Football Town, Baseball Town


Too often, Oakland has been the butt of jokes or an object of pity in national eyes. In the sports world, however, Oakland has been a serious trailblazer. Al Davis emphasized the vertical passing game in the AFL over the the stodgy, conservative NFL to the point of disdaining the inevitable league merger, with Davis feeling that the AFL would eventually surpass the NFL due to a more entertaining, superior brand of football. While Aaron Sorkin and Michael Lewis were popping zits, Charlie Finley built a dynasty by stealing scouting information from other teams and by being the shrewdest guy in the room. The Bash Brothers-era A’s were the pioneers of performance-enhancing drugs, paving the way from 20 years of chicks digging the long ball. Moneyball has been well-documented, and its nascent successor is well on its way.

Not only did Oakland teams change the way sports was played on the field, for better or worse they changed the economics of pro sports forever. The darkest chapter started in 1982, when Davis attempted to move the Raiders to Los Angeles. We all know the story. Davis applied for the move and was rejected by a 22-0 vote of the other owners. Davis and the LA Memorial Coliseum subsequently filed separate antitrust lawsuits against the NFL, with Davis and the Coliseum eventually prevailing. The Raiders had almost immediate success in LA, winning Super Bowl XVIII in 1984.

Without an emboldened Davis, Bob Irsay may never have had the “courage” to move the Colts out of Baltimore. If Davis was the scarred warrior first through the proverbial wall, Irsay gladly followed his lead. Instead of a protracted battle, Irsay packed Mayflower trucks in the wee hours of March 28, 1984, and took the team to Indianapolis, where the shiny, new Hoosier Dome awaited. Just four years later, Bill Bidwill took the Cardinals out of St. Louis and relocated in the Valley of the Sun, where the only other pro franchise at the time was the Phoenix Suns. The Browns were next, as Art Modell was in over his head running decaying Cleveland Stadium and lost so much money that he needed a bailout city to keep the team. The Browns moved to Baltimore in 1995, shifting the heartbreak 371 miles west. That conveniently made Cleveland a stalking horse for every city whose stadium was outdated, until Cleveland was awarded an expansion Browns franchise for the 1999 season. Bud Adams moved the Oilers from Houston to Nashville by way of Memphis, changing the team name to the Titans along the way. Houston got the last expansion team in 2000 and would start play in 2002. Los Angeles lost both its teams in 1995 to two other cities who had previously lost their franchises, the Rams to St. Louis and the Raiders back to Oakland.

MLB’s antitrust exemption allowed these cities’ baseball teams to stay put while their NFL counterparts had the freedom to move willy-nilly. While all of the affected cities seemed to use the same playbook, all had unique circumstances that ultimately made them ripe for an NFL team to bolt.

  • Oakland – For years Davis pestered the Coliseum Commission for skyboxes and other improvements and was rejected. He moved the Raiders for promises of suites and pay-per-view TV money in LA, neither of which materialized. In response, the OACC worked with Wally Haas to refurbish the Coliseum for baseball after the Raiders left, including the suites Davis wanted. When Davis brought the Raiders back, the Coliseum was set back to the old Mausoleum days (at least for baseball) and little has changed since.
  • Baltimore – Like Davis, Irsay complained about the state of Memorial Stadium, which lacked modern amenities. Wanting to prevent a repeat of the Colts’ move, Baltimore and Maryland officials worked with the Orioles on a successor to Memorial which became Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Construction of OP@CY started only 5 years after the Colts left. The model used to build OP@CY was so successful that it was replicated in nearly every MLB market, and was extended when Baltimore lured the Browns away from Cleveland. Coincidentally, both the current baseball and football teams in the Charm City were once named the Browns – St. Louis and Cleveland, respectively.
  • St. Louis – For decades there were two teams that played at Busch Stadium that were called the Cardinals. Only one truly mattered. St. Louis is a baseball town first and foremost, with football being a mostly unpleasant diversion throughout the two tenures of NFL football in the city. So when the football Cards left for Arizona, there was little drama or protest, at least compared to other cities. Later there would be a love affair with the Greatest Show on Turf-era Rams, but that too fizzled, leaving many wondering if the Rams will return to LA.
  • Cleveland – Modell largely brought the team’s demise in Cleveland on himself. He chose to take control of Cleveland Municipal Stadium from the City, including all revenue and operations costs, the latter of which only grew while the former dwindled. While he supported some domed stadium concepts in the 80’s, in error he chose not to become a partner in the Gateway Center project, a broad redevelopment plan in downtown Cleveland that could have netted a successor to Muni. This may have been due to a cash-flow problem on Modell’s part, as Dick Jacobs was able to fund roughly half of a new Indians ballpark. The ballpark would go on to fuel the Indians’ resurgence and partly salved the wound made by Modell.
  • Houston – Unlike Oakland and Baltimore, Adams was granted significant improvements to the Astrodome that should’ve kept the Oilers in town for 20 years, if not more. 10,000 seats were added to the back wall, replacing what was once the largest scoreboard in the world. Suites also helped modernize the Dome. Despite the improvements, the total capacity was only 60,000, a number that would prove too small in the coming era of NFL football (70k is the comfort zone with 5-10k more for Super Bowls). Reliant Stadium, built next to the Astrodome, has a capacity of 71,000. A countywide effort spurred partly by the Oilers’ move resulted in a new ballpark (Minute Maid Park), arena (Toyota Center), and Reliant.
  • Los Angeles – Still has no NFL replacement 17 years after both teams left. Two competing NFL stadium proposals exist, only one will get enough popular support and resources to move forward if one or two teams commit to moving to LA. All the while forces looking to bring a pro team back to LA are competing with USC and to a lesser extent UCLA, who both “secretly” view the NFL as competition. The cost to bring the NFL back is so high for all parties (city, developers, team) that there’s a legitimate doubt as to whether it will happen. Meanwhile the Angels have only flourished in a baseball-remodeled stadium made possible by the Rams’ exodus, and the Dodgers have continued to gain in value regardless of the quality of ownership involved.

