To lure Raiders owner Al Davis back from Los Angeles in 1995, government officials here provided nearly $200 million in incentives.
The city built a 10,000-seat addition to its multipurpose stadium, a project so immense it came to be known as Mt. Davis. Oakland built the team a new practice facility and even paid for moving expenses -- this after Davis and the Raiders had abandoned the city after the 1981 season.
Oakland's ultimate vision -- the reflected glory of a triumphant football team -- has been realized with the Raiders' first Super Bowl appearance in 19 years. But it is tempered by a sobering question: "At what cost?"
With California facing its worst financial crisis in a generation, Oakland and Alameda County are now paying more than $25 million a year to service bonds issued to renovate the stadium. The city's portion -- $12.5 million -- is roughly equal to the annual budget of its library system, which is expected to suffer drastic cuts this year.
Making matters worse, the peripatetic Davis, citing poor attendance and broken promises, has hinted that he might actually leave again, possibly back to Los Angeles, and the Raiders and Oakland have become locked in a bitter legal battle that already has cost taxpayers at least $10 million.
If all goes as scheduled, the Super Bowl will be followed by the Super Bowl of Lawsuits: a $1.1 billion action in which Davis alleges that Oakland induced him to sign a 16-year lease by falsely claiming Raiders games were already sold out. A trial is scheduled for March 24 in Sacramento.
The requested damages are more than twice Oakland's budget. If the Raiders win the suit, said Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, "We'll have to give them the school district and the police and fire departments. The Raiders would have to run [the city]. We wouldn't have any money."
In a measure of how far Oakland's relationship with the Raiders has deteriorated, the team has refused to take calls from officials trying to plan a victory parade. "We might just take a parade across the country," said Raiders senior assistant Bruce Allen. Nor has the team offered tickets to Oakland politicians. "I'm still looking for one," Brown said in an interview on Wednesday morning.
Davis, in San Diego for the game, did not return telephone calls.
As much as anything, Oakland's travails with the Raiders are a cautionary tale for cities such as Washington that are pondering whether a new sports franchise is worth it. Major League Baseball has said Washington is a prime candidate for a relocated team, but only if the city builds a new stadium. The District, along with Northern Virginia, is considering a project that would cost hundreds of million of dollars.
Since 1989, taxpayers have put up $5.2 billion to finance stadium construction for sports teams, according to a study published by the Sports Lawyers Journal last year. The reasons are obvious: sports franchises bring psychic civic benefits -- the feeling of being "major league" -- as well as cascading economic activity spurred by ticket sales, television advertising, memorabilia sales and other revenue generated by the team's presence.
The psychic benefits have rarely been more pronounced than in Oakland, where the Raiders were founded in 1960. The blue-collar city, of course, has long played homely stepsister to San Francisco, which rises across the bay like Oz. "The only way to think of Oakland is that it's the Queens of the Bay Area," said Leonard Koppett, a former New York Times sportswriter who has lived in the Bay Area since 1973.
"If San Francisco is Manhattan and San Jose is the Bronx, then Oakland is, well, it's like the Gertrude Stein line -- 'There's no there there' -- whatever that means. So getting a major league football team, at a time when football was just beginning to take precedence over baseball on the television set, was a very great emotional boost to the Oakland culture."
Over time, the Raiders seemed to acquire the personality of the city -- hard-working, tough, a little raw, with players ranging from ancient kicker-quarterback George Blanda to mauled center Jim Otto to safety Jack Tatum, the "assassin." And, of course, there was Davis, the transplanted Brooklyner, who built the team from the ground up. The area's love affair soared with the team's success: Since 1963, when Davis took over as coach with a partial stake in the team, the Raiders have a higher winning percentage (.629) than any team in football.
Then, at the '81 season, Davis, unable to negotiate a new lease with the Oakland stadium authority, left for Los Angeles. By then, Oakland had two other professional teams -- the Golden State Warriors and the Oakland Athletics -- but for the city it was "like being jilted by your first girlfriend," said Wally Haas, the former A's owner. The city and the NFL sued to try to stop the move but were thwarted in court.
At first the idea of the Raiders returning to Oakland was unthinkable. Then, suddenly, it wasn't. Davis, unhappy with the antiquated Los Angeles Coliseum, tried unsuccessfully to build stadiums near the racetrack at Hollywood Park and in nearby Irwindale. He ultimately filed a $1.2 billion suit against the NFL for allegedly undermining his efforts. (He lost, 9-3, but a judge has since granted a new trial, ruling that a juror had made prejudicial comments against the Raiders.) As the Raiders' problems in Los Angeles mounted, George Vukasin, then president of the Oakland stadium authority, wrote a letter to Davis, inviting him back.
