Raiders’ relocation scenarios take on new dynamic
SAN FRANCISCO – Jed York sat in a modest conference room inside the owner’s suite at Candlestick Park on Sunday afternoon, a strain of sadness in his voice and a silver-and-black tie hanging from his neck.
In another hour the 49ers’ president and CEO would watch the team his family owns steamroll the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48-3 at one of the NFL’s most dilapidated stadiums. At that moment, however, York’s thoughts were with the rival franchise across the Bay.
“Al Davis helped broker the deal for my grandfather [Ed DeBartolo Sr.] to buy the 49ers, and he was very good to our family,” York said of the Oakland Raiders’ iconic owner, who died Saturday at the age of 82. “This is a very sad day for sports, and it’s a sad day for the 49ers, too.”
Yet for all the emotion associated with the loss of one of football’s legendary figures, and the sentiment triggered by the Raiders’ stirring 25-20 victory over the Texans in Houston on Sunday, the practical impact of Davis’ passing could be equally significant.
The apparent handing down of the franchise’s controlling interest from Davis to his son, Mark, may well cause a seismic shift in the NFL’s stadium construction and franchise relocation landscapes, with implications likely to reverberate across the facility-challenged state of California.
As the NFL closes in on a potential return to the Los Angeles market, which has been vacant since the Raiders returned to Oakland and the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995, there are numerous questions in the wake of Davis’ death:
Will the Raiders now be more receptive to cutting a deal with the 49ers that would establish the two franchises as co-tenants in a newly constructed Bay Area stadium, likely at the Santa Clara site where York has already received voter approval to proceed?
Will the Raiders be wooed back to L.A. as a tenant by one of two competing groups attempting to build stadiums in the region?
Will another franchise contemplating relocation – most likely the San Diego Chargers, but possibly the Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars, St. Louis Rams or Buffalo Bills – feel a renewed sense of urgency to strike a deal in Los Angeles now that the Raiders are theoretically in play?
Will Mark Davis entertain offers to sell the team that was inextricably linked to his father for nearly five decades?
Can Southern California sustain three teams – two in Los Angeles and one in San Diego? Conversely, might the 49ers have Northern California to themselves when the dust settles?
“There’s so much uncertainty, and this definitely changes the game,” one NFL owner said Sunday. “As far as L.A., now the race is on, and the Raiders returning just became a lot more viable.”
Two other NFL owners said they believed the league would be receptive to a potential Raiders relocation south, given California’s stadium construction challenges and the attendance issues the team has experienced since returning to Oakland in 1995 following a 13-year stint at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The groundwork for such a move may already be in the works. Six months ago, Al Davis sat down with officials from AEG – including the company’s chairman, multi-billionaire developer Phil Anschutz – to discuss the possibility of the Raiders playing in a proposed downtown Los Angeles stadium, according to two sources familiar with the meeting. However, Davis balked at Anschutz’s insistence on owning a sizeable share of the franchise, and the talks went nowhere.
It’s unknown whether Davis conducted similar discussions with developer Ed Roski, who is spearheading a competing stadium project on 600 acres of land he owns in the City of Industry, about 20 miles east of the proposed AEG site. While it is believed that the NFL would prefer the economics and location of the AEG plan – the three owners interviewed on Sunday each viewed the downtown option as the more favorable of the two – Y! Sports’ Jason Cole reported last Friday that the league has legitimate concerns about Anschutz’s proposal.
The Raiders’ situation is further complicated by the existence of numerous minority partners in the ownership group, including a group of East Coast businessmen who collectively purchased a 20-percent share in the team in 2007. However, sources indicate that those relatively new partners did not have an option to buy a controlling interest upon Davis’ death, meaning Mark Davis likely controls the franchise’s immediate direction.
[Related: Winners & losers: Emotional day for Raiders]
In an interview Sunday night, Raiders CEO Amy Trask, confirming comments she had made the previous night to the San Francisco Chronicle, told Y! Sports that “the team is not for sale. It will remain in the Davis family.”
Technically, Al Davis’ interest in the franchise will be passed to his wife, Carol, meaning that by law Mark can run the franchise without having to pay estate taxes. Upon his mother’s death, Mark would face a potentially hefty tax bill; however, an organizational source said that Al Davis anticipated this issue and put a plan in place that should allow the team to stay in the family under that circumstance.
