Friday, July 20, 2012

Memo to Mark Davis: More Housecleaning is Needed at Raiders HQ

There's a fresh coat of paint on the Raiders franchise in 2012. Instead of Al's approach to leadership where closed ranks and an iron fist rules the day, the even-handed leadership of his son Mark has taken over.  His first big decision was to hire the astute Reggie McKenzie as General Manager. In turn, Reggie has fostered optimism by hiring a new coaching staff with a new vision.

The press (and therefore, the general public) no longer has to deal with John Herrera and his bad public relations skills.

But… there is still a dark corner left in the building. It is Al's fleet of attorneys. A legal mindset defined the life of Al Davis as far back as his one man coup d'etat to seize the franchise. This mindset evolved into a litigation machine in perpetual motion either going on the attack or fighting back with vigilance at the slightest hint of feeling threatened. Jeff Birren, legal henchman of Al Davis (Birren's official title is General Counsel), spearheaded the Raiders litigation machine with a passion spanning decades.

The Raider Nation is oblivious to who Jeff Birren is and the damage Al's history of outrageous and frivolous lawsuits have caused to this day. Still, the reality remains, Jeff Birren represents a long stretch of history that amounts to nothing productive for the long term health of the Raiders franchise. Jeff Birren no longer fits with the ideals of the Oakland Raiders in the post-Al Davis era. 

When the state of California Supreme Court shot down the Oakland Raiders' $1.2 billion lawsuit against the NFL, denying the Raiders a new trial on their accusation that the NFL drove them out of Los Angeles in 1995, Birren remarked, "the Supreme Court's ruling is incomprehensible."  Further, Birren lamented "the facts were so egregious that it cried out for this decision."

The last time I heard the word "egregious" it came out of the mouth of Don King!  What is egregious is the billion dollar price tag Al thought he was entitled to. I wonder how they came up with that amount. Perhaps Jeff had his team of underlings come up with all kinds of financial projections and models for how much revenue the team would have generated had the LA plan worked out.

Since law involves facts, it is laughable Birren insists the facts in their lawsuit stand on their own merit. Even though I am not a legal professional, anyone can smell bullshit when it comes their way.  In 2001 a Los Angeles jury agreed and found that Birren and his army of litigator underlings failed to prove the league sabotaged plans for a new stadium in Los Angeles. In a unanimous decision, the state of California's Supreme Court further said the Raiders were unable to show that any of the jurors had been biased or guilty of misconduct. Though Birren's underlings must have burned the midnight oil trying to prove otherwise.

The ruling marked the very end of Al Davis' effort to show that NFL officials undermined his plans to keep the team in the larger and more lucrative Southern California market. That is called a nail in the coffin.

The "ruling should enable the league and the Raiders to turn their focus to the football field rather than to courts of law," NFL attorney Gregg Levy said at the time.  I am sure Jeff Birren and Al Davis took Levy's advice to heart.

Another humorous quote by Jeff Birren in his now famous letter to the University of Tennessee powers that be, complained about Lane Kiffin.

"It cannot be in the best interest of the University to continue to serve as his ally in his personal, though misplaced, war to rewrite the past. Please understand that the Raiders intend to vigorously pursue all of its rights and remedies and we will not stand idly by as your employee continues to go out of his way to damage the Raiders."

A "personal, misplaced war to rewrite the past"  That is interesting use of language. You don't think Al Davis ever had a personal, misplaced war to rewrite the past at any point do you?  I never liked Lane Kiffin either but the last thing Kiffin ever did was go on a war campaign to discredit Al. No, Al did that all on his own - discredited himself in his interactions regarding Lane Kiffin. Those facts are very easy to spell out though no reason to discuss them all here.

...and another funny quote by Jeff Birren, came after the Raiders lost yet another lawsuit. He claimed the reason the Raiders lost the suit was because the judge "failed to insert a few extra words of explanation in his order."

It's always somebody else's fault when things don't go your way. That was the Al Davis perspective and that is the same approach Jeff Birren consistently took as well. That's likely what enabled him to hold onto the job as Al's lackey for so long.

So all this is why I find it curious that Jeff Birren is still on staff at Raiders HQ. If Mark Davis wants to take another step forward in cleaning up the Raider culture internally, publicly and its image with the NFL then having Birren move on to other pastures would be a good move. It would just be a gesture and a political one at that. No one sheds a tear when an attorney gets booted. The league and Roger Goodell in particular certainly know who Jeff Birren is and fully comprehend his legacy role doing Al's bidding. If anyone thinks the league sees him in any other light then dream on. Birren's dismissal from all maters concerning the NFL would be viewed by the league office as a glitch that is simply erased.

