On Sunday evening, shortly before the kickoff of his Raiders' first game as the home team in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Managing General Partner Al Davis, dressed in living black and white, climbed the stadium stairs with deliberation, savoring the moment. This was Al's story, and he enjoys making news. He had smiles for the deferential applause, but no magnanimity for the NFL, not before or after the heretofore Oakland Raiders pounded the Green Bay Packers 24-3.
There were 40,906 on hand, and 13,362 no-shows—most of whom were still waiting for the postman to show up with their tickets. The fans in the Coliseum didn't exactly cheer like kin on the dock as the Raiders took the field in their familiar black uniforms. "There are problems," Davis admitted. "This isn't the way you want life to run. This whole business is a totally difficult thing for the organization." Joseph Alioto, Davis' lawyer, said, "It's been a long pilgrimage, and it's not over yet."
Indeed not. Legal, logistical and plain maddening difficulties lie ahead. Davis still must fight off the eminent domain suit filed by the City of Oakland and the NFL's attempts to cancel the Raiders' move through a Congressional antitrust exemption or through the courts. The Raider ticket and business offices are in chaos, caused in part by irate L.A. fans hungry for season tickets. Make that good season tickets. The Raiders' computer operators are learning on the job, and making mistakes; the practice site is 400 miles from the home stadium; two Coliseums—L.A. and Oakland—are lined and ready for play; and the players are wondering where they should live, and losing sleep over the price of real estate in Southern California. What you've got is one transplanted NFL team destined to be known, at least for the time being, as the Oakland, er, Los Angeles Raiders.
The Raider opening act would have been a dreadful flop if not for the win, and the homecoming of the one true Los Angeles Raider, Running Back Marcus Allen, the 1981 Heisman Trophy winner from USC. Allen is the symbolic break with Oakland Raider football, the new signature of Los Angeles Raider football—and not bad at all as potential superstars go. "The guys asked me what it would be like here," Allen said after ripping through the Packers for 41 yards on nine carries. "I tried to tell them. It made me feel good, them coming to me. They kidded me, saying, 'We're going to Marcus' backyard.' Did I ask them what the atmosphere at the Oakland Coliseum had been like? No, it never came up."
The word around the league is that Davis drafted Allen only because he would help the Raiders at the box office. A truly superior running back hasn't been a Raider tradition. The Raiders—in Oakland, anyway—always sent the fullback between the tackles, hoping to take the opponent's mind off the ball, which was in the air far downfield. In Oakland, the Raider halfback was essentially a third tackle protecting the passer. "Well, Marcus has opened our eyes," Davis insisted. "We draft to win. We live to win. We think Marcus isn't the type who needs another top back with him. He needs the ball. And we've got some other runners. For the first time, we've got some numbers." At any rate, the Raiders' front-office staff has grown from 10 to 13 full-time employees.
Davis first invaded L.A. in March of 1980, renting office space at the University Hilton. The Raiders had begun to solicit season-ticket holders two months before that. They received 34,950 orders in 10 days, and more than 61,000 by the time Global Van Lines emptied their Oakland offices in mid-March. The vans were approaching L.A. when a court injunction forced them and the Raiders to return to Oakland. The year 1980 turned out to be a Super Bowl year for the Raiders. The L.A. fans on the waiting list waited. So did Global.
For two years the Raiders waged legal war with the NFL, and on May 7, 1982 they finally won a court decision permitting them to move their operations from Oakland to L.A. Setting up shop at the University Hilton again, the Raiders bought a computer, five terminals and accompanying software from MDS Qantel, a company that supplies the needs of 10 other NFL teams. But, in the rush to process an avalanche of ticket requests, the computer was blanked out a few times by the inexperienced operators.
"This room is my home," Al LoCasale, Davis' right hand, said early last week while waving a sweaty palm around his command post on the 10th floor of the Hilton. Downstairs, the phones rang like crazy. "We're trying to do in five weeks what usually takes six months." The pace was too much. On Friday, LoCasale, suffering from exhaustion and weakened by walking pneumonia, was admitted to a hospital.
The Raiders have never had much of a public-relations department; Davis has always been his own p.r. man. The organization ran smoothly in Oakland, mainly by refusing to publicly relate, especially with much of the Bay Area media. What was needed last week was an explanation from the Raiders about the lack of quality seating available at the L.A. Coliseum; fewer than 30,000 of the 92,516 seats are between the goalposts. The people who waited 24 months for the elusive, low-lying, 40-yard-line ducat screamed for heads.
"We'll lose some people," Davis admitted. One season-ticket holder received his packet of tickets in the mail, opened it—and found that each of his four seats was located in a different section. "They're upset with us. It's status with a lot of people, and they're hurt. They thought they'd get better." Davis promised that ticket locations would be changed for those disgruntled fans who were persistent enough in bugging the club's ticket office. The Raiders' ticket men must have loved hearing that.
Part of the blame for the ticket snafu was laid on brokers, some of whom did a thriving business by buying blocks and selling reasonably well-located season tickets, worth $180 and $150, for up to three times their face value. "It's not that the Raiders are popular," said Dave Adelman, owner of Murray's Tickets. "It's that the Rams are unpopular." Oh? The Los Angeles—er, Anaheim—Rams also played at home last week, on Saturday night, and sold out all 69,007 seats, although there were 14,470 no-shows.