Which of those cities are football towns, and which are baseball towns? Oakland had the Raiders before the A’s, and attendance trends point to it being a football-first market. Baltimore isn’t big enough to be a four-sport town like Philadelphia, Boston, or New York City. Historically, Baltimore ignores hockey and its experiment with the NBA Bullets failed. Continued success of the Orioles kept attendance in the top half of the American League, until right around the time the Ravens started playing at a neighboring stadium in the Inner Harbor. While the situation is too complex to blame the O’s downturn specifically on football, there is an argument to be made that a smaller media market’s attention is finite, so locals turned their attention to a fresh, exciting Ravens team as post-Cal Ripken, Jr. era began. St. Louis and Houston both suffered from apathy, though Houston was certainly a better football market. If St. Louis is a baseball town, is Houston a football town? Within Texas, the Oilers were always overshadowed by the Cowboys, and the Oilers’ annual bridesmaid status made it hard to stick with the team when the times got tough. Cleveland’s a unique case in that it hasn’t won anything since 1964, a psychologically crushing phenomenon that I can only be thankful I never had to experience. Like Baltimore, it can be considered at the very least a true two-sport town, with basketball providing a winter diversion.

Winning played a major factor in building up the support necessary to build new venues for the baseball Cardinals and the Orioles. The Astros and Indians were both part of large-scale downtown redevelopment efforts. That leaves the A’s, who can’t be classified in either category. When East Bay civic leaders put together the resources to build the Coliseum complex nearly 50 years ago, the idea was to put Oakland on the map, an effort that mostly succeeded. Now that Oakland is struggling to retain its teams, it once again has to decide how much resources to use to maintain its sports town status. Even then it’s not clear just what kind of sports town Oakland is. That may seem like an academic question, but it’s important as those finite resources will be devoted to some effort. If more people feel it’s necessary to keep the Raiders than the A’s or vice-versa, they’ll pledge their effort to it. It’s the decision that Oakland and the East Bay doesn’t want to make. Yet it’s coming, like it or not.

20 thoughts on “Football Town, Baseball Town

  1. Isn’t it a little misleading specifying Oakland or any Bay Area city with a question like this? I mean, is SF a football town even though a small fraction of its citizens have season tickets and they let the 49ers leave city limits? Are they a baseball town? They turned down most opportunities for a new Giants park for the longest time and have historically had bad attendance. I think in the Bay Area, which is what we are really talking about, a team has to have a regional following or they will end up drawing flies and no matter what city, Concord, Sunnyvale, San Ramon, etc. the NFL is king.

  2. eb, I wouldn’t think it’s mis-leading per se. Just perhaps not explicit enough. You are right in that it’s the region’s support on the whole that’s necessary, but I don’t think ML was necessarily condensing it down to Oakland on it’s own. Oakland, itself, would basically be on the hook to cover the deal/cost/etc. hence the specificity of Oakland over the bay area. It’s Oakland that needs to take stock of the region and determine which (if they had to choose) is more representative of the bay area sports fan. Just like Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis, etc. had to do for their regions.

  3. Ahhh, deflection, the time honored tradition of those East Bay pundits who don’t want to or aren’t willing to take responsibility for their teams by pointing the fingers at others. It’s this kind of attitude which will doom the sports teams in Oakland, because they don’t want to make the tough decisions and instead insist on a reality which doesn’t or won’t exist. Just keep on telling yourself that it’s a Bay Area issue (while insisting it is a O-A-K-L-A-N-D team) and you’ll have no one else to blame but yourself…..

  4. @eb – I used “Oakland” and “East Bay” interchangeably. It’s not a “Bay Area” problem because the entire Bay Area won’t be leveraged for Coliseum City. Not even the entire East Bay will. It’s really up to Oakland and Alameda County. That only exacerbates the limited resources issue.

