When the Raiders are winning, the Oakland Coliseum is a hell of a place. I was reminded of this Sunday night, after the Raiders had scored their biggest victory in years by dispatching the defending Super Bowl-champion Broncos and laying claim to the AFC West lead.
I like to take the back route to the interview room and home locker room after games there, which means I climb the stairs out of the press box and walk across the upper concourse to an elevator. In the sad years since the Raiders’ last playoff appearance in 2002, my dash across the concourse has often felt like walking through a church parking lot after a funeral service: a smattering of glum fans wearing silver and black, some shaking their heads and muttering about a terrible pass or a baffling play call or whatever.
Sunday night, it looked like this.
I know, fans at every NFL stadium turn up after their team wins a game. But there has always been something a little different about the atmosphere in Oakland. These people are loud, raw, a little rude. But they love their team, and I love them for it – yes, even the guy in the video with the spider tattooed onto his skull.
When I shot the film Sunday night, I was simultaneously thinking two things: (1) This is fun. (2) These fans are screwed.
A few years from now, these loyal zealots are likely to be left in the wake of their team. Mark Davis and Sheldon Adelson and some Nevada legislators who seem to be exceptionally generous with other people’s money are conspiring to relocate the Raiders in Las Vegas. If that desert deal falls through, Los Angeles remains a possibility for Davis’ team.
But here’s the sad part. Even if the Raiders somehow find a way to stay in the Bay Area, even if Davis sells a large portion of team ownership to a dot-com billionaire and events converge to present a viable stadium option in the East Bay, Raiders fandom will change. It’s inevitable. That scene on the walkway – the chants, the whoops, the vague hint of chaos – is going away.
Ask long-time 49ers fans. I don’t begrudge the York family’s drive to build Levi’s Stadium. It’s an impressive venue in the middle of a growing population center, and it is making them a lot of money. But it’s not like the old days of Candlestick Park. It just isn’t. And that is only partially explained by the sorry state of the team.
A lot of 49ers fans had no desire to follow the team to Santa Clara, or simply couldn’t afford it. The product – tickets, parking, food – is considerably more expensive now. (Somebody has to pay for all that steel and concrete.) The experience is different. Enjoyable perhaps, but tamer, more antiseptic. Corporations love it. Many working-class football fans feel it’s not for them.
Niners games changed when they left Candlestick, and Raiders games will change, too, when they pop up in a new, financially leveraged stadium. No matter where that stadium is located. Most of the fans who mob around the Oakland Coliseum on Sundays will be watching from home.
So if you go to a Raiders game this year and Derek Carr throws three touchdown passes and Jack Del Rio’s team wins again, take a moment to look around. Take in the boozy vapors and the R-rated T-shirts and the zombie masks. Take in the all-around Raider-ness of it all. You may not have many chances left.