Monday, the NFL owners approved for the Raiders to move from Oakland to Las Vegas. The move will take effect once a stadium is built in Sin City, with an earliest realistic ETA of 2020.
By moving, the Raiders franchise is stabbing one of the most vocal and loyal fanbases in sports in the back.
Prior to last year’s AFC playoff appearance, the Raiders franchise had been in a prolonged slump. After reaching Super Bowl XXXVII–which they lost to Tampa Bay 48-21–the team did not have another winning season until last year’s 12-4 campaign. While that season ended in a disappointing playoff loss to Houston aided by several key late-season injuries, the future is very bright for coach Jack Del Rio’s team.
Now, as the franchise’s boisterous and devoted fans finally have a solid on-field product to watch, the Raiders executives are abandoning their supporters who have stayed with them through so many rough seasons.
Sure, the Raiders have actually consistently ranked in the bottom half in attendance over the last few years. But every franchise would suffer at the box office if they were mired in a decade-plus of losing–and few other franchises have the culture and tradition of the Raiders, which they have enjoyed in good seasons and bad. As the team’s fortunes improved in 2016, attendance did as well.
In addition to on-field struggles, the Raiders have one of the smaller stadiums in the NFL–the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum has a capacity of 63,132. The Raiders share a market with the San Francisco 49ers, who play across the bay at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara; the Bay Area is by far the smallest two-team market in the NFL (behind New York and Los Angeles).
Combining all factors, the Raiders low statistical attendance makes sense. However, the stats can’t show the atmosphere created in Oakland, especially in big games (even though there haven’t been many of them there in recent years).
Even as these fans are the ones hurt by the move, they are not actually the reason for it.
It’s no secret that for the team to stay in Oakland long-term, a stadium was necessary. The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is shared with MLB’s Oakland Athletics and is, quite frankly, seen by many as a dump.
The City of Oakland has dragged its feet for years, but now has a stadium proposal which is realistic and feasible (but expensive). A stadium plan approved by both the city of Oakland and Alameda County would cost the city $200 million, an investment group led by Raider legend Ronnie Lott $400 million, the Raiders franchise $500 million and the NFL $300 million (the league committed this money to a potential stadium proposal when it turned down the Raiders’ application to relocate to Los Angeles in favor of the Rams and Chargers moving there).
If a plan exists for the Raiders to remain in place, and especially in a place where all their fans and tradition are already established, then why are they so eager to move to Las Vegas and abandon their fans in northern California?
Sure, the NFL is a business, and there is a potential for tons of revenue in a previously untapped market that is also one of the top tourist destinations in the U.S. But that being said, I’m not completely sold that the move will pay off in the long run.
Las Vegas is certainly a growing market. Pro sports have stayed away in the past because of the connection the city has with sports gambling, but all four of the major North American pro sports leagues have softened their stance in recent years. The city acquired an expansion franchise in the NHL that will begin play this fall, and now has convinced the Raiders to move from Oakland.
The city, theoretically, has a large enough population to support an NFL franchise, since it is as large or larger than several existing NFL cities. But while cities like Green Bay and Buffalo both have well-supported franchises, other cities similar in size to Las Vegas have struggled with fan support; partially for this reason, St. Louis lost their franchise when the Rams moved to Los Angeles last year.
That said, Las Vegas is unlike any other city in America. In the self-billed “Entertainment Capital of the World,” tourism is the biggest part of the economy. Sure, the residents of the Las Vegas area would make some permanent fans, but the NFL is surely counting on tourism to provide additional filled seats in the Las Vegas stadium, which will be located just off The Strip.
This is an experiment, as no other NFL franchise will be so reliant on tourists being interested in its games, and one which may work–or may not. Sure, fans will show up en masse at first, but once the novelty of a Las Vegas team wears off, it’s impossible to know if the visitors will keep heading to the stadium.
It’s telling that the NFL owners, who typically have little tolerance for unnecessary distractions, are moving a team to a city full of them.
As for the immediate future, while the Raiders wait for their Las Vegas home to be built, the Raiders will continue playing at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Their lease there runs through the 2017 season, with an option for 2018.
The earliest the Las Vegas stadium can be finished is likely 2020, meaning the Raiders would have to find a temporary home for that season, either in the Bay Area (more likely) or the Las Vegas area. Conventional wisdom would say to play as few lame duck seasons in the Bay Area as possible, but there is not currently an attractive stadium option in Las Vegas to even use temporarily: UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium has a maximum capacity of 40,000.
The Bay Area has three more likely options for a temporary home in 2019: Levi’s Stadium (capacity 68,500), which they would share with the 49ers, Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto (cap. 50,000) or California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley (cap. 63,000). Levi’s Stadium just opened in 2014, while California Memorial Stadium was renovated from 2010-12.
The move to Las Vegas is not the first time the Raiders have forsaken their long-standing fans in Oakland for a move to one of America’s centers of entertainment. After playing in Oakland from 1960-81, the Raiders moved to Los Angeles in 1982, playing in the City of Angels for 13 seasons before moving back to Oakland after 1994.
Now, history is repeating itself as the Raiders move to Las Vegas. But this time, even if they return to Oakland in another decade as they did before, the forsaken fans may not.