  5. @dmoas “It’s Oakland that needs to take stock of the region and determine which (if they had to choose) is more representative of the bay area sports fan. ”
    I understand and that totally makes sense. Maybe I was unclear with my thoughts (having a baby that won’t sleep on schedule will do that), I just think the Bay Area sports towns are a different animal than say Cleveland., though, yes, Oakland will certainly have to make some tough decisions.

    @Anon ‘…and instead insist on a reality which doesn’t or won’t exist.” The irony here is awesome.

  6. It appears that the city of Oakland is more interested in the Raiders.Wasn’t it last year that they pledged millions to actually explore the feasability of building the Raiders a new stadium at the coliseum site..That along w/ buying parcels South of the Coliseum.(not sure that CC is the result)That was more than they have done for the A’s. Plus Oakland actually meets w/Mark Davis.The question is what are the Raiders going to do? Roger Goodell has said that teams can begin appying for Los Angeles this coming January.If the Raiders leave will Oakland suddenly put everything on the table for the A’s?? That’s what I have been wondering.
    Which leads me to a question for Bay Area Fans…Would you rather keep the Raiders or the A’s in Oakland, if it came down to Oakland keeping only one.I guess this scenario only applies if SJ is a no go for the A’s.

  7. “Which leads me to a question for Bay Area Fans…Would you rather keep the Raiders or the A’s in Oakland, if it came down to Oakland keeping only one.I guess this scenario only applies if SJ is a no go for the A’s.”
    It would depend on the scenario. Would one team be leaving the Bay Area all together? Obviously, I would remain a fan of both franchises as long as they were in the Bay Area. I think the best scenario for Oakland (aside from keeping both teams) is the A’s staying in a new yard and the Raiders playing in SC until a stadium of their own gets built in the East Bay or Oakland down the line. I think Oakland is pushing for the Raiders as of now, maybe because of Mark being open to building or maybe they see more value in an NFL team.

  8. ML:

    Spot on analysis as usual.

  9. Totally thought you were going to go with this song.

  10. Good post. One thing that jumps out is the actual existence of the stadiums waiting for the NFL teams to move into when they changed cities. Maybe it’s the economic era, maybe it’s the impediment of the A/T exemption, but San Jose and Wolff/Fisher don’t have the final piece in place. Apparenlty, they have to prepare, and wait, for approval before they can build. The A/T exemption looks less and less defensible every day. (For that very reason, I expect mlb to broker a deal between the A’s and Giants, to pull the shades back over the privilege mlb enjoys.)
    Oakland is a football town. Raider Nation is a remarkable phenomenon that passes down through the generations like a passionate minority faith. Back in 2001, on the last day of the season, when Barry Bonds hit number 73, my 10 year old son and I rode BART back to the East Bay. At a downtown station, hundreds of costumed Black-Hole-style Raider fans boarded the cars. Suddenly we were in the middle of a Halloween party. I enjoyed listening to the ghouls and monstrous misfits rattle their chains, etc., while they chatted lightly about what time they needed to pick up the baby from grandma, or what time they had to be behind the reception desk at their boss’s office in the morning. To each his own. My son eventually developed into a staunch 49er fan.

  11. ML. My main man, your TREMENDOUS website was sited by Jeff Passan in his article on the A’s today:

    Nicely done. The money quote from the article……

    “And to complement that with some revenue, some money, the riches San Jose would bring – well, the A’s, the little team that could, instantaneously would become the big, bad wolf.
    All it takes is the San Francisco Giants ceding a territory that baseball will have to pry from their cold, dead fingers. That’s why, as the great notes, it has been 1,276 days since MLB looked into Oakland’s stadium options. It is one of the great embarrassments of Bud Selig’s tenure…”

  12. Congrats man. Passan actually seems to know what he’s talking about. Extremely rare for a national guy. Go A’s! Need the W tonight.

  13. Agree with suit (really!). Oakland is a football town and the city should focus on getting Da Raiders a new stadium. Watching last nights game, its not hard to imagine a totally revamped coliseum complete with western Mt. Davis and new north/south section. Also, NO MORE DIRT INFIELD to contend with; might of cost us the game last night.
    A’s in San Jose, Raiders forever in Oakland…make it happen!

  14. “I look at every life as a balance sheet” Does Wolff seriously not think about what he says? It was interesting hearing Chris Townsend say today that members of the A’s front office cringe and get angry when Wolff speaks.

  15. @Anon – Yes, but his name was so vague…

  16. eb, I guess what I was getting at above was that if it took the Raiders moving to L.A. for the city of Oakland to step up and build the A’s a new stadium (again if SJ is a no go) how would A’s fans feel about losing the Raiders, but as a result of that, the A’s playing in a new stadium. Presumely if Oakland has funding for the Raiders, but if they then leave, they could use those resources for the A’s. I am a fan of both teams, but no longer live in the BA.,so the Raiders heading for L.A. wouldn’t bother me too much,especially if it meant a new stadium for the A’s…..I’m sure fans in BA think differently, depending on which team they like more..So in a sense I asked Raiders or A’s/.FootballTown or Baseball Town. I know in the old days it was more a football town, but don’t know how it is since the Raiders came back.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.