Any Way The Wind Blows

By now, you and everyone else tuned into the sports world knows that the Raiders are leaving Oakland and setting sail for Las Vegas.

You don’t need to be a Raiders fan to surmise just how devastating this is for a local community that not only remained loyal to its team through the previous exodus out of Oakland when the team moved to LA in 1982 but also through the 13 season-long nightmare that began the day the Tampa Bay Buccaneers disassembled the Raiders in the “Pirate Bowl.”

You don’t need to know just how compellingly promising the immediate future is for this new, young Raiders team, a swashbuckling crew lead by the venerable Captain Jack Del Rio and his first mate Derek Carr, arguably the most exciting young quarterback in the league today, to know how precarious the timing of the team leaving Oakland really is.

Neither is the historically sloppy and inefficient local politics of the City of Oakland and its struggle with sustaining three professional sports teams all demanding new stadiums required reading for you to grasp the most singularly salient takeaway here:

These people of the City of Oakland, of the East Bay… nay, of Northern California itself… have been pillaged and left for dead. Again.

There is plenty of sorrow and rage to go around right now and you don’t have to look very hard to find blogs and tweets and Facebook tirades to observe the great divide growing within the ranks of the Raider Nation (the only true “Nation,” by the way lol had to, sorry) and all the finger-pointing as to exactly who is at fault here.

At the risk of sounding like the one thing everybody in today’s charged socio-political terrain rails on for supposedly having no backbone, I can only offer one nugget of centrist wisdom and it is entirely up to you to see its worth and decide whether or not you are willing to accept it: It Is What It Is. Nobody and everybody are to blame.


The Blame Game

Mark Davis did exactly what his father, the great patriarch of the Raider family, would have done and in fact tried to do when he moved to Los Angeles in the first place. The younger Davis was in no position to be able to afford a new stadium on his own and any new investor would have required a chunk of the team that would almost undoubtedly relinquish majority ownership from the Davis family. That’s not an option nor should it have ever been. Say what you will about Mark and his hair-do or his infamous white caravan or his proclivity towards being a common man in a rather uncommon position but his family poured their heart and soul into the franchise and asking them to give it up for a stadium is no different than someone asking you to give up ownership of the house your father built just in order for you to live in it.  Then Oakland tripled the rent to force action. That was too much to ask.

The City of Oakland, though strapped with stark demographic disparity, overrun by a surfeit of tech-millennial gentrification, mired in failing municipal infrastructure and plagued with a dysfunctional city council struggling to bring Oakland closer to par with its shiny, worldly neighbor, wasn’t going to be able to provide public funding for a stadium even if it wanted to. Hell, the city barely was bailed out a little over a year ago by Alameda County of $100 million of the monstrosity of bad deals known infamously as Mt. Davis… and it was being asked to fund another gargantuan Davisonian project? Quan couldn’t find a solution. Schaaf desperately patchworked a handful of proposals that were so hastily concocted it drew the embarrassing public criticism of a man in Commissioner Roger Goodell whose credibility is as shot as Julie Andrews’ voice. That was too much to ask.

Sure, Las Vegas was willing to plunk down $750 million (!!!) in public funding to help build a stadium. That is certainly not an offer you can scoff at. It isn’t one that Oakland could match; not in any of our wildest dreams could they muster up enough local support off the backs of people scraping to get by on the day to day nor could they saddle their coffers with another loan of that magnitude. And Mark Davis? He’d be a colossal fool to turn away from that sum with the principled dogmatic martyrdom of settling on sharing the “Mausoleum” with the equally frustrated and disgruntled Oakland Athletics for another decade while the socioeconomic trends of the East Bay continued to offer no reprieve. That was too much to ask.

In the end, nobody could do anything. The City of San Francisco was very easily able to absorb the Golden State Warriors (and they were very gladly willing to move down the street from the incomparable AT&T Park in their very own fancy jewel by the bay), Nevada had money to spare and an ardent desire to get in on the pro sports fun (welcoming not one but two professional sports teams seemingly overnight after being blacklisted for decades), and the City of Oakland is barely lucky to keep the A’s.

Shit, at least we keep the A’s. Although anybody even topically aware of the bay area sports scene knows that the A’s had long been rumored of leaving, themselves, and their stance essentially opposite the Raiders in this endless and fruitless tug-o-war has left an eerie fog around them that even the most ardently loyal A’s/Raider fans are going to feel uneasy about.

We lost one child in order to save another. Ugh.


A Pirate’s Life

Alas, Raider Nation, the crew is packing their things and readying the sloop for its voyage to the desert. It’ll unfortunately be a drawn-out affair, a long farewell. Like a true band of scallywag privateers, they’ll leave nothing behind, tethering their loot across the sea to their new home and with them a king’s bounty. Three super bowl trophies, 25 hall-of-famers (19 of which are inducted as Raiders), a shield unlike any other and a legacy of battered and bruised miscreants wreaking havoc upon the gridiron will go with them. And a song. A song that not only typified the boisterous swagger of these unmatched warriors of the pigskin but the very game itself and the autumn wind that pervades its very soul.

