-Alabama pitch for the 2019 Raiders is just the latest suggestion floated for the team, which at present is formally stadium-less for the upcoming season. This proposal follows a report from earlier this month that the Raiders would play in San Francisco at Oracle (formerly AT&T) Park, the home of the Giants—an option that prompted both excitement and dread until it was all but nixed by the city’s mayor. So we beat on, boats against the current, etc.
In 2020, the Raiders will begin their tenure—I think it is important with any NFL team, but especially this one, to consider civic residency as a theoretically temporary condition, like gout—in Las Vegas. They will do this in a new $1.9 billion stadium, thanks in part to the generosity of taxpayers in Clark County (or at least their lawmakers), who’ve coughed up $750 million for the occasion. You can believe or not believe that this stadium is a good investment for Nevadans—that the formerly pro-sports-deprived residents of the Las Vegas area will flock to games as they have with the Golden Knights of the NHL, that tourists will fill as much as one third of the new stadium at each game (as the financial study used to justify the deal alleged), that the team will, for the fourth time in 59 years, settle into a stadium with substantial public assistance, and that this time the Raiders will finally be content with what they’ve been given and stay put.
Perhaps! We can only hope so, because those decisions have already been made: The team is leaving Oakland; the Vegas stadium is rising. (You can even watch a live cam of the stadium’s skeleton coming up in real time.) But, with construction ongoing, that still leaves the 2019 season, and the Raiders’ eight home games, one of which will be played in London. Where will they go?
The basic facts are these. (1) The Oakland Coliseum, now nearly 60 years old and the last dual NFL-MLB stadium, is a dump. (2) The Raiders would not like to play in it ever again. (3) There are not a lot of good substitutes, unless your only definition of “good” is “it might piss off the Oakland government.”
The Raiders’ animosity toward Oakland’s city government—which, together with Alameda County, owns the Coliseum, making it the team’s longtime landlord—is visceral at this point. The Raiders were repeatedly shut down in their years-long quest to get Oakland to pledge hundreds of millions of dollars of public money toward a new East Bay stadium, a nasty bit of modern sports biz that featured NFL commissioner Roger Goodell himself appealing to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.
The distrust goes both ways, at least when money is concerned. Oakland has now been jilted twice by the Raiders, once with Al Davis at the helm, in 1982, and now with his son, Mark. Taxpayers in Oakland and Alameda County will still be making payments on the loan taken out to woo Al’s Raiders back from Los Angeles in 1995—some $13 million a year, every year, through 2025—even as talk of bulldozing Mount Davis fills the air. Most cities with shiny new arenas have bigger fish to fry than professional sporting residencies, but that has long felt especially true in Oakland, where the crush of the tech industry has fueled rising inequality. When it came to the Raiders, there just weren’t many more concessions the city was willing—or able—to make.
The city and team managed to reach a one-year agreement to keep the Raiders at the Coliseum in 2018, but relations between the two have degraded in recent months. In December, the city filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against the team in an attempt to recoup, among other things, lost revenue and money pledged by Oakland taxpayers toward the team. Davis dubbed the lawsuit “meritless and malicious”; the odds of its success are, to put it mildly, unlikely. It was reportedly in the wake of this that the Raiders walked away from the deal Oakland had offered for 2019—a one-year, $7.5-million lease extension that the city insists is still on the table.
“Obviously, the people in San Francisco and Oakland don’t want them and there’s a fan base here for the Raiders,” Birmingham City Councilor William Parker told AL.com of Alabama’s pitch to host the team at Legion Field in 2019. No disrespect to Parker, but—seriously?
What do the Raiders owe their Bay Area fans these days? Not, thanks to their lawmakers, hundreds of millions of dollars, or at least not any more than has been the case since Bill Clinton’s first term. But the relief that went along with that particular line in the sand should not be taken for indifference.
The Raiders have never been fond of paying bills, least of all to Oakland. But the least they could do on their way out of town is to give up on this one last fight, sign on the dotted line, and stay in Oakland—if only for seven more games.