Let’s see if this sounds familiar. Owner of NFL team in large media market asks for new stadium while promising to chip in less than half what it would cost to build one. City balks at request. Owner takes team and finds sweetheart deal in smaller market.
This is exactly what happened a little over two decades ago to the team formerly known as the Houston Oilers. Bud Adams announced at the end of the 1995 season that they would be moving to Nashville — which enticed Adams with a $292 million “relocation package” — in 1998, but hoped to remain in Houston for the two seasons in between. The 1996 Houston Oilers would go 8-8, but what would come to be known as a pretty standard Jeff Fisher season, at least as far as win-loss records go, turned out to be a disaster in other ways.
It was a record-breaking year for the Oilers in at least one respect: They played in front of the smallest number of fans ever to watch the team play in the Astrodome — 15,131.
The record low attendance, for the Cincinnati game on Dec. 15, was also the smallest crowd to watch any National Football League game during the 1996 season, according to research compiled by G. Scott Thomas for American City Business Journals. That figure broke the previous record low attendance for an Astrodome game, which was 20,107 when the Oilers played Carolina this season.
The four worst-attended games in the NFL last year were Oilers games. In fact, the Oilers had five of the eight worst-attended games in the league.
The Oilers, who will play one more season in the Astrodome before moving to Nashville, were not expected to grab much fan support this year on their “home” turf. And they didn’t.
Instead of staying one more season, Adams negotiated a settlement which allowed the Oilers to break from their Astrodome lease and move to Tennessee. That’s how bad things got — the fan interest ran so low, and the vitriol toward Adams so high, that the 1997 “Tennessee Oilers” played in Memphis at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
The Raiders would like to stay in Oakland for three more years, if possible, before moving into a shiny new domed facility in Las Vegas. However, that’s up in the air at the moment.
The Raiders’ current Oakland Coliseum lease is only in place for the next two years. Larry Reid, member of the Oakland City Council, wants to evict the Raiders now (good luck with that, as the court battle alone would probably outlast the Raiders’ remaining time in Northern California). The Raiders could always work out a deal with the 49ers and the NFL to play the 2019 season in Levi’s Stadium, but there’s a way to push Mark Davis out of town after one season.
However, to make that possible, Raiders fans would have to mimic what Oilers fans did in 1996 by staging a boycott of sorts.
So it’s going to be key for the Raiders to keep winning if they want to prevent this situation from becoming embarrassing within a matter of months. The Oilers were coming off a 2-14 season in 1994 that led to the promotion of defensive coordinator Fisher to head coach, which led to three consecutive 8-8 seasons (the last season at the Astrodome, a year in Memphis, and a year at Vanderbilt Stadium before moving into a brand new Adelphia Coliseum).
The Raiders are coming off their best season in over a decade, one which looked increasingly promising as the year went on before Derek Carr suffered a broken leg. Some Raiders fans are upset about the move to Vegas, but the average Raiders fan would rather get a tattoo of John Elway on their lower back than turn their backs on a Raiders squad that’s finally winning.
But the modern NFL is a volatile place where playoff spots are never guaranteed (just ask the Panthers). And as entertaining as the Raiders were, it’s arguable whether they were really that great in 2016. Yes, they went 12-4 and had some memorable clutch performances late in games, but their expected win-loss record based on point margin was 8.7-7.3 (let’s just call it 9-7). They had three wins of 10+ points all season: a 33-16 victory in Jacksonville, a 30-20 home win over the Broncos, and a 38-24 win over Buffalo (when they came back from a 24-9 third quarter deficit). Not exactly dominant.
Their defense was shaky in 2016 and few noteworthy improvements have been made to the roster as of yet. They’re looking to sign Marshawn Lynch, who would go a long way toward keeping Oaklanders on the bandwagon for another year, but that’s assuming they can pry him away from his non-football activities … and the Seahawks.
If the Raiders go to the playoffs next season, it’s doubtful we’d see a repeat of what happened in Houston during the mid-1990s. But if they start slow, and fans have a hard time selling their seats on the secondary market, the Raiders could see a revolt of sorts during some of their “home” games not played in Mexico City. And if no one’s attending games in the home of the Black Hole, moving 45 minutes down the road to the Niners’ house is unlikely to appease angry Raiders Nationalists.
Which would probably force the Raiders to move to UNLV’s current home. Sam Boyd Stadium has a capacity of 35,500, with locker rooms that Running Rebels coach Tony Sanchez called “a little tight” and “a little old.”
However, they’ve been able to add about 7,000 seats to Sam Boyd for the Las Vegas Bowl in the past, and the stadium recently installed new turf. Plus, the Chargers are playing in the 30,000-seat Stubhub Center in Carson (and season tickets are already sold out for the upcoming season).
Mark Davis told me that the Raiders probably would play preseason game in 2018 at Sam Boyd Stadium but no regular-season games. #rjnow
— Jonny Saraceno (@jonnysaraceno) March 27, 2017
Hmmm. Why would you agree to play a preseason game in your future hometown if you weren’t willing to play eight (or seven, if the Raiders play another international non-friendly) regular season games there?
Again, it’s possible the Raiders stay in Oakland for the next three years, but the chances decrease quite a bit if they don’t stay in contention for the next two seasons. If they start slow this season (especially if Carr suffers another serious injury and they’re left with E.J. Manuel behind center), we could see very small, visibly angry crowds at the Coliseum. And maybe we’d even hear the Raiders’ flagship station break away from a close Raiders game in the fourth quarter to go to Warriors pregame.
Sound crazy? Perhaps, but it happened in Houston.
What if the Oilers won a game and no one heard how?
That’s what happened on Sunday. Houston was trailing Pittsburgh by 13-9 with just over five minutes left in the game when the Oilers flagship radio station, KTRH, cut away.
The station cut off the Oilers in order to broadcast the pre-game show for a National Basketball Association preseason game between the Houston Rockets and the Charlotte Hornets.
The radio broadcast was the only way for Oilers fans who were not at the Astrodome to follow the action, because the game was blacked out on local television. What the fans missed was an inspired Oilers comeback, in which they scored 14 points in a span of 2 minutes and 4 seconds and beat the Steelers, 23-13.
Oh, yeah. Remember Silver and Black-outs on local television?
Next season is going to be very interesting. Emotions will be all over the place, and there will be a lot of pressure on the players to perform well enough to prevent fans from hastening the team’s second departure from their original home. Angry Raiders backers, who feel like the NFL has left them blowing in the Autumn Wind, could see an Oilers-like fan response as the only way to send a message to an owner and league that still sees them as potential revenue sources.