ALAMEDA, Calif. — Soon after the NFL approved the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas, coach Jack Del Rio wondered if anyone had a handbook on how to handle being a lame duck in Oakland.
While there might not be a book about how to handle playing in a city a team plans to abandon for richer pastures, there is a franchise that tried a similar path before deciding life as a lame duck proved to be untenable.
Just weeks before the start of the 1995 season, Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams announced he had an exclusive negotiating deal to move the team to Nashville, Tenn. A ballot measure was approved the next spring in Nashville to fund a stadium that wouldn’t be ready until 1999 so the Oilers decided to spend three seasons as a lame duck in Houston.
But with dwindling crowds at the Astrodome and increasing animosity from a fan base about to be deserted, the Oilers changed plans and played the 1997 season in Memphis and the ’98 season on Vanderbilt’s campus in Nashville before finally moving into the new stadium in 1999.
“We started off planning to stay in Houston the whole time like they’re talking about in Oakland,” said former Oilers General Manager Floyd Reese. “After the first year, we said this is just not going to work. That’s how we ended up in Memphis for a year and Vanderbilt after that. That certainly wasn’t great, and the truth is I’m not sure it was better than just staying in Houston. But you knew that staying in Houston was going to be so distasteful and be really hard to listen to the negativity every day. We couldn’t do anything right. We said anything is better than this and you make the move and you find out it was better in some areas and not as good in others.”
The Raiders now will see how it works for them in Oakland after the NFL approved their move last month to Las Vegas for the 2020 season. The Raiders are staying in Oakland in 2017 and have an option to play at the Coliseum in 2018 that they plan to exercise. They have no lease for 2019, leading to uncertainty about where they will play that year.
Oakland officials have indicated they don’t want to give the team a lease for that season and owner Mark Davis has said he doesn’t want to play in Las Vegas until the new $1.9 billion stadium is ready.
That could lead to the team playing at another Bay Area location, like Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara or Memorial Stadium at Cal, or they could look for a short-term home.
Much of that decision will depend on the fan reaction in Oakland starting this year. If Houston is any indication, it doesn’t figure to be good.
The Oilers averaged less than 32,000 fans a game in 1996, getting big crowds only when fans wanted to cheer for Pittsburgh and San Francisco. By Thanksgiving, the fans stopped coming with the team drawing about 20,000 for its sixth and seventh home games before playing in front of a crowd of 15,131 in the home finale.
“I’d seen that place in an NFL playoff environment at its peak,” former offensive lineman Brad Hopkins said. “To see 15,000 people in a 65,000-seat stadium was completely unbelievable. Just the quietness. We had preseason games with better attendance. That was completely shocking. The fans were saying don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
The only thing that made the experience a little easier on the players is that the venom from the fans was almost entirely directed at Adams and local politicians and not the players.
“They completely blamed the bureaucracy,” Hopkins said. “They didn’t look at us like we had anything to do with it.”
Those late-season crowds made the decision to leave Houston easy for the franchise. Reese remembers talking after that game to a shell-shocked rookie Eddie George, who was used to playing in front of crowds of 100,000 in college at Ohio State.
“I went by his locker and said, ‘Hey, it’s not going to be like this forever. This is not the NFL. What you see later on will be,”’ Reese said.
Playing at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis in 1997 wasn’t much better as the average attendance was even lower at about 28,000, and many of the fans came to cheer for the opponent because they had no connection to the vagabond Oilers.
The team got only slightly more support the following year at Vanderbilt before finally finding a real home in 1999 when their new stadium opened for the newly named Tennessee Titans.
That led to a successful run with the Titans making the Super Bowl following the 1999 season and averaging more than 11 wins a season over a five-year span.
“It bound us because we understood that we were searching for a new identity,” Hopkins said. “We had to do it on our own. We came together and became a team.”