Still, by cutting ties with Jeff Birren (and don't forget to make sure the underlings clean out their cubicles too), you are showing the league that you want to establish a new era of relations.  Legal entanglements would then be an embarrassing historical footnote.  No need to get rid of CEO Amy Trask, even though she also qualifies as an Al Davis crony.  She is pretty good at what she does. That being, successfully straddling fences politically while maintaining a semblance of congeniality.

Without Al Davis and Jeff Birren around, the relentless conspiracy theory that the NFL was against him, was AND STILL IS against the Raiders and will do anything and everything to keep them from being successful will be one step closer to truly being a thing of the past.

For all I know Mark Davis and Jeff Birren are golf buddies. To shake off the past however, Birren and whatever company he keeps has got to go.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Don't Expect the NFL to Lift a Finger to Help the Raiders

Three NFL teams are vying to become tenants in a proposed new stadium in Los Angeles.  Provided this stadium comes to fruition, the NFL is poised to get two teams to share tenancy.  The St Louis Rams, San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders are the top prospects for one or two of those slots.

It is my belief that the Raiders will be the odd man out. All you have to do is take a look at the history of the NFL, Al Davis and his misguided relocation of the Raiders to Southern California in 1982 as proof.

Al Davis bequeathed to his son Mark a massive courtroom footprint. So we have to look at this in light of where the franchise is right now. A big reason why Al left such a legal legacy to begin with is because he recognized the stadium problem from an early going.  He wanted out of Oakland so badly he packed up the team and headed south to Los Angeles. Things had been simmering long before the actual move. The NFL objected to the Raiders re-locating.  Stadium issues are nothing new in the history of the AFL and NFL but the way things are done, are done so by committee and votes. Al went rogue and bypassed all of that because the league office and team owners wanted to control the LA market.  Al believed he was entitled to that market.

The Raiders moved to Los Angeles only after winning an antitrust suit against the NFL. So Al got his wish. Playing at the LA Coliseum however, was not any better than playing at the Oakland Coliseum.  In fact it was worse. the sightlines were awful, the seats much further away from the field due to the track surrounding the playing field. Season tickets did not materialize in quantity. A whole generation of losers, thugs, gangs and cholos adopted Raiders merchandise as their own, all with Al's blessing, further embellishing the Raider image as one of anti-social behavior.  If you think the outlaw image of the Raiders is cool or somehow sticks it to the powers that be. Think again. Most "fans" of such ilk are not season ticket holders.  They just wear the merchandise  Most of the Raider Nation support the fashion statement and do not attend games.  You may disagree but ticket sales as evidence bears this out as proof.  If the Raider Nation at large was in fact paid ticket holders then the Oakland Coliseum would be filled on game days and we wouldn't be having this conversation.

In the 1980's, when the LA Coliseum proved to be nonviable for the long term, Al proceeded to try and broker deals with various city governments for a new stadium complex.

After lots of fits and starts, reneged promises and money changing hands, Al became fed up with being lied to by various city governments, the double standards and so forth.  The Raiders were back in Oakland 13 years later, lured by the joint powers of the City of Oakland and County of Alameda with promises to somehow get a full stadium of fans every game day.  It would be like old times again or so they thought.  Only this time the joint powers of Oakland-Alameda handed the Raiders 32 million for new facilities. That part has worked out.  Raiders HQ has served its purpose.

The ticket situation however, was a fiasco. What happened instead was a new set of problems dealing with the Oakland joint powers commission and more reneged promises. A new set of lawsuits was looming but the core issue with Al and his legal henchman Jeff Birren was hitting back at the NFL for alleged conspiracy in interfering with Al's ambition of landing a new stadium deal at Hollywood Park in Inglewood CA.  General Counsel Jeff Birren, (still, a remaining vestige of Al's inner circle), was the definitive mouthpiece of Al Davis in the courtroom for a few decades.

