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 That conveniently made Cleveland a stalking horse for every city whose stadium was outdated, until Cleveland was awarded an expansion Browns franchise for the 1999 season.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.