Also unappreciated was the Raiders' preferred seating list, which was a guarded secret. Said LoCasale, "One guy told me, 'You have no constituency in Congress. You can't give away Super Bowls, or expansion teams, or Redskins tickets, or lunch with Johnny Unitas.' " But Davis could reward influential fans with preferred seats, and that was an irritation to a general public that had been consigned to the crow's nest.
"There are people, most of them with the Coliseum Commission, that you have to give tickets to," said Adelman. "Several thousand, maybe. Without them, the Raiders aren't even here."
"Everybody wants to be between the 40s at the games," said Qantel's Dallas Talley. "The reason there's so much complaining is that nobody had season tickets at one point—and everybody thought they had a shot. I think every club owner wishes he could do his seating plan all over again. I guess getting your friends in is part of the fun of ownership."
The man in charge of the Raiders' computer system is Steve Ballard. He's assisted by Bob Mishak Jr., son of a Raider assistant coach. The system is operated by trainees, two of whom are Steve Ballard and Bob Mishak Jr.
"We've been working, at a minimum, 12 hours a day and sometimes 20," said Mishak Jr. "The system hasn't broken down. The problems are those you'd expect with a boiler-room operation. In punching a keyboard under duress, there's bound to be errors. But if it hadn't been for the system, we wouldn't even have been this far along."
Two days before the Packers exhibition game, James Hardy, general manager of the L.A. Coliseum and Sports Arena, proved a prophet. "The Raiders don't have the arms, legs and hours in the day to get this job done," he said. "If they don't get those tickets out—and it's too late to mail them now—it won't be full. If people don't have their tickets before the weekend, they can't give them to clients and friends, and they'll go unused. The Raiders will have to hand them out at 'will-call.' They might as well use the pari-mutuel windows at Santa Anita."
The Raiders anticipate having ticket matters more in hand, the hand of the fan, when they host Cleveland in their last exhibition game on Sept. 4. But the real problem is that the L.A. Coliseum is inferior to Oakland's (which last week was lined and made ready for the Raiders-Packers game as a publicity gimmick) in all but two areas: its location and its capacity (92,516 vs. 54,616).
The L.A. Coliseum is as dark as a confessional, and at night the end zones are even darker. A 400-meter running track surrounds the field, acting as a moat between players and observers. One hundred and fifty luxury boxes, at $40,000 apiece, will be installed on the stadium's rim by next season; they may have to be placed under the six light standards in order for their occupants to see the action on the field. And, of course, the L.A. Coliseum is light-years away from the Raiders' regular practice site near the Oakland Coliseum. Their Los Angeles practice facility will be the former El Segundo Junior High, but it won't be available until late October.
"They broke ground [actually, it was asphalt] on August 26," said Ken LaRue, the Raiders' business manager. "There will be seven buildings and three practice fields, one of artificial turf, one of natural Bermuda and one of Hi-Play grass. We just had George Toma [the celebrated Kansas City Royals groundskeeper] out here looking it over."
The 8.8-acre site—the baseball Brett brothers got their start there—is less than a mile from the ocean and about two miles from L.A. airport. The school was closed three years ago because of declining enrollment. The Raiders may use El Segundo Senior High until the new site is ready. If not, they'll practice each week in the Bay Area and fly to all their regular-season games. "They'll all be road games," sighed LaRue.
Davis said the one group he wanted to shield from trauma was the players, but that was a vain hope. Dave Dalby, the veteran center from UCLA (which, by the way, has now moved its home football site from the Coliseum to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena), said, "It's such a sad thing when I think of the Oakland fans."
The Oakland Coliseum and that city's fathers cling to the hope that the city's eminent domain suit, the appeal of the May 7 verdict or the NFL's Washington lobby may yet return the team to Oakland, but they may be whistling in the wind. Davis still has his home in the Piedmont area of the Oakland Hills, and LoCasale has his in nearby Alameda. Coach Tom Flores will reside in Lafayette for one more year, until his daughter graduates from high school, and then he expects to move south. "If I can afford it," said Flores.
For now the players seem more concerned about logistics than football. As Wide Receiver Bob Chandler, who has lived in the L.A. area for years, put it, "This has to take its toll on us. I don't know if most guys can realistically comment on it, because no one has ever done it before. I don't think it enhances the atmosphere. We still really haven't been told the agenda. It's the not knowing that's difficult."
"I have a condo in Oakland," said Tackle Henry Lawrence. "I guess I'll rent it." "I like my house up there," said Tackle Art Shell. "So do my wife and two sons. I'm going to keep it. But times are changing, I guess."
"When we put on the black jersey, we're at home wherever," said Linebacker Rod Martin. "I own a house in the Bay Area, and I'm not in a hurry to sell it."
Safety Mike Davis, the team's player rep, said he felt the players should be financially compensated for the move. "In a sense, we've all been traded or transferred, that's the business term," said Davis. "I have two mortgages to pay now, and I don't want a third."
Fullback Mark van Eeghen was incensed when the move was first brought up nearly three years ago. He went on record in a tirade about the ethics of such a switch. But as Cornerback Lester Hayes said, "We had to realize that business is business."
A sobered van Eeghen confronted Al Davis after practice one day. "Don't you care, aren't you mad about what I said?" he asked.
Said Davis, "Just win."