At least it's not 1979. On April 17 of that year, the Oakland A's set the record for the lowest attendance in modern baseball history with just 653 fans at a single game. But it's close enough. In fact, this may be perhaps the lowest point in the history of professional sports at McAfee Coliseum, even surpassing the early 1980s. The Oakland A's are limping toward the end of a truly disappointing year, and the Raiders aren't expected to rise far above their last few years of mediocrity, humiliation, and low morale. Even for a city used to bad news, the news is dismal.
Take the A's, the Coliseum's only bright spot in recent years. It's not just that the rebuilding team is setting new records for most consecutive series losses and hovers around twenty games behind the division leader. More depressing is the dispiritingly low attendance, fueled by the almost inevitable prospect that its owners will move the franchise out of Oakland sometime in the next four years. There comes a time when a team is clearly going to leave a city — the 1994 season of the Los Angeles Rams come to mind — and the last games become a death spiral of bitter fans and lackluster performance. This may be one of those moments.
Meanwhile, Al Davis can't be happy with his Raiders. It's not just that his team has been a mess on the field for the past five years. Last year, Forbes magazine estimated that the Raiders were the fifth-least valuable team in the NFL, and that's actually an improvement over previous years. Davis was apparently so hard up for cash ten months ago that he sold a 20 percent stake in the team to some silent partners, reportedly including former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, according to County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, who sits on the Coliseum Joint Powers Authority.
What do the five most valuable NFL teams have in common? New stadiums, where owners can rent luxury boxes, sign sponsorship deals, and draw sell-out crowds for television advertising dollars. The shabby concrete ugliness of the Coliseum has been a running joke for years, but this summer, two media outlets exposed its flaws to a national audience, bringing a fresh sting to the usual humiliation. First, Portfolio magazine dubbed the Coliseum the second-filthiest baseball park in the country, citing 493 health code violations, including dirt, rodents, vermin, and chemical contamination. Then ESPN's Anna Katherine Clemmons wrote up a walking tour she took of the facility during an Athletics game. Clemmons found a sparse and dismal tailgate scene, a hallway the color of jaundice, and fans who admitted they couldn't even care that the A's were moving to Fremont. The only bright spot was the stadium's "all you can eat" section where, for $35, fans can nurture their heart disease with hot dogs and nachos.
Readers who don't follow sports too closely may imagine that Oakland and Alameda County brought the Raiders back for good in 1995 by spending $300 million to renovate the Arena and Coliseum. But in fact, the Raiders could be gone once again as soon as their lease expires in 2010. After all, the team's latest tenure in Oakland has been marred by bitter lawsuits, the personal seat license fiasco, and surprisingly indifferent fans. Al Davis has already demonstrated a willingness to move his team to cities that offered him a subsidy, having left both Oakland and then Los Angeles in pursuit of public cash. And just last January, representatives from the Raiders personally approached the mayor of Dublin with a proposal to build a new stadium there.
In short, by 2012, Oakland could go from being the home of three major sports teams to just one, and the Coliseum could be hosting neither baseball nor football. McAfee Coliseum would be nothing but a vast, empty cipher, and Oakland and Alameda County taxpayers would still owe $22 million a year to retire the debt. By 2012, it's entirely possible that debt will be all we have at the Coliseum.
How likely is this doomsday scenario? What are the odds that the Athletics and Raiders will both leave, and what, if anything, can and should our civic leaders do to stop them? Finally, what will we do with an empty, debt-ridden Coliseum?
Don't imagine that Oakland and Alameda County need either team around for the money. The amount of cash the teams provide is negligible. The Athletics pay for all game-day operations and keep the revenue; the only money the Coliseum Authority sees is rent, which works out to just under $1 million a year. The Raiders lease is a little more complicated, with the authority paying for game-day operations and splitting some of the proceeds, but the city and county come out just a little ahead. Proceeds from football and baseball don't come close to paying off the Coliseum Authority's debt, which currently stands at $164.9 million. All we get is the joy of watching 89 games of professional sports a year, 81 of which are baseball. Which is why Oakland's decision to spend millions luring back the Raiders, infuriating the owners of the Athletics and doing nothing to keep their team in town is so mystifying; city officials sacrificed 81 days of baseball for eight days of football.
But despite a history of snubbing the Athletics over and over, some city leaders still say there's a chance Oakland can keep them. When Athletics co-owner Lew Wolff recently told a reporter how frustrated he was by the delays in moving to Fremont, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums declared — completely out of the blue — that his city might be able to retain the team. City Council President Ignacio De la Fuente, who sits on the Coliseum Authority Board and has negotiated with the Athletics for years, agrees that Oakland's not out of the picture just yet.