Oakland’s citizens, understandably, want them to leave now. They do not want to spend two years saying goodbye. Not now, not with the Raiders finally a force to be reckoned with again, their swagger returned, their song bellowing through the September breeze once again. The hurt just runs too deep for the people who know in their hearts that their next parking lot bash may be their last one.

But hear me out: the Raiders are sailing into uncharted waters to a new land where there is no precedent for how any of this will play out. They are as likely to succeed there as they are to fail. The biggest concern is two-fold: on one hand, Sheldon Adelson bailing on the Raiders forced them to haphazardly take an unfriendly Bank Of America loan that could capsize the whole dang ship into the murky depths of the unforgiving sea. On the other hand, the move to Vegas, while promising a new state-of-the-art stadium on the strip in a state not beleaguered by an income tax, is effectively a move from the seventh most vital market in the United States (YAY AREA WUT) to the 45th market. That is not a good look.

Therein lies the excitement for many a Raider fan who, like the pirates and prospectors of old, are ever looking to the horizon for new lands to plunder and new unknown challenges to conquer. Nobody knows exactly how it’ll go down in Vegas but the NFL (as well as the NHL with the Golden Knights) may very well catalyze the market into a more competitive one fiscally by creating more jobs around the sports team and growing a new industry in the Sin City that it has sorely needed outside of the casino and hospitality industries. Perhaps that in and of itself, befittingly, is the gamble.

Then again, the NFL could be falling flat on its face (again) by allowing three team relocations within a year’s time one of which (the Rams) has already demonstrated to be less than ideal only to join it with another potential market failure (the Chargers) in the league’s long-standing jewel of their eye, LA. Could the NFL have just played its LA and LV cards disproportionately weak?

This will undoubtedly make for some interesting test cases in sports marketing and business management moving forward.


Of Loyalty and Despair

Fan loyalty is a peculiar thing.

We observe its many shades of intensity across every demographic in every nation and every sport. There are rabid fans who treat teams and their players as extensions of their family and there are casual fans who simply want to have something fun to do with their free time and disposable income. There are fans that love a sport itself but not any particular team and there are fans who love the team more than the actual sport. In as concise a nutshell as I can think up, there are as many different types of fans as there are sports.

Right now, there is a civil war brewing within the Raider Nation and it is bloodying up folks who were once as brothers and sisters. The conflict is between the Oakland-or-Bust crowd and the Raiders-4-Life crowd. There are fans who want to burn their Tim Brown jerseys, their Charles Woodson jerseys. There are others mostly living outside of the Bay Area who are gladly offering to pay shipping to take those jerseys off the formers’ hands. It all comes down to identity and how any given individual is able to tap into the shared consciousness between self and the pastime.

So who are the Raiders? What makes them the Raiders?

I wrote my thesis for my Public Relations degree on fan loyalty specifically contrasting the different market attitudes and attributes of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of Greater Orange County (ok, ok, I’m sorry Angels fans but, don’t lie, you know your forceful branding is some janky nonsense). I’m not going to relate the entirety of my thesis or its enlightening market survey in the greater Los Angeles market here but there was one very intriguing case study found during my research that I think really helps put things into perspective.

When the NHL’s Hartford Whalers relocated to Raleigh, North Carolina in 1997 to become the Carolina Hurricanes, the fallout was unmistakably messy for the fanbase when it came to how they perceived their identity as Whaler fans and ultimately as hockey fans. If you absolutely must see the numbers, let me know and I can dig up my thesis but most Whaler fans simply could not identify with the Canes. Demographically, there was very little similarity between Raleigh and Hartford. Hartford is a proper New England kind of town, one that embodies a certain brand of hockey. Raleigh is smack dab in the middle of North Carolina, over 600 miles away (which in East Coast terms is practically somewhere in the Andes mountains). When the Whalers moved, they (like the NFL’s Browns when they became the Baltimore Ravens) chose to rebrand completely and that posed a dilemma for Whaler fans. Some carried on with rooting for the franchise since it retained many of their favorite players. Very few (if any lol) decided to root for the Boston Bruins who were geographically no more than a hop and a skip away and made the most sense regionally… but alas, despite close quarters, there is no love lost between the many constituents of Northeast America and Whaler fans would rather stop watching hockey altogether than root for the Bruins.

Incidentally enough, most chose instead to follow local college hockey instead as there are a plethora of competitive hockey programs in the bevy of New England universities and colleges.

In short, they preferred to abandon the pro game entirely rather than follow a team that no longer represented them or a team that was regionally close but had previously never represented them. The Hartford Whalers didn’t just cease to exist; so did their fanbase.

