PHOENIX -- I first met Ray Perez, Raiders super fan, outside of a fancy hotel in Houston about 15 months ago. He was dressed in the full regalia of his alter ego, Dr. Death -- face painted, Raiders hard hat on his head with protruding faux swords like some kind of a Mad Max-style mohawk of, well, death -- and he was anxious but hopeful about the future of his beloved NFL franchise.
At the time Raiders owner Mark Davis was trying to move the team from Oakland to Los Angeles -- in a vote that would not go his way -- and a brief chat with Perez revealed how astute he was in the minutia of pro football economics, how emotionally invested he was in his team staying in the Bay Area, and how much homework he had done.
Perez and I picked that conversation back up Monday, in the lobby of the swanky Arizona Biltmore Hotel, about an hour afterupon construction of a new state-of-the-art stadium there.
This time, Perez was dressed in a dark suit, no makeup, not one piece of Raiders garb on him anywhere. Not a button. Nothing. He was dressed almost as if going to a funeral, dark sunglasses tucked in his white dress shirt. And for Raiders fans back in Oakland, that had to be how it felt, with this franchise yet again on the move. Davis got his way, and a third NFL franchise was granted permission to uproot itself since January 2016, with the old mantra of “follow the money” once again ringing true.
Ultimately, despite the reservations that some owners hold about the merits of the Vegas market versus Oakland, despite some consternation about the roughly $1.4 billion in debt required to finance this move and despite concerns about the Rams, Chargers and Raiders all moving in quick succession, the fact that Nevada brought $750 million in free money to the table carried the day. And as Davis stood in a hallway surrounded by cameras explaining why the Las Vegas Raiders will still be called the Oakland Raiders for at least two more years while they continue to play in the decrepit O.Co Coliseum, Perez and his friend Griz Jones sat in the lobby a few hundred feet away, contemplating why all of their hours at city council meetings and talking to politicians and trying to get the league’s attention had gone for naught.
“I am no longer supporting the NFL,” Perez said, trying to calculate all of the thousands of dollars he has spent attending Raiders games, home and away. “And I really implore a lot of Oakland Raider fans to do the same thing. ... I’m not going to any more games, and I know a lot of my friends are not going to go. I’m going to demand a refund [on his season-ticket deposit]. I want to make it as terrible and horrible for Mark Davis as possible.”
Jones, a co-founder of the Forever Oakland fan movement and leader of one the longest-running tailgates in the NFL, predicted that the next two years playing in Oakland will be “horrible,” anticipating significant fan backlash. Jones said, “Mark can take the team and get out of here, but the movement has already begun to file a class-action lawsuit to make sure we get to retain the name.”
Davis, meantime, could barely contain his ear-to-ear grin. You could almost see the champagne bottles popping in his mind’s eye. A year after basically storming out of a press conference when the NFL chose Stan Kroenke’s project in Inglewood, California, over the joint Chargers/Raiders plan in Carson, he now sat at the winner’s dais as the media peppered him and commissioner Roger Goodell with questions.
Davis, who inherited the team from his late father, Al Davis, a uniquely iconoclastic figure in league history who excelled as a coach, front office man and owner, said he turned on the Bay Area for good after the municipalities hiked up his lease rate in the aftermath of him losing that relocation vote a year ago. It’s another painful and complicated chapter in the franchise’s transient history -- moving from Oakland to Los Angeles and back again, only now to head east assuming Davis comes through on the lease contingencies he must finalize to consummate this deal.
Former Raiders top executive Amy Trask, as close to Al Davis as anyone and whose final years in the organization were spent trying to secure a permanent home for the team in the Bay Area, was among those feeling somewhat torn about this latest turn of events. She aches for friends and fans in the Bay Area losing their team but alluded to Raiders Nation being a truly global entity. As to how the franchise’s long-time patriarch would have felt about this latest move:
“Moving back to Oakland was something very, very important to Al, and that felt right to him,” said Trask, who left the team three years ago to pursue opportunities in the media and was very involved in the relocation from L.A. to Oakland. “Oakland was very, very special to him, and we discussed his wishes in that regard in his waning years, and what his desires were with respect to the team. And the fact was that he loved Oakland very much, but he wanted to leave the decision for a new stadium up to his son, and he was very clear with me on that in his waning years.”
The NFL maintains that Oakland’s government never brought enough to the table -- others would debate that -- but regardless, once Davis secured Bank of America to finance the $600 million left vacant when billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the architect of this project and just about the first man Davis publicly thanked Monday, pulled out, this had become a fait accompli. Davis asserts that for years he was inclined to strike a deal in Oakland; and that, too, is quite debatable as his yearning for L.A. was well-known in league circles for years and he invested heavily in terms of finances and resources into studying that market as well as San Antonio and, ultimately, Las Vegas.
His wanderlust is not some recent development.
When asked if the $750 million in public funding Nevada ended up coughing up went a long way to get 30 of his partners to vote in favor of this move, Davis couldn’t ignore the obvious.
“The commitment made by the governor of Nevada and the legislature of Nevada was pretty strong,” Davis said, in the understatement of the offseason.
“The future of the Raiders can be much more secure playing in a first-class stadium,” said Steelers owner Art Rooney II, the chair of the powerful stadium committee who was among the old-school franchises to initially be wary of the gambling aspects of Las Vegas but who grew warm to it over time.
Goodell spoke of Oakland’s commitments to the A’s. “This was a complicating factor,” the commissioner said, and as awkward as it seems, “I believe they’re going to be called the Oakland Raiders as long as they’re playing in Oakland.”
Oh, what an uncomfortable next 19 months this might be back in Alameda County. Davis has offered toto those who request it -- one suspects quite a few fans will take him up on that offer -- but that won’t go far toward placating people. The owner pleaded with fans not to displace their anger with him on to players and coaches this season -- and they are very much pawns in this affair -- and said he intends to take his message directly to fans.
“Hopefully, we can work something out,” he said.
Good luck with that.
Davis also spoke wistfully about possibly extending his existing lease with the O.Co Coliseum through the 2019 season. Again, good luck with that.
I wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up elsewhere by 2018 -- in the past high-ranking league sources identified San Antonio as a possible temporary home -- while I learned Monday that the NFL has already done on-site studies of UNLV’s current stadium and while “it has a ways to go,” in terms of being up to NFL standards, according to one source with knowledge of the situation, getting it ready for September 2018 wouldn’t be out of the question.
We’ll see if the Raiders, fresh off their first winning season in over a decade, are playing before sparse crowds. We’ll see how many games they play in London and Mexico City the next three years -- it’ll be quite a few, trust me -- and we’ll see if the burgeoning on-field product gets hindered by the impending move. We’ll see how many California-based Raider fans drive or fly to games in Vegas -- Davis was banking on it in his proposal -- and we’ll see just how sound of an NFL market Vegas becomes.
And we’ll see, over time, if some of these fresh wounds ever heal.
“I’ll tell you this, I’m at peace,” Perez told me. “I know the city of Oakland has done everything they could. They cannot negotiate with themselves. And if they were to try to raise taxes to keep the Raiders, I would tell the Raiders to leave. Las Vegas has one of the worst school systems in the nation. How do you justify that?”