NAPA, Calif. — There are no protest signs. The bleachers that wrap almost entirely around two football fields are mostly full, many of the fans wearing black under the summer sun, and somehow they are loud and boisterous and live up to their reputation, even if the Raiders’ regular season is still a few weeks away.
It’s like any other training camp, except the days here are probably numbered. With the Raiders slated to leave Oakland after the season, these fields behind a Marriott in the heart of wine country host a team and a fan base at a crossroads. For a sliver of time, they’re locked in the most awkward of situations, not unlike jilted lovers on the brink of divorce, trapped together in the same house until the paperwork is finalized.
“We have very loyal fans. It’s going to be heartbreaking in some ways; it’s going to be ultra exciting in others to see the future of this franchise,” Raiders Coach Jon Gruden explained after one recent practice.
If all goes as planned, one of the NFL’s most storied franchises will relocate to Las Vegas next season, finally ending a decade-long dance in which Raiders fans had to endure endless rumors of new stadiums and relocation plans. They’ve known definitively for the past year that the team’s departure was inevitable, making this move unlike many others the league has seen. Teams such as the Colts, Browns and Rams fled their homes much more abruptly, breaking hearts, angering fans and prompting impromptu jersey bonfires.
These fans — often cast (and dressed) as cartoon characters of sorts — have very real feelings and have been forced to live with the pending loss for the better part of three years. Some are sticking with the team, some are toning down their fandom, and others are trying to move on.
“It’s just awkward is the best way to describe it,” said Ken Webb, 57, a lifelong Raiders fan. “It’s not a comfortable way to do it. I would not want a slow breakup with my girlfriend. If you’re going to go, then go. I don’t expect you to still cook for me while I’m building a new house with my new girlfriend.”
The Raiders plan to move into $1.8 billion Allegiant Stadium, not far from Vegas’s Strip, next year. They’re asking Raiders fans to stick with them until they load up the moving vans. Many are. When the team filed paperwork to leave Oakland two years ago, it offered refunds to season ticket holders. According to media reports, 1,000 fans took the team up on the offer, and within two hours those seats had been resold. Webb, however, canceled his season tickets.
“A lot of people will deal with it in whatever way works for them. My way was to take charge and not wait until that last moment,” said Webb, who proudly stuck with the team during its Los Angeles sabbatical more than three decades ago. “I’m out. People can lament and have that last cry. I’ve already said goodbye and sold her clothes out the closet. She can have her new boyfriend.”
Webb will still root for the team. He can’t help that. He watched the Raiders’ first preseason game two weekends ago from Ricky’s Sports Theatre and Grill, a longtime hangout for Oakland fans. The sports bar is decked out in Raiders paraphernalia from floor to ceiling, and nearly all of the 90 or so TVs were tuned into a mostly meaningless game between the Raiders and Rams.
Alicia Orabella, 50, was also there. She has conflicted feelings, sure, but she said she’s able to draw lines of distinction. She can be upset with management, but she chooses to stick by the players. “Whether they went to Vegas, San Diego or Mississippi, it’s the same team. How do you just stop rooting for them?” she said.
The late Al Davis coined the slogan “Once a Raider, always a Raider,” and the organization has used it plenty to test its fans over the years. For the most part, they still show up. The team has conducted fan surveys and expects 10 percent of its Las Vegas season ticket holders to come from the Bay Area. Las Vegas is, after all, an inviting weekend destination — a 90-minute flight or an eight-hour drive around the Sierra Nevada.
They’ll play seven more games in Oakland — plus a preseason contest in Winnipeg and a regular season game in London — and then they’ll move the entire operation across the state line and see how many fans follow. At the home preseason opener against the Rams, the team announced a paid attendance of 48,715, slightly down from the 53,024 who paid for the preseason opener a year ago.
For many, the team’s logo represents an attitude as much as it does any geographic region, and that won’t change. The relationship is a personal one, as Keelan Doss knows all too well.
The 23-year-old wide receiver is trying to make the team as an undrafted free agent. He grew up about four miles away from the Raiders’ team facility in Alameda. When he hauled in a third-quarter touchdown pass Aug. 11 against the Rams, those were his family and friends he could hear cheering in the stands.
“Obviously, they want to see us stay,” he said. “But at the end of the day, they support the Raiders, so when we get to Vegas, hopefully they’re still supporting us when we get there.”
The team’s training camp shows few signs of dissent or disquiet. That could be by design — camp was only open this year to season ticket holders and special invitees. Still, the group is loud, presenting a colorful backdrop for the HBO “Hard Knocks” cameras that buzz around the fields to document one of the league’s more intriguing preseason camps. The fans have endured losing seasons (4-12 and last place in the AFC West in Gruden’s first year back at the helm a year ago) and plenty of player drama (new wide receiver Antonio Brown has changed teams but is reliably unpredictable), but they still feel a sense of ownership of a team that’s being whisked away.
“They never waver,” linebacker Tahir Whitehead. “They might talk a little smack, get on your case a little bit, but at the end of the day they’re not going anywhere, and that’s what I love.”
Following a recent practice, fans lined up four-deep behind a rope, a tangled knot of outstretched arms waving balls, hats and helmets. Left tackle Kolton Miller, who grew up in nearby Roseville, just north of Sacramento, was among the last players on the field.
“I think we’re trying to bring as many fans over as we can, and we’re trying to keep that fan base,” he said. “I know, for my family, I’m loading up Southwest points.”
He scribbled his name as quickly as possible and chatted with the fans as he moved down the line.
“You’ve got to hold it down this year,” one said.
“Stay healthy this year, baby,” said another.
The team hasn’t ruled out returning to Napa but has also explored potential training camp sites closer to its new home. For now, every week the franchise is inching toward something new and away from something familiar, testing a relationship that had always been defined by loyalty and passion.
“Thanks for holding it down for Oaktown,” said a third fan.