Now granted the Raiders are a global brand and they are simply moving, not rebranding (as that would almost undoubtedly go down in history as nearly the stupidest sports marketing decision of ALL. TIME.) so their challenge isn’t exactly the same but part of the Raider mystique is uniquely Californian. From Oaktown to LA and back to Oaktown… their role as the embodiment of the recklessness, lawlessness and sharp-minded, sharp-tongued WOKENESS of the 70s transformed what it meant to be a bad boy then… before then becoming the face of the pop-cultural revolution in the late 80s and early 90s with the rise of hip hop and more specifically thug rap, again, redefining what it meant to be a bad boy. It was a Cali thing.

The Raiders in Vegas feels… off. Vegas, whether its contemporary moguls like it or not, will always be the Rat Pack et al crooning and partying their way up and down the strip while every day Joes show up for a weekend to live like billionaires. Vegas is probably the only other city in the nation capable of housing the Raiders… but it still doesn’t seem right.

It will take a great leap of faith for Raider Nation to adjust to this. And they might not adjust.

For Oakland fans and NorCal denizens in general, the Raiders also offered an alternative to the indelible “good guy” 49ers… with their unassuming legend Joe Montana and cheeky smiling Steve Young, the effortlessly lovable Jerry Rice, the quietly brilliant Bill Walsh. The Raiders offered the enigmatic and unpredictable Snake, the aptly named Assassin, the loud and abrasive John Madden.

Just as it is in the Star Wars universe, there needed to be a dark side for the light side to make any sense and so Northern California had that impeccable balance thanks to Darth Raider and Jedi Master Joe, something that most sports markets could only dream of having. It was marketing lightning caught in a Gatorade bottle. Going to Vegas punts that.

At the same time, the Raiders are in fact a global brand and have rabid fans just about everywhere. They were, as recently as last year, ranked as the 6th strongest/largest fanbase in the NFL. Their logo and colors have not changed for several decades and are immediately recognized. The Silver n Black is more than just a nickname. It’s a promise that they can play on the Moon and we can just go ahead and call them the Moon Raiders and it’d be ok.

Now, for fans who aren’t from NorCal and who didn’t grow up going to games regularly, they can revel in the glorious opportunity that the team has in a new stadium, with a young exciting team and a new found heading to sail towards. These fans are excited. They are positive. Optimistic. They are swaggering about boisterously, head high and chests puffed. And they’re waging war on the depressed, devastated Oakland fans who, in their pain and grief, are helplessly flailing about like a torn flag ripped from its mast and caught by a strong, merciless wind.

To these fans, I urge you:

Do not disparage your Oakland brothers and sisters. Be compassionate, ye who lives in London or in Mexico City or on the East Coast or even in LA where these Raiders made berth so near to you for a mere decade. Yes – even you, LA Raider fan. Sure, the Raider Nation is vast and perhaps loyal to a fault, maybe even more so than any fan of any other team in any other sport but this is not your calamity.

Those of us who have tailgated in the Coliseum parking lot over the years know that it is an atmosphere born specifically of the local community and is unique to the eclectic, eccentric East Bay crowd. Its people are a special breed of Bay Area folk, a hoard of hobbit-like purveyors of killer BBQ, good brews and some kind herb. Above all else, it is the family that we lament the most. You need only show up to the parking lot alone and you will make more friends than you can count on your fingers and toes combined. You end up hugging random Sons-of-Anarchy lookin’ behemoth teddy bears that would terrify even the boldest Bronco fan. You find yourself tossing the football around because some one, out of the blue, told you to go long but you were holding a steaming bratwurst in your hand and yet you still turn quickly, run a post past a family chillin in lawn chairs blaring some Steve Miller Band and one hand it better than any frosty haired Odell Beckham Jr. ever could. And that’s to say nothing of The Black Hole. Or Darth Raider. Or Dr. Death. Or the drums. Drums, drums, drums in the deep.

Raider Nation travels well, no doubt. It isn’t like a brand new, state of the art stadium in the city of supreme debauchery won’t tease out Raider fans from every city within a timezone but you’d be lying to yourself  if you think the atmosphere will be at all the same. Maybe with time. Maybe.

But be sure of this. Any way the wind blows, the Raiders will sail and they will land somewhere and they will pillage and plunder and there is nothing their adversaries will be able to do about it. This is a fanbase that has tasted every imaginable high and every imaginable low. They are battle-hardened and they lust for victory. For excellence. At any cost.

Any way the wind blows.

The Autumn Wind is a pirate
Blustering in from sea,
With a rollicking song, he sweeps along,
Swaggering boisterously.
His face is weather beaten.
He wears a hooded sash,
With a silver hat about his head,
And a bristling black mustache.

He growls as he storms the country,
A villain big and bold.
And the trees all shake and quiver and quake,
As he robs them of their gold.

The Autumn Wind is a raider,
Pillaging just for fun.
He’ll knock you ’round and upside down,
And laugh when he’s conquered and won.

Just Win, Baby!