With Super Bowl settled, comes another showdown
Any team that reaches the Super Bowl is presumably firmly entrenched. Not so with the Oakland Raiders, who hope to move their operation lock, stock, and barrel to Los Angeles before the 1981 National Football League season.
The planned action has infuriated Oakland fans, much as Walter O'Malley's decision to transfer the Brooklyn dodgers to Los Angeles angered New Yorkers in 1958.
The League, which also opposes the idea, blocked the Raiders' attempted move last year and is now the target of an antitrust suit brought by the franchise.
All this controversy was overshadowed, of course, by the buildup to the Super Bowl itself, but now that Sunday's championship game between Oakland and Philadelphia is out of the way, attention has turned to next month's impending court proceedings, which could make that battle seem a mere skirmish.
As Al Davis, Oakland's maverick owner, sees things, prosperity by the bay doesn't mean that greener financial pastures do not lie elsewhere. So when the Rams moved from Los Angeles proper to their current home in Anaheim some 40 miles away, he launched his attempt to switch the Raider franchise to L.A.
"To compete in the '80s," he explained, "we need more income than we can generate in Oakland now. I don't want an apologist team. I want a winner."
What's at stake, Davis feels, is his right -- or that of any owner -- to pack up and relocate, even if this flies in the face of league rules and community outrage.
The league philosophy, on the other hand, has always been strength through unity.At his Super Bowl press conference, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle warned against teams acting as autonomous businesses.
"What makes the individual teams successful is their membership in the league ," he said. "If you didn't belong to a league, and just had teams arranging scrimmages against one another, you couldn't expect many people to watch. But you can't have a league unless everybody is willing to abide by mutually agreed-upon rules."
The rule in this case is the NFL dictum that no franchise can move without the consent of the other league owners -- something Davis hasn't received. Furthermore, Oakland's managing general partner is well aware that such consent may never be forthcoming. In the last 35 years only one team, the Cardinals in 1960, has resettled in another metropolitan area, and their departure to St. Louis still left the Bears in Chicago.
But Davis, of course, can argue that if the Raiders did move, there would still be a team -- the San Francisco Giants -- in the Bay Area. And in one of the ironies of the current situation, he can point to the fact that the current Los Angeles Rams themselves came about via a franchise shift in 1946, when the Cleveland Rams, who had won the NFL title the previous year, obtained the required consent and became the league's pioneer West Coast team.
Basically, however, franchise shifts in today's pro football economy appear unnecessary. The sport's limited schedule (eight regular season home games per team) creates a demand for tickets, making it unlikely that any NFL team will go begging for in-stadium fans, as sometimes happens in other sports.
This may partly explain why the Raiders have virtually sold out the 55,000 -seat Oakland Alameda Coliseum the past 12 seasons, while the baseball A's struggle to draw crowds. Producing winning teams all those years obviously has been a factor, too.
Having established their loyalty, however, Raider fans are understandably incensed by the team's possible exodus. About 10,000 of them became season ticket dropouts this season, and many with tickets displayed "Save Our Raiders" signs during a nationally televised Monday night game after a protest outside the stadium.
Still, the fans came, seemingly making the financial argument for moving to Los Angeles a questionable one. In terms of gate receipts, the club couldn't do that much better playing in the 75,000-seat L.A. Colilseum, not when a league formula calls for proceeds to be split 60-40 with the visiting team.
What Davis may really see in Los Angeles, besides a more attractive stadium contract, is a very fertile TV market, one that could be a bonanza if teams start negotiating cable contracts.
even then, however, the league would probably insist that all 28 teams share the combined TV revenues equally, as they do now. But if Davis and the Raiders can defy the league's authority on one major issue, who is to say they can't do it again?
Falling in line has never been Al Davis's thing. Players often sing his praises, yet many of his fellow owners consider him an incorrigible rebel.
That Al feels no compunction to repay fan loyalty is a reflection of is own fierce pride in the Raider organization, which he's nurtured through much of its 21-year history beginning with the birth of the old American Football League. Davis's loyalty is to the team rather then the league or the community at large. The catch, according to Billy Sullivan, owner of the New England Patriots, is that the AFL awarded the Raiders' franchise to the city of Oakland, and not Al Davis.
Community interests are not always gallanty defended, though, as when the Rams left Los Angeles last season despite a public outcry. The Rams were offered a far better rental and concessions contract in Anaheim than they'd had at the Coliseum.
Because this was considered a move within a single geographical area, the club retained "Los Angeles" in its title, just as the Giants, Lions, and Cowboys have done in moving to East Rutherford, New Jersey, Pontiac, Mich., and Irving, Texas, respectively.
While these moves have inconvenienced some fans, who must travel farther to follow the local franchise, Rozelle contends most rooters are television watchers and lose nothing.
The NFL is braced to stand its ground, but then so also are Davis and the Raiders. Neither side seems inclined to yield, even though a federal judge has encouraged them to reach an out-of-court settlement.
"Whether they like it or not," said Judge Harry Pregerson recently, "some of the parties in this litigation will be living together as a family. It would be best if some of their tensions can be ironed out to bring harmony to future relations."
A failure to do so, he added, could trigger a "destructive mechanism" that might "end up causing permanent damage, not only to the group, but to the individuals involved."
Among the compromise solutions that have been suggested during the course of the controversy are to let Davis move the Raiders but put an expansion team in Oakland so that the fans there don't lose out altogether, or to keep the Raiders in Oakland but let Davis have an expansion franchise in L.A.
Stay tuned, the NFL's Big Event is about to begin.