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The Cost of Pro Sports: How Oakland Was Abandoned by Its Teams

The Warriors went across the bridge. The Raiders left for Sin City. And now the Athletics seemed destined to follow. Oakland has lost its pro sports franchises, an indication of the harsh realities of the relationship between a franchise, its city, and its fans.

I grew up in the 1990s. During that decade there were a few sports teams logos that seemed to be everywhere and the definition of cool. The Chicago Bulls, Green Bay Packers, and Pittsburgh Steelers come to mind. But there were two logos that just always felt so iconic, especially when viewing their use of them from a hip-hop lens. Those two teams happened to play in the same city at the time. They were the Raiders and Athletics and they both played in Oakland, California.

That is no longer the case of course. The Raiders moved on to Las Vegas, in a new stadium that looks like a place that Darth Vader might call home. The Golden State Warriors after winning 3 of 5 consecutive trips to the NBA Finals decided to cross the bridge to San Francisco and also leave Oakland behind in 2019. All that has remained are the Athletics. A team with the worst record, the lowest attendance, and the second lowest payroll in the MLB. And because of this lack of success on multiple fronts, all indications have pointed to Oakland joining the Raiders in Las Vegas once their stadium lease expires. The fans in Oakland have tried their best to make their voices heard with reverse boycotts and the mayor of the city has lobbied to keep the A’s in Oakland as well. Despite all of this, it seems to be only a matter of time before Oakland is a city without a professional sports franchise. Which begs to question, why have pro sports given up on Oakland?

The Demographics of Oakland

The issue with gauging the Oakland market is that it is often lumped in with two other cities that it shares a DMA (designated market area) with: San Francisco and San Jose. Collectively the three cities account for a population of 2.23 million people. Only 443,000 of those people reside in Oakland. Oakland is the 45th most populous city in the United States, with an above average poverty rate of 13.51%, which spells trouble for anyone running a pro franchise that is predicated on making money off of disposable income.

Another issue for Oakland is proximity. San Francisco is only 12 miles away and San Jose is 40 miles away. This becomes an issue when you consider that those two cities have 5 major franchises between them (49ers, Warriors, and Giants in San Francisco; Earthquake and Sharks in San Jose), there is not much left to capture in Oakland outside of the city limits. This coupled with financial challenges means that the city of Oakland is not able to compete when it comes to the opulence of modern stadium financing.

It seems that with every new stadium that is built, the cost of the facility continues to rise to eye-watering levels. The UBS Arena that is the new home of the New York Islanders cost $1B to build, Allegiant Stadium where the aforementioned Raiders relocated to cost $1.9B to build, and the opulent SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles where the Rams and Chargers play cost an astronomical $5.5B to build. And more often than not, these stadiums are built using taxpayer dollars, requiring the host city to have some level of affluence. Affluence, that a city like Las Vegas and a city like Oakland does not.

In the midst of all of this, the fans are the ones that are hurting the most. They will lose yet another team to the financial realities of the professional sports world. And while many Raiders fans have stayed loyal to the team even though they play in another state, it cannot be discounted that there are challenges with losing something that was such an integral part of the fabric of a city. We see the stories all the time when a team relocates and how the local economy takes a hit. Sports teams offer us hope, something to root for, and provide an escape from everyday life for a few hours. And I would argue that we are starting to lose that sense of community and fandom in American professional sports.

The True Cost of Relocation

I have a few friends that live in the United Kingdom, a country where soccer reigns supreme as the top sport. I once got into a conversation about relocation in American sports with them, and they were ultimately confused as to why a team would ever leave the city that they play in. The reason for this confusion is that there is a relationship formed between the fans, the team, and the city that makes relocation incredibly unusual in English soccer. There is a sense of community between a club and its fans, where the team is a part of the city’s identity.

A large part of this difference is that soccer clubs have youth academies and other pieces of infrastructure that keep them invested in the city that they play in, on top of governing bodies that make relocation incredibly beyond the pale. This is of course not the case in the United States. These are closed private leagues with billionaire owners and devoid of any sort of promotion or relegation system. As such, most moves to new markets are designed around financial reasons, such as building a new stadium or arena.

Due to the marketing might of American sports leagues, it is difficult to form a rival league and there is a reason that we have not seen it attempted at scale since the 1970s when the ABA and NBA merged or the 1980s when the USFL challenged the NFL. This has meant that cities that want a new franchise need to court owners away from their existing city with the promise of a new arena. It can be inferred that this transactional approach to sports franchises and sports leagues, while profitable for team owners, shortchanges the fan.

A fan can grow up rooting for a team for decades, only to have that fandom taken away because an owner wants a better stadium that the current city cannot offer. Then the city is left waiting for another expansion opportunity to have a team again. When they receive said opportunity, there is the conflict of what history truly belongs to that city. Consider when the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee and became the Tennessee Titans. The Titans took all of the heritage of the Oilers with them. So when the Texans were created, a fan that grew up watching Earl Campbell had to decide what to do with their fandom. What do fans of the former San Diego Chargers do when they see their team now in Los Angeles? These are questions that only the fans of those teams can answer.

When it comes to Oakland, there are a lot of reasons why professional sports teams have abandoned the city. And by American professional sports standards, they are par for the course when it comes to disposable income, city size, and available funding. But in the whole process of glamorizing a professional baseball franchise in Las Vegas, we have discounted and marginalized the fans in Oakland. It is a practice that has become all too common in American sports, and Oakland will not be the last city to endure this sort of exodus (I would wager that the next city to deal with this will be Jacksonville and its NFL franchise, the Jaguars). Sports has left Oakland because of money, because of greed, or if you’re more positive because of “business”. As always, the loyal fans that watched the Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire, and Barry Zito eras are left empty-handed, wondering what they did to lose their baseball team.

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