Davis, according to Vukasin, responded with a list of demands. They included expanding Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, building the new practice facility and paying the team's moving expenses back to Oakland.
By far, the most expensive component was the stadium expansion. The Coliseum's capacity was about 53,000. Davis wanted a stadium large enough to support the Super Bowl. The project would cost at least $100 million, projected government officials, who planned to issue bonds to cover the Raiders' move.
The seeds of the current problems were planted in that moment. To avoid saddling taxpayers with long-term debt, officials concluded the interest payments could be covered by the sale of Personal Seat Licenses -- one-time payments that give fans the exclusive right to purchase season tickets. The sale of the PSLs and tickets -- as well as the marketing of the team -- would be handled by the Oakland Football Marketing Association, a government-funded agency.
"It was a unique situation," said Vukasin.
On July 20, 1995, the OFMA director, Marc S. Ganis, issued a press release announcing that the Raiders had sold 44,700 personal seat licenses ranging from $250 to $4,000. The figures, Ganis told the public, represented a "sellout" for the 1995 season.
The announcement would have been joyous news to the city and the Raiders, who had yet to sign the lease. Only it wasn't true. Ganis, a sports financial consultant, said in an interview that the miscalculation resulted because credit cards were rejected in at least 4,000 PSL applications, but the applications were still included in the final count.
"The rest of it was snowball," said Ganis, who was later fired.
Max Muhleman, president of IMG/Muhleman Marketing, Inc., said that by the time his firm was brought in "it was sort of like answering a fire call." The actual number of PSLs sold, he said, was fewer than 30,000.
The difference meant about $17.6 million in lost revenue and millions more from unsold tickets.
"The Raiders were aghast. And the city and county were aghast and they both felt they were victims," said Muhleman, "And in a sense they were. And some of those poor fans. They were all victimized by their own lack of depth of knowledge. It's not one of those things where you can find a smoking gun. It was an unintentional abortion."
Fearing that the Raiders would try to break their lease, Oakland and Alameda County sued the team in 1997. The team countersued the following year. In 2000, a superior court judge ruled that the team must honor its lease, which runs through 2011, but that the team could sue for damages.
The crux of the $1.1 billion suit is whether Oakland and Alameda County intentionally misled Davis about the PSL sales before he signed a long-term lease on Aug. 7, 1995. A guarantee of sellouts was not included in the lease. Had the team known that the PSLs were undersold, however, the Raiders "never" would have signed, said Allen, the Raiders' executive. After several postponements, the case is scheduled to go trial on March 24, and observers from both sides said they doubted that a settlement could be reached.
Brown said he tried to broach a settlement with Davis two years ago. "At that time his main point is that he wanted to leave," said the mayor.
Kenneth G. Hausman, a San Francisco attorney representing the Raiders, denied that Davis wanted to leave Oakland. The team intends to honor its lease, he said.
Davis's critics said he is using the ticket fiasco to hide the Raiders' own shortcomings and his desire to leave Oakland again. In 1996, the year of the stadium expansion, the team averaged 52,127 fans, slightly more than the stadium's previous capacity. Until Sept. 27, 2000, the Raiders had a streak of 24 consecutive television blackouts because the team failed to sell out the required 72 hours before kickoff. Even this season, the team was forced to buy up tickets to ensure that a crucial Monday night game against the Jets would be televised locally.
Raider ticket prices are among the highest in the NFL. To many, the rebellious image of Raider Nation also works to keep fans away. Pamela Edelstein, a 45-year-old cook from San Francisco, said she attended the 49ers-Raiders game at the Network Associates Coliseum this season. "I remember thinking that if I had children I would not bring them to the game," she said.
Others believe that Davis himself is to blame. Roland Smith, the Oakland city auditor, said he hears constant complaints about the Raiders. "I think the biggest concern is Al Davis's greed" he said. "Al Davis is not liked in this city. People think he's an extremely greedy person."
Smith said he did not necessarily agree with that assessment, but he was concerned about the lawsuit. "If you go into court it's probably more iffy than going to a surgeon for a heart transplant: You never know what a judge and a jury are going to do," he said. "If Al Davis wins . . . you'd probably see the first city coming around to Chapter 11 that's ever happened."
Staff researcher Margot Williams contributed to this report.