The Raiders argued in their lawsuit that the NFL had caused the Hollywood Park negotiations to fail by insisting on unacceptable conditions, including a requirement that the team share the new stadium with a second franchise. Imagine that!  The very same conditions apply today. Do you see the logic brewing here? The Raiders sought $500 million for the failure of the stadium deal and $700 million for vacating the Los Angeles market.  Al unloaded on the NFL in a conspiracy suit accusing the NFL of breach of contract and other violations of the NFL constitution. It also alleged the league acted with "oppression, malice or fraud" in its dealings with the Raiders.

That about seals the deal right there. Look at the legacy of how Al treated the league and the role of commissioner prior to Goodell and you can see why bygones will never be bygones. If you think history plays no role here and the Raiders will be treated as just one of the guys now then you are sadly off target.  Here's the fatal flaw that requires cleaning up:  instead of working with the league to solve problems for all those years, Al Davis mistakenly believed lawsuits and bringing guns to bear on the league as well as anyone who appeared have slighted Davis' agenda would bring the necessary pressure to accomplish what he needed to. Al Davis never mastered the art of negotiation and business etiquette. From the earliest stages of his career he sought to crush his enemies. First in the AFL as commissioner and then after the leagues merged, when he was passed over to be NFL commissioner, he was intent on driving home his point that he would do whatever he wanted with his team and then sue when he didn't get his way, even when those suits were without merit. Lawsuits were just designed to make other people suffer for crossing him, not even necessarily with the intention of winning those lawsuits.

This presents a problem now that the Raiders are seeking some help in finding a new stadium.  The aftermath of Al's relentless, agonizing and unnecessary legal attacks is that now, the post-Al Davis era leaves the Raiders in an aging stadium with no hope of doing anything about it without some serious bailout assistance from somewhere.  What makes this difficult to overcome is due to inept personnel decisions made by Al over the last decade, his team has performed bad or mediocre. The fan base is shrinking due to wavering support.  The Raiders have lost fans capable of and interested in buying season tickets. They have lost sponsorships from meaningful business entities. If you look at how other franchises run their teams, they have good relationships with local corporations and businesses. In turn you sell them tickets, luxury suites and provide them perks to keep their interest.  The San Francisco Bay Area is brimming with companies capable of these types of relationships but not a single one wants anything to do with the Raiders. All because of the highly questionable character of Al Davis and his historical penchant for litigation, not to mention the lack of quality football and an unattractive stadium.  That is going to take a while to reverse now that Al is out of the picture.

As for me personally, I like going to games at the Oakland Coliseum.  I don't mind it one bit.  However, the big picture is, to be competitive from a season tickets standpoint, with sponsorships and people who have the money to spend on NFL games, whether it be luxury suites or just good seat locations, you need to have a first class facility.  Most other teams have accomplished this or are positioning themselves to do so. The Raiders did not "flip the script" as second string beat writer Paul Gutierrez stated recently.  The Raiders still have poor attendance except for notable games such as opening day and Monday Night Football.  If things go well this season, that could change but the last several seasons have been dismal.

There is no way the legal history has gone unnoticed by NFL HQ, which, under the razor sharp watch of Roger Goodell, does not miss a so much as a blade of grass out of place within his purview.  He's not going to simply overlook a billion dollar lawsuit (not once but twice on appeal) by Al Davis to bring the league down into the mud with him.  Al Davis has not left his former franchise a leg to stand on when it comes to gaining any favors from Goodell or the league in general.  The Raiders have gotten generic, minimal acquiescence from the league as stipulated by league bylaws and common courtesy, nothing more.

The irony of the situation was never lost on anyone when Goodell visited Raiders HQ, one particularly gloomy, rainy weekend in 2009.  It was the first visit by an NFL commissioner to Oakland in decades and it was not Al who brokered the meeting.  It was Raiders CEO Amy Trask who invited Goodell, who would not have bothered to come if not for Trask's invite.  Goodell chose his words carefully to the press when asked what he and Al Davis discussed in their meeting.  He said "mostly stadium issues."  When pressed further, on whether the league would help the Raiders find a new stadium, Goodell flatly stated, there are "no plans to replenish or replace the G3 stadium-funding program, which is a virtual death knell to any fantasies that the Oakland Coliseum will be replaced by something resembling a modern facility. A common stadium facility in the Bay Area would be an ideal long-term solution." However, as more than a few people have observed, given the history between the 49ers and Raiders and their respective fan bases, this seems an unlikely scenario.  Why would the 49ers want Raiders fans to enter their facility and treat their shiny red seats and first class facilities as their own home?

