Raiders Must Make a Move - to L.A.
Wherever Al Davis is these days - some say Heaven, others not as charitable - let's hope he doesn't have a Facebook account. Because when he sees this, he'll be very, very mad.
This is probably the best demographic study ever done on NFL fandom. Broken down by county, it shows what NFL team is most "liked" by the residents across the 50 states via their Facebook activities.
And Davis can easily draw this one conclusion: L.A. still hearts his Raiduhs.
Yep, nearly two decades after his Silver and Black left the L.A. Coliseum for its namesake in Oakland, the Raiders are still the most popular team in the most populous county in the United States. And not just the City of Angels, but most of Southern California: Other than Orange County that's defected to the Charges, the Raiders fandom stretches to the Nevada border and up the Grapevine well into the San Joaquin Valley.
You know where the Raiders are still playing second fiddle? Alameda County, where their very stadium is located. In fact, everywhere north of Santa Barbara and Fresno is solidly 49ers country, all the way to the Oregon border. There's more Raider fan loyalty in southern Oregon than in Northern California.
Which begs the question: Why did Davis ever leave Los Angeles?
One of the great pioneers of professional football, Al Davis obviously wasn't a stupid man. But in leaving L.A., he made a colossally dumb business decision. Instead of cementing their role as the football kingpin of the nation's second-largest market, the Raiders went back to what became entrenched 49ers turf after they won five Super Bowls in 14 years, all while the Raiders took up residence down south.
The Raiders are in today's state of disrepair mostly because Davis made an impulsive decision back in the spring of 1995.
Let's recap: After winning a hard-fought court battle against the NFL to relocate the Raiders for the 1982 season, Davis was running out of patience after 13 seasons in L.A. His team was still playing in the dilapidated L.A. Coliseum with no new stadium plans in sight. Even though the Rams had just pulled up stakes and moved to St. Louis, leaving the Raiders as the only team in L.A., Davis did not perceive it to be a golden opportunity.
Make no mistake, Davis had reasons to be leery about his situation in SoCal. The notorious Coliseum Commission never delivered on its promise to substantially refurbish and renovate the aging stadium - opened for the 1932 Olympics. His new stadium deal with Irwindale fell through after it was secretly torpedoes by L.A.'s power brokers. The NFL pledged to help fund the construction of a new downtown stadium - but only if Davis accepted a second tenant relocated from another NFL city (the Seahawks were rumored to be the front-runner).
David basically lost his nerve. Instead of winning a game of chicken against then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, daring him to bring a second team to town, Davis went back to his desperate old fling. Oakland promised a sold-out, renovated Coliseum for the Raiders' triumphant return. Instead, the Silver and Black played in front of the monstrosity known as "Mount Davis," on the skin infield of what's now the NFL's only multi-purpose stadium in contests often blacked out in the Bay Area.
The truth is that even without the Facebook map and today's demographic tools, Davis should've known better. Even while the Raiders won two Super Bowls after being the most dominant team in the old AFL, they never truly owned the Bay Area. While the 49ers were downtrodden throughout the '70s, they were Northern California's first big-league professional franchise and remained its darling. And when they started winning under Bill Walsh - and in the Raiders' absence - that relationship became even more entrenched.
In contrast, L.A. did embrace the Raiders, and still does.
L.A. is a front-runner town where everybody loves a winner. And most teams in L.A. do win because it's simply a magnet for talent. The Lakers, Kings, Ducks, Angels, Galaxy have all won titles in the past decade. The Dodgers' drought, going on nearly a quarter century, probably will end soon after all that money gets printed at Chavez Ravine this offseason. Even the Clippers - the Clippers! - are taking the NBA by storm.
And the Raiders did their share of winning in L.A., too. They posted the best record in the AFC in their first three seasons in SoCal and won Super Bowl XVIII their second year - still the lone Lombardi Trophy claimed by an L.A. team. The Coliseum was full of excitement in the late '80s during the Bo Jackson era, and right up when the Raiders left after the 1994 season, they were perennial playoff contenders.
Fans turned out for Raiders games at the cavernous, 92,000-seat Coliseum, a crumbling edifice with no amenities nestled in a bad neighborhood with precious little parking (I know, I was an L.A. Raiders season-ticket holder). Yes, there were gangbangers among the fans. Yes, you can get high in the stands by just breathing in the air. And yes, a large contingent of LAPD cops were needed at every game to keep the peace.
But it's also a myth that the Raiders were only embraced by thugs and lowlifes. Many wine-and-cheese USC fans were also Raiders season-ticket holders. Years later, (after I had moved to the Bay Area to cover the Raiders) a sizable contingent of fans still fly up to Oakland for every Raiders home game - even now. Walk around in any mall in L.A., if a kid, or an adult, is sporting NFL gear, chances are it'd be in Silver and Black.
Despite the fact that the Raiders left L.A. nearly 20 years ago, despite their dreadful record in the last decade, L.A. TV stations still get respectable ratings for their frequent Raiders telecasts. All Raiders games are carried by KLAA, an all-sports radio station that's also the flagship of the Angels. When they play the Chargers in San Diego, Raiders fans pack Qualcomm and turn it into a home game for the Silver and Black, just like always.
So while leaving L.A. will remain an everlasting regret for the dearly departed Al, his son Mark can do something about it. In fact, he needs to do something about it.
The Raiders will not be viable as a competitive football team - or a business entity - if they remain in the Bay Area. The Warriors are about to move out to San Francisco and the A's are sure to follow suit to the South Bay, leaving the ghostly complex to the Raiders. The 49ers will soon take up residence in their spanking new stadium in Santa Clara, perhaps after adding another Lombardi Trophy.
The Raiders will remain forever an afterthought in the Bay Area and the broke city of Oakland doesn't have another cent to spare to renovate the facilities. The Raiders, currently pegged as the third-least valuable franchise in the NFL by Forbes, simply won't be able to improve its revenue stream as a second banana in Northern California, even if they become a tenant in the 49ers' new stadium.
Mark Davis must swallow hard and play ball with the NFL and the dealmakers in L.A., even if it involves his selling a share of the team. Moving back to L.A. is the only way his team will be competitive and relevant again. But the least of his problems - which will be daunting for any other NFL team attempting to move to L.A. - is to drum up fan interest. It's already there, because it never left.
Just Move, Baby!