In the meantime, Trask is likely to remain in place as CEO, and resolving the stadium situation will be perhaps her biggest challenge. If the team prefers to stay in Northern California, several sources say, the Raiders will likely be receptive to sharing a stadium with the 49ers. While the Raiders have explored the possibility of building a new facility on or adjacent to the current O.co Coliseum site in Oakland, there’s a far greater chance that the Santa Clara stadium effort, which York has spearheaded for several years, would be revised to include both teams as tenants.
“The deal that the voters approved allows for a two-team stadium in Santa Clara,” York said Sunday. “We’re moving forward, and that option exists if the Raiders are interested.”
Said Trask: “We have a tremendous relationship with the 49er organization, and we enjoy working with the 49ers on a variety of business matters. We have an open mind about the possibility of sharing a stadium and we keep the 49ers abreast of our stadium-related efforts, just as the 49ers keep us abreast of theirs.”
Because the 49ers are at a relatively advanced point in their stadium efforts – according to an organizational source, they have already sold approximately a quarter of the available luxury suites – it’s likely that they would propose a deal granting them primary ownership of the facility, with the Raiders signing a short-term lease that could later be extended if the arrangement proved to be mutually beneficial. The Raiders, in turn, would assume less of the financial risk and would be under less pressure to charge premium ticket prices.
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However, the Raiders also have significant support in Southern California, and some owners believe that it makes more sense to have only one franchise in the Bay Area, something which could best be accomplished by the Raiders’ moving from Oakland to Los Angeles.
“With Al alive, I don’t think they ever could’ve gotten the votes to move back to L.A.,” one owner said. “It’s not just because Al wouldn’t have given up control and was difficult to deal with; it’s because it’s too important a market, and Al only cared about the football side. We need someone there who cares about the business side, too. Now, all of a sudden, the landscape has changed. The Raiders are a very viable option.”
To this point, the franchise considered most likely to relocate to L.A. has been the Chargers, whose decade-long efforts to land a new stadium in the San Diego area have thus far been fruitless. Like the Raiders, the Chargers could get out of their current lease (at Qualcomm Stadium) with relative ease, and they would also have a strong fan base in the area given their relative proximity to Los Angeles.
Sources say Chargers chairman Dean Spanos has had numerous conversations with AEG but that the two sides are far apart on two significant issues: Spanos is dead-set against surrendering a controlling interest to Anschutz, and a potential sale of a minority interest (somewhere in the 30 percent range) is complicated by divergent interpretations of the franchise’s value. Whereas Anschutz believes he should be able to purchase his share at a reduced rate as a consideration for the large amount of capital he’d put up for stadium construction, Spanos insists that the franchise value should be pegged to the team’s projected worth upon the facility’s completion, which would be significantly higher.
With no end to the stare down in sight, it’s unclear whether either side will blink. The Chargers might now fear being beaten to L.A. by the Raiders in the wake of Davis’ death, a development that would leave them in a tough situation. Though the league ultimately believes L.A. is a two-team market, the preferred model allows for one NFC team and one AFC team, complicating a potential scenario in which the Raiders and Chargers both attempt to move there.
Said one source familiar with AEG’s stance, “[The Chargers] have all the opportunity in the world, unless someone beats them there, and then they have nothing. They could go from being the team with the most upside to the team that’s completely screwed.”
Then again, AEG could also be left on the outside if Spanos or another owner were to sidestep AEG and make a deal with Roski. One potential advantage of Roski’s plan is that unlike Anschutz, he is not believed to be seeking ownership interest in whatever team or teams are persuaded to move to Los Angeles.
Other franchises that are believed to be in play for L.A. are the Vikings, who have thus far failed in their efforts to land a new stadium in Minneapolis; the Rams, who have an out clause in their lease at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis; and the Jaguars, who have struggled to draw fans in the Jacksonville market and whose owner, Wayne Weaver, has discussed selling the team with several potential buyers over the past few years.
The Bills will likely be sold upon the passing of 92-year-old owner Ralph Wilson, but numerous owners prefer that a buyer would choose to relocate the franchise to nearby Toronto, the fourth-largest market in North America. A move to L.A. is viewed as a secondary option.
