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.

No comments: