In Oakland, a sense of loss over Las Vegas’ rise as a sports town


OAKLAND, Calif. — Growing up, Dave Stewart would ride his bicycle the mile or so from his family’s Havenscourt Boulevard home to a gas station, where he would chain up his bike, walk down the train tracks, climb over a fence and enter what felt like a professional sports paradise.

Stewart, 66, came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum was the home of champions. The Coliseum was where he watched the Oakland Raiders, where he cheered on the Oakland Athletics, and where he met Reggie Jackson, the A’s superstar who sometimes left Stewart tickets or drove him home after games.

He loved both the Raiders and the A’s, teams featuring colorful stars and a gritty, rebellious style that matched their blue-collar city. When the Warriors moved into the arena across the parking lot from the Coliseum in 1971, he rooted for them, too.

“I paid attention to every aspect of it,” said Stewart, who went on to a 16-year career as a Major League pitcher, including eight with the A’s. “I loved the way the Raiders played with aggressiveness and toughness. I thought it was a demonstration of the population and citizens of Oakland.”

Despite Oakland’s unique sports heritage, the city has lost team after team in recent years and is preparing to say goodbye to the only one left. The Warriors, who won four NBA championships in Oakland and revolutionized the game, left for San Francisco in 2019. The three-time Super Bowl-champion Raiders — who in 1995 had been lured back to Oakland from Los Angeles and warmly reembraced — decamped to Las Vegas in 2020. Last November, MLB owners voted unanimously to allow the A’s, who won four World Series in Oakland, to join the Raiders in Las Vegas.

Oakland’s demise comes as Las Vegas rises as a professional sports town. Long shunned because of its close ties to gambling, the city has become the hottest market in professional sports and will host Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday. By taking both the Raiders and now the A’s, there is no avoiding the fact that much of Las Vegas’ gain has come at Oakland’s expense, leaving an unmistakable void for a city with a devoted fan base and a winning tradition.

“When you lose the Raiders, when you lose the Warriors, when you lose the A’s, you lose identity,” Stewart said. “You can kind of overlook some of the negative things about Oakland when you have sports franchises that are excelling, the way those three franchises did.”

Gary Williams mans the second chair at Kinyozi Kuts, a small barbershop that celebrates Oakland’s history as the city goes through a jarring transformation. Located next to what was the original office of the Black Panther Party, the shop is adorned with Black Liberation flags, African artifacts and an array of sports memorabilia, including an A’s cap and newspaper clippings documenting the many glories of Oakland’s teams.

The shop’s North Oakland neighborhood used to be mostly Black and working class, but the community’s demographics are shifting, as they are in much of the city. As housing prices have gone up, the Black population has declined sharply, changing the local vibe. “There is a church on my old corner that they made into a fourplex,” said Williams, who grew up in the neighborhood.

Williams and his business partner Dominic Whitten cherish the old Oakland, where sports felt central to the culture. From time to time, they catch a meal a few blocks away at Lois the Pie Queen, a cozy soul food spot that has pictures of sports legends on the walls and the Reggie Jackson special on the menu: two fried pork chops, two eggs, hash browns, grits or rice, two biscuits, toast or an English muffin, and coffee or juice.

“Losing these teams matters a lot,” said Whitten, a longtime A’s season-ticket holder. “It takes away from what we grew up on. It is leaving a big hole in the middle of Oakland.”

It didn’t matter to Whitten that the Raiders and the A’s shared an old ballpark in dire need of repair. Or that the amenities at Oracle Arena paled next to the Warriors’ new state-of-the-art home in San Francisco. What mattered is that the teams that played there shared the heartbeat of Oakland.

For decades, the city was a magnet for African Americans from the South who were drawn to Oakland by good-paying jobs at the bustling port and in manufacturing. Some longtime residents still reminisce about a time when Raiders or A’s players would party alongside longshoremen and factory workers.

But as the economy shifted and housing costs spiraled across the Bay Area, Oakland has undergone a dramatic change. New money is moving in, pushing out those who cannot afford to stay and heightening a sense of inequality. While the city remains one of the most multicultural in the nation, its Black population has declined from 47% in 1980 to just over 21%.

Amid the change, pro sports offered a link to the past. “The teams may be a small thing, but they’re important,” Whitten said. “They helped generate the spirit of the city. Now, it seems like everything we grew up with is being taken away.”

Las Vegas’s connection to professional sports is far different. Until recently, major sports leagues avoided the city because of the danger they thought legalized gambling posed to the integrity of the games. Vegas was mostly relegated to being the backdrop for prize fights, golf and tennis tournaments, auto races and the occasional Evel Knievel motorcycle stunt.

But that is no longer the case. Since 2017, Las Vegas has become home to the NHL’s Golden Knights, the WNBA’s Aces and the NFL’s Raiders. By 2028, the A’s are slated to begin playing in a new retractable-roof stadium on the Las Vegas Strip. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said the league is eyeing an expansion team in the city.

Nothing better demonstrates how far the city has ascended than the Super Bowl. Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman has witnessed its evolution from professional sports pariah to a professional sports capital. She and other officials, including her husband Oscar Goodman, who preceded her as mayor, have been pitching Las Vegas’s appeal as a one-stop entertainment hub for years.

“There are so many pressure points on people that they want to get away from, and what better place to do that than Las Vegas,” she said. “Isn’t it great to have entertainment, fabulous food and so many sports in one locale?”

But that pitch was ignored for decades. She said that among the earliest phone calls her husband placed after being elected mayor in 1999 was to ask the NHL about the prospect of an expansion team in Vegas.

“The commissioner was so gracious and kind when Oscar said, crazily, ‘Here we are in the desert, what do you think of a hockey team here?'” she recalled. “And he was kind. He didn’t say no. But of course, he did not run over and give us a franchise.”

The mayor later met with then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who said in no uncertain terms that the city would not get a team because it allowed sports gambling. “Boy, did he get a stiff arm from that,” Goodman said.

The NFL’s aversion to Las Vegas was so solid that in late 2002, the league rejected the city’s Convention and Visitors Authority’s attempt to buy a television ad during the Super Bowl. “We were told absolutely no. You’re gambling, you’re all the bad things, so you can’t advertise going to Las Vegas,” Goodman said.

But as legalized gambling grew more prevalent around the country, the appeal of Las Vegas, with its round-the-clock entertainment, fast-growing population, low taxes and — not incidentally — willingness to spend vast sums of public money on stadiums, proved irresistible to professional sports leagues.

In 2018, when the Supreme Court struck down a law banning sports gambling in most states, it removed the stigma surrounding Las Vegas, transforming it into an asset.

Rather than shun Las Vegas, professional sports leagues began to focus on how the city offers the modern sports fan an unrivaled experience, one a struggling city such as Oakland is hard-pressed to match. Las Vegas welcomes 40 million visitors a year, who in 2022 accounted for an economic impact of $79 billion, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

At a Las Vegas casino, “you can place a bet, sit in a pool, have a table in front of you, have dinner and drinks served to you while you swim and cool off and watch the game on giant television screens,” longtime Las Vegas public relations executive Sig Rogich said.

That makes for a game-day experience that is uniquely Las Vegas. Golden Knights games are renowned for over-the-top player introductions. Raiders home games feature the team’s own house band, as well as headline acts like rappers Rick Ross and Lil Wayne.

If Oakland fans are largely sports die-hards backing the home team, Las Vegas fans are more often visitors and newcomers looking to be entertained.

“We are essentially adopting teams.” said Billy Vassiliadis, CEO of R&R Partners, a firm that helps market the city. “Many people move to Vegas from other places, and they keep one eye on the teams in their city of origin. So, it is going to be a bit of an evolution.”

Before pulling up stakes, both the Raiders and the A’s haggled for years with Oakland officials about the amount of public investment needed to keep the teams in town.

“Any team that is not in the top seven or eight franchises in their sport would require a public subsidy,” said Stanford University economist Roger Noll. “The city of Oakland and Alameda County can’t afford it.”

By contrast, Nevada officials acted decisively to bring the teams to Las Vegas. The Nevada Legislature approved $750 million in public money to subsidize construction of the $1.9 billion Allegiant Stadium. The state also has approved $380 million in taxpayer money to help pay for a $1.5 billion ballpark for the A’s.