Roger Goodell did what he needed to do.  He made a showing in Oakland in 2009.  He held discussions with Al.  He held discussions with the joint powers authority that runs Oakland’s sports facilities. He met with fans in the Black Hole. He even watched the New England Patriots dismantle the Raiders on the field. Most notably, he also spent time with Mark Davis, no doubt discussing stadium issues but reaching no solutions and certainly no promises. 

Fast forward to 2012, Mark Davis is a cordial businessman in the owner's seat. Perhaps Goodell is receptive to his overtures for peace between the league and the Raiders. Al Davis is deceased but the damage he left in his wake is the reason why the NFL would never help the Raiders. If the league wanted to work with the Raiders to find a new stadium, they would have done so much earlier than Goodell's 2009 visit. which essentially was just a political courtesy by the commissioner.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Options are Limited for a New Raiders-Only Stadium

Like many bay area residents living near the 580 and 680 freeways, I see a lot of traffic.  One thing impossible to also miss is how much open land is out there. The further east you go, the more vacant land you see, all with real estate broker phone numbers attached them.

Developers have long been trying to turn that land into viable commercial enterprise.  Things have been slow but now, we have some big residents moved in or about to occupy premium commercial space. Just a few short years ago the town of Livermore, CA resembled a wild west cardboard cutout – a place to stop off to water your horse. Now, Livermore is a pretty big, family friendly town, bustling even at 10PM on a Monday night.

A new high end shopping plaza is being built right off 580.  An enormous Target with parking spaces as far as the eyes can see is already there with a BJ’s Brewhouse next door.  More is planned.

What I see is plenty of room for a football stadium with surrounding commercial properties already in place.
I do know that Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis has had his attention fixed on a spot in Dublin, CA to build a new stadium. He’s had this idea at least since 2008 when he mentioned it to a news reporter (one of Mark’s very few public statements prior to the death of his father Al Davis). I’m not clear where the funds are supposed to come from to build a new stadium.  That part has remained unanswered but it is no secret Mark feels Dublin, CA is the right place to build the stadium on land currently owned by NASA and the U.S. Army.  It is land not being currently used for anything. However, the Mayor of Dublin has openly and politely declined the offer to have the Raiders build in their neighborhood. The residents of Dublin would surely shoot it down if it ever went to vote.

No, money won’t talk in this instance. Dublin is far too small. Stadium traffic would cause all kinds of problems and it’s a dumpy little town anyway. There is nothing whatsoever appealing about Dublin, CA. My question is, if Mark Davis was given the green light at this Dublin, CA spot, does that mean there is a fund somewhere to build a new stadium?  Why hasn’t Mark looked at all that open space east of Dublin where cows, I mean, open land abounds?  You don’t need a city to build in if you can build between cities, right?
The advantage to an east bay location is you would easily draw the Raider Nation faithful from as far south as the central valley. To the north they would come from Sacramento and beyond.  Isn’t this what people do now anyway?  The travel to games would be even easier.

If you look at the demographics, most of the Raider Nation fans come from well outside Oakland. You are not going to lose many fans by moving out of Oakland city proper. Let’s face it, Oakland is a city in perpetual decline anyway. The endless back and forth with the city of Oakland, the County of Alameda, the red tape, all of it has led to just a lot of entanglement.  The bottom line is, the Raiders need a new stadium and it’s a real longshot for that to happen in Oakland.

I’m just brainstorming. I wouldn’t know if a stadium was even possible in all this open land, east of Oakland.  First of all, it is deadly hot out there. Second, there are all sorts of electric power and water and all sorts of building issues that would likely take a while to figure out.  If it is feasible, I would be surprised if Mark Davis has not already looked into this option. Finding a new stadium has been his priority long before he inherited the Managing General Partner role of the Oakland Raiders franchise.

If a new Los Angeles stadium is in the cards then nothing will stop that move from happening.  Whatever decision is made in that regard will be in joint concert with the NFL.  The authoritarian Roger Goodell will make sure of that.  However, the Raiders can’t rely on moving to LA.  They certainly can’t rely on the dysfunctional powers that run Oakland and the County of Alameda to build a brand new football-only complex on the same site as the existing Oakland Coliseum.  They also cannot rely on the benevolence of the San Francisco 49ers to allow them to share their swanky new home in Santa Clara, CA when that facility gets built.

We’re already sitting in traffic along the east bay freeway.  Adding Sunday traffic  in the fall would be a welcome change of pace to the view we have now of that open, somewhat green land.