I was 14 years old when I caught images of the Mayflower moving van on the news.
Curious as to why they would be showing a moving van driving in the snow as their lead story, I plopped myself down and turned up the volume on the television. No, this was most definitely not a cute story about a moving company helping people deal with the snow, or a sad story about a company that was facing tough economic times and would have to lay people off or shutter their doors for good. No, this was something worse.
Much, much worse.
The Baltimore Colts had disappeared like thieves in the night, taking their organization, and my favorite team, with them to Indianapolis. This didn’t make any sense, I thought. How could the Colts just leave? They are the BALTIMORE Colts. They can’t just go. They can’t just pack up their toys and move to another city without any warning, right? Right?
Wrong, actually. They could. And they did.
The Irsay family found a more lucrative deal and shiny new stadium in Indianapolis, and they owned the team, so they took the deal and left the fans wide-mouthed and broken-hearted. It was a gut-shot to supporters of the Colts, and left my 14-year-old self crushed.
It also gave me my first real-life evidence that professional sports, for all their glory, were largely about making money. I didn’t take on a new favorite team after the Colts left, partly because I just couldn’t transfer an allegiance over that quickly, and partly because I now knew there were no guarantees in life.
Living in the D.C. area at that time, I liked the Redskins, and wished them well, but never felt that same passion for the team. I liked the Chicago Bears because I loved Walter Payton and their defense, and rooted for the San Francisco 49ers because of Ronnie Lott and Joe Montana, but I didn’t lose any sleep if they lost. Professional football had become a secondary interest for me — something to watch between baseball and hockey seasons.
Years later, I moved to the Bay Area of California, and I was genuinely surprised at how many people there were still loyal Oakland Raiders fans, even though the team had moved to Los Angeles a decade earlier.
“I hope the Colts lose every single game they play for the rest of time, and Congress votes to relocate them to Antarctica,” I told one of my co-workers who was still a faithful fan of the Raiders. “How can you support a team that would just leave you like that?”
“They’re the Raiders,” he said. “They’ll come back home.”
And, sure enough, the Raiders returned to Oakland in 1995, picking up right where they left off, with a rabid fan base and a struggling on-field product. They’ve had a few nice runs mixed in over the years, including a memorable Super Bowl appearance with former Delaware Blue Hen Rich Gannon at quarterback, but it’s been a pretty lethargic stretch for the team that bills itself as having “A commitment to excellence.”
And then last year, good things started happening for Raiders fans. Their young quarterback blossomed into a full-blown star. Their young wide receiver looks like he’s going to be a handful for defenses for a decade-plus. Their young defensive star might already be the best overall player in the league. The Raiders made the playoffs, and if it weren’t for an injury to the aforementioned quarterback, they were considered contenders for a championship.
But they did have that injury, and they did bow out of the playoffs without so much as a whimper.
Even worse, the team has been playing in a multi-sports facility since they moved back to Oakland that causes them to play on a field with a baseball diamond in the heart of it and not nearly enough luxury boxes when compared to other NFL franchises. With the City of Oakland in pretty dire financial straits, and voters not wanting to foot the bill for a new stadium built with their hard-earned tax dollars, the Raiders started flirting with other cities.
There was San Antonio. And Las Vegas. And Los Angeles. And San Antonio again. And Vegas. Then, on Monday, NFL owners voted 31-1 to allow the Raiders to move to Las Vegas after that city put together a stadium deal that should ensure the owner’s pockets stay filled for years to come.
Here’s the kicker: The new stadium in Las Vegas won’t be done for three years, meaning the Raiders will be playing in... you guessed it! Oakland!
This is like telling your wife that you found someone new, but you have to wait for the new paramour to build a really great house, so you’ll just be living at home for a few years. And, hey, we can have some good times in the meantime.
I feel for Raiders fans right now, particularly the young ones who are just now learning that their world of sports is more about padding people’s bank accounts than any heroic endeavors on the field. I read recently that the new general manager of the across-the-bay San Francisco 49ers is trying to recruit Raiders fans to his team, and that makes sense if you’re the 49ers. You’d love to corner a market as affluent as the Bay Area’s, and here’s their chance to pounce.
But switching allegiances isn’t easy. It wasn’t until the Baltimore Ravens arrived in 1996 that I ever fully attached myself to another team, and the Ravens were stolen from Cleveland, so they could move into a shiny new stadium.
It’s the cycle of sports, and it is powered by greed.