Officials in Las Vegas believe the enormous public investments make financial sense because of the combined economic benefit that sports, entertainment and tourism offer the region. If taxpayer subsidies for sports stadiums historically fed nostalgia and civic pride but were largely economic losers in places like Oakland, they say that is not the case in Las Vegas.

“Tourism, plus sports, plus entertainment is actually 14% of the entire planet’s economy today. That is nine times the size of the pharmaceutical industry. It’s five times the size of the global automobile industry,” said Bo Bernhard, vice president of economic development at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “With that, maybe Las Vegas doesn’t look so unimportant anymore. Maybe it looks like the future.”

So far, 65,000-seat Allegiant Stadium is paying dividends. Billboard Magazine called it the top revenue-generating stadium in the world in 2022, and ranked it fourth last year.

Meanwhile, Forbes Magazine pegs the Raiders’ value at $6.2 billion, more than double the team’s $2.9 billion estimated value in 2019, its final year in Oakland.

The evolving economics of professional sports has left Oakland behind. City officials made multiple offers through the years, including proposals for new stadiums, to keep the teams in town, but they ultimately fell short.

Some analysts say that outcome was for the best. Spending the kind of public money that Las Vegas did to attract teams would have been a bad bet for Oakland, they say. The city is still making payments on a bond issue that paid for stadium renovations that helped coax the Raiders back from Los Angeles in 1995. In addition, the city is already short on cash and, like many urban centers, faces pressing challenges such as rampant homelessness and persistent crime.

Oakland is now searching for a way to attract new professional teams, but the way forward is unclear. The city has entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement with the African American Sports and Entertainment Group, which is touting a multibillion-dollar plan to buy the 112-acre Coliseum site and redevelop it into office space, retail and an entertainment zone, anchored by a sports arena, and possibly a new stadium.

Raymond Bobbitt, an AASEG founder, acknowledges that the development plan faces significant hurdles, including winning the cooperation of the A’s, which own half of the site, and convincing a team to move to Oakland.

Still, he says, his city has already proven it can be a good home for professional sports. As a child, Bobbitt used to sell bottles of water outside A’s games and later tailgated before Raiders contests. He says the missing ingredient in Oakland has always been team ownership that is committed to the city.

“There has been an obscene amount of wealth created in Oakland for these teams,” he said, noting that even amid turmoil, the teams’ combined value increased by billions while they were in the city. “But it has all left.”

For now, however, Oakland sports fans are preparing to bid farewell to their last remaining major league team, even as the immediate future of the A’s is murky. The A’s are slated to spend the upcoming season playing out the final year of their lease at the antiquated Coliseum. It remains to be seen where they will play as they wait for their new ballpark in Las Vegas to be completed.

The 33,000-seat Vegas stadium faces opposition from a state teachers’ union, which has filed suit challenging the legality of the bill to help finance it. Also, Goodman criticized the stadium site during a podcast interview earlier this week, suggesting that the A’s pitch a new plan to stay in the Bay Area. Goodman, who as mayor has no direct control of the stadium site, which lies outside city limits in an unincorporated part of Clark County, later added on social media: “Should that fail, Las Vegas has shown that it is a spectacular market for major league sports franchises.”

Jorge Leon, 38, grew up in East Oakland, a short bus ride from the Coliseum. His father used to take him to games in the early ’90s, when the A’s had one of the most exciting teams in baseball and ranked near the top in Major League attendance.

“It was crazy, it was surreal,” he said. “As a kid, you were like, ‘This is amazing. This is glorious to see.'”

He made friends at the ballpark, and started the Oakland 68s, an A’s support group. They would sit at right field, banging drums, chanting and waving banners.

Leon remained loyal for years, even as his team threatened to leave, slashed its payroll and traded away its most promising players. When the A’s hit rock bottom last season with baseball’s worst record and worst attendance, he helped lead two “reverse boycotts” that resulted in the team’s largest crowds of the year.

But he lost patience after MLB owners approved the team’s move to Las Vegas last fall. On opening night this season, his organization is planning to stage an actual boycott, where they will stand in the parking lot and urge people not to attend the game.

“I want the team to know, if you don’t want to be here then we don’t need you,” Leon said. “We are a resilient city.”

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