[ Related: Buffalo is the best fit for Bills ]
The bottom line is that a great deal of uncertainty remains as to what the NFL’s short- and long-term future in California holds, and right now the Raiders, as they adjust to the end of Al Davis’ long reign, have some decisions to make which will impact that landscape in numerous ways.
“Mark Davis is going to have a lot of interest from potential buyers,” one NFL owner said. “Some very rich people are going to come at him with an eye on L.A., and it will be very interesting to see how this plays out. Until we see what happens with the Raiders, it’s hard to predict how this will all shake out.”
On Sunday, amid all the uncertainty, the Bay Area enjoyed a bittersweet yet fulfilling afternoon of NFL action. In San Francisco, York joined 69,732 fans at Candlestick in a pregame moment of silence to honor Davis, then watched the Niners roll to their most decisive victory in 24 years and improve to 4-1, marking their best start since 2002.
A few hours later the Raiders landed in Oakland and arrived in the parking lot of their training facility in nearby Alameda to find a crowd of approximately 500 appreciative fans awaiting them. Trask joined coaches and players in a spontaneous, half-hour-long grieving session that featured hugs, heartfelt remembrances of the franchise’s late standard-bearer and a whole lot of tears.
“There were families with children and babies that probably should have been asleep,” Trask said. “There wasn’t a beer or cigarette to be found, just love and respect and a whole lot of emotion.”
For the Raiders – on this night, at least – it felt very much like home.
Davis and I had a nonexistent relationship – we had one meaningful conversation, when he spoke to me on the phone for nearly an hour for a 2002 Sports Illustrated feature I wrote on Trask. He banned me from the team’s training facility and locker room on numerous occasions, and I wrote plenty of critical articles that he undoubtedly despised. And yet, the man was one of the most influential and fascinating figures the sport has known, and his death was sobering and marked the end of an era. As I watched the Raiders honor his memory in Houston from the Candlestick press box, as coach Hue Jackson had told me they would the day before, the experience was more emotional than I could have expected. There is no cheering in the press box, and I am 100 percent down with that rule – yet on Michael Huff’s(notes) game-clinching, end-zone interception with no time remaining, I found myself pumping my fist and letting out a restrained but audible yelp of relief. And all I could think was, What is wrong with me? It wasn’t merely that I was rooting for a good story; it was more than I was captivated by what this statement meant to the men who made it, and how much they wanted it to be validated by a victory. As defensive end Richard Seymour(notes) told me afterward, “It was very [emotional], because of how he has touched us all in some way or another.” And Jackson? I loved the way he coached this game, from an early flea-flicker that should have resulted in a touchdown to the gutsy fake punt that extended a fourth-quarter drive to the incomplete deep ball to rookie receiver Denarius Moore(notes) when conventional wisdom called for the team to bleed the clock in the final minutes. Later, watching that video footage of Jackson’s postgame speech to the team (in which he said of Huff’s interception, “I tell you this, Al Davis had his hands on that ball, man …”), I had chills. What can I say? I tell readers all the time that I don’t care who wins these games, but this was an exception. … The 49ers, meanwhile, have something special brewing under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh, as evidenced by Sunday’s annihilation of a Bucs team that has legitimate playoff hopes. So much for a quiet start – San Francisco is 4-1, with a two-game lead over Seattle in the NFC West and an understandably growing supply of confidence. Are the Niners as good as they looked Sunday? “Oh, we’re better,” tight end Vernon Davis(notes) said. “We’re better. We beat ‘em by 45 points, but I think we’re better than what we showed. … There are still some things we did wrong. We believe we can dominate every team that we play. I strongly believe in that.”… Finally, let’s give some props to the Kansas City Chiefs, who have rebounded from a miserable start to put together second-half rallies over three consecutive weeks, the last two resulting in potentially season-saving victories. On Sunday in Indianapolis, K.C. came back from a 17-0 deficit to beat the winless Colts 28-24, matching the biggest comeback in franchise history. That’s the sign of a team that is still playing hard, regardless of the adversity it has experienced – a credit to embattled coach Todd Haley. It should also be noted that while Haley was criticized for easing up on his players in the early stages of training camp, K.C.’s stamina seems to have become an asset. “We’re wearing people down in the second half,” Haley said Sunday afternoon. Oh, and the Chiefs are doing it without arguably their two best players, halfback Jamaal Charles(notes) and safety Eric Berry(notes), both of whom have suffered season-ending knee injuries.
