This week has been a time of change in the NFL for more than one reason. After decades – not just two or three, but seven or eight – of the NFL trying to completely disassociate itself from Las Vegas and the in-state business that thrives like few others, once a stadium palace deal was in place, all those reservations went away with a 31-1 vote to relocated the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas. Whether it turns out to be a tragically flawed decision or not will be decided by history that is still unwritten.
From the marketing standpoint, the NFL couldn’t have the Las Vegas Vikings. It wouldn’t make sense. You could have the Las Vegas Bills, however, and it would have nothing to do with the bison on their helmets.
If you were going to choose a franchise to put in Las Vegas, there is no more optimal team than the Raiders. Their trademark, their brand and their merchandise are universal and the black and silver is about as iconic as any color scheme in professional sports.
From the business standpoint, having the renegades of the NFL moving to Sin City makes sense, but from the fan standpoint, what the NFL is doing is, in many ways, a slap in the face to the loyal fan base of not just of the Raiders, but as the league in general. It’s bad enough that a third fan base in the span of one year is being displaced – ask fans in St. Louis and San Diego what they think of “progress” in the NFL – but they’re asking the jilted Raiders fans to do something unprecedented. They want the fans of Oakland to still come out and support their team for the next two years despite being displaced and left at the altar by the Raiders.
It’s an audacious move that is going to be a test case of fan loyalty that nobody really knows how it will turn out. As passionate as Minnesota Vikings fans are, it’s hard to fathom them remaining loyal and spending big money to watch a lame-duck franchise finish out their run before moving on to something (better?) somewhere else.
In the NFL, it would seem that fan loyalty takes a back seat to what sort of stadium they play in. If not for Roger Goodell coming to St. Paul and working the room at the State Capitol, the Vikings might have followed the Lakers from Minnesota to Los Angeles three or four years ago. While the Wilf family was willing to pay the majority of the cost to build U.S. Bank Stadium, if not for the contribution of the state (and the promise of a Super Bowl to offset those costs), Minnesota fans would might be feeling the same sense of loss that fans of the St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers are feeling.
In the big picture of the NFL, it’s all about the money – who can bring in the most and where can you go to get the most? Clearly, playing in an antiquated baseball stadium is viewed as the primary factor in the decision, but it goes a lot deeper than that.
Players come and go in sports, but the lifeblood of any organization and any sport is the generational loyalty of fans to the brand. In Oakland, there are grandparents and grandchildren who love their team of choice and they show that loyalty with their checkbook, whether it’s buying tickets or buying the numerous merchandise items teams sell so fans can proudly display their team loyalty. Fans rarely jump ship from their favorite team in bad times. They’re in it for the long haul. Unfortunately, the NFL can’t say the same.
In the 1990s the NFL came under fire for its greed, as fans bases in St. Louis, Los Angeles, Houston and Baltimore were all betrayed and left behind by the league. Twenty years later, much of that same sensation has returned. It’s not as if the fans of the Rams, Chargers and Raiders weren’t supporting their teams – their stadiums were selling out for game days – it was that the revenue streams generated in their stadiums weren’t up to snuff with league averages.
It’s going to take two or three years for the Raiders’ new home in Las Vegas to be completed. In the meantime, the NFL is expecting Oakland fans to remain supportive and loyal despite the knowledge that their beloved team is leaving them for someone else and the NFL may never come back to their city.
The NFL is taking a lot for granted under the assurance from the Raiders that their brand can withstand the heat. They’ve stuck with the Raiders through decades of mediocrity and will continue to do so – or so the general line of thinking goes.
As loyal as Vikings fans are, if faced with the same circumstances, the Vikings likely would have playing in front of half-full houses and the coverage of the team would have been apathetic at best. Oakland may be a different story, but it’s hard to imagine why they would remain faithful to a team that made a money decision to abandon them.
Fortunately for Vikings fans, the Raiders’ dilemma didn’t happen to them. But, for those who grew up Oakland fans, this requiem for a franchise is going to be sad to watch because they did nothing to cause the situation they find themselves in and are powerless to stop it.