TWO THINGS I CAN’T COMPREHEND
2. What Jack Del Rio was thinking when he cut starting quarterback David Garrard(notes) five days before the start of the regular season. While I admired the boldness of the move at the time – especially given that Del Rio had been reasonably successful after pulling a similar stunt four years earlier, cutting starter Byron Leftwich(notes) and installing Garrard as his replacement – it now appears to have been a tad reckless. It would be one thing if Del Rio had developed a sound alternative to Garrard; instead, he handed the ball to journeyman Luke McCown(notes), who imploded in a Week 2 defeat to the Jets and was benched in favor of first-round draft pick Blaine Gabbert(notes). On Sunday, Gabbert was outplayed by another rookie passer, Andy Dalton(notes), in a 30-20 defeat to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Jags’ fourth consecutive loss. Afterward, Del Rio was a hot mess, telling reporters, “It’s a pretty crappy feeling right now,” and imploring them to “put it on my shoulders.” Unless things improve dramatically, owner Wayne Weaver almost certainly will – and Del Rio’s nine-year run in Jacksonville will end with him wondering if his team might have been competitive in the weak AFC South with a starting quarterback who knew what he was doing.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Two weeks ago in this very space, I blasted Falcons defensive tackle Corey Peters(notes) for getting baited into a game-clinching offsides penalty by Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman(notes). I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Eagles defensive end Juqua Parker(notes) missed that particular diatribe, because he fell for a nearly identical ruse that cemented the Eagles’ 31-24 road loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. With the Bills facing fourth-and-inches at midfield with 1:23 to go, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes) went to the hard count – and Parker proved to be an easy mark. In fairness to Parker, Philly made so many brutal mistakes in this game that it’s hard to single out the last of those errors, however astounding it may have been. (Seriously, if you see Parker or Peters walking the streets of Manhattan, do not allow either man to play The Shell Game, because you know they’ll want to. But I digress … ) Let’s see, we had four Michael Vick(notes) interceptions, a squandered field-goal opportunity at the end of the first half because the quarterback held onto the ball too long, a premature onside kick to start the third quarter, a Danny Watkins(notes) penalty that negated a fourth-quarter scoring run by Vick, two balls that popped out of wideout Jason Avant’s(notes) hands (a fumble and an interception), a drive-extending penalty on cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha(notes) … I’m going to stop there, because my fingers are getting tired. The Eagles (1-4), who had so much promise heading into the season, are in the process of making a sucker out of me and a whole lot of others. They’re becoming this year’s version of the 2010 Cowboys, and I’m wondering whether coach Andy Reid should be worrying if his long run in Philly might come to an end. One Bills player told me after the game he thought some Eagles “flat-out give up if things aren’t going their way.” True or not, that’s an awful perception. Oh, and LeBron James just called – he wants to sue for defamation. As Vick said last week (and sang on Friday), “The dream thing is over.”
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
“Thought they were going to piss it away. Awesome game.”
– Text Sunday afternoon from 11-time Olympic swimming medalist, emotional Raiders fan and Golden Girl Natalie Coughlin.
“Harbaugh, Westoff, welker, brees twice, boldin, ray lewis, tomlin, pat willis (the family!), aaron rodgers, bipolar brandon and 4td drops this year, wanny, ted thompson, wanny the gm, satan, spielman under wanny than over, tuna gets 16 mill and can consult rex ryan while fin gm and gets all the loot even if he leaves, marino the gm for a week, catatonic cam, d d d d d d d dumb daunte, bush up the middle, larry shannon (who?) instead of randy moss in the draft, pat white, o line coach who has worst o line in nfl while spending massive loot and picks on it … that’s just a tiny sample of the mess … Henne: ‘I know one thing-this team won’t stop quitting’ – could be as good a line as the (Ted Ginn) family.”
– Email last Monday afternoon from my friend Hafty, a tormented Dolphins fan.
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