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The Future of Raiders Fandom is identity crisis

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What does the future hold for the Raider Nation? We have been forced to face that question since March 27 when the owners approved the team to move from Oakland to Las Vegas. Up to this point the word that could best be used to describe this vast fan base is divided.

It’s not unlike the kinds of divisions we face as a society. Though we all describe ourselves as Americans, we disagree on the direction of the country at any given time based on our political leanings.

If you think of it in that way, it’s not abnormal for fans of the same team to have very different ideas about things related to the team with perhaps the only common ground being that you want the team to win.

These days the idea of the Raiders ‘winning’ takes on more than one meaning. The franchise ‘won’ the right to uproot and head to Las Vegas. Whether that’s a win for the fans is split.

In my experience there seems to be a few different types of fan reactions to the move. There are those who are excited about the move because the team will be closer to them and/or because they now have an excuse to go to Vegas more often. There are those who are happy/relieved the team finally got a new stadium, regardless of where it happened. There are those who are indifferent. There are those who are not happy about it, but are trying to work through it to remain fans because what else are they gonna do? And there are those who feel betrayed and abandoned and are done with the team either to root for another team or to give up on the NFL altogether.

Most franchises don’t have this many categories of fans. If those franchises leave one city for another, they are figuring to pick up an entire new set of fans in their new city, understanding that the vast majority of the fans left behind will not be along for the ride. In that regard, the Raiders fans being a ‘Nation’ worked against the idea of the team staying in the city of its origin.

That city is where the Raiders developed and cultivated their identity as the tough, rogue, bad boy misfits of sports. It’s a quality those who grew up in Oakland wear like a badge of honor.

During the draft this past weekend, only one of the prospects who was invited to attend the draft returned for day two. That was Oakland native Kevin King. He was drafted with the first pick of the second round by the Packers and afterward was asked why he chose to return. His response in part was because he’s from Oakland and people from Oakland don’t run from anything.

When the team moved to Los Angeles in the early 80s, they lost some of that persona. It wasn’t instantaneous as there was still some members of the team from their so-called ‘criminal element’ days of the 70s. At some point, it seemed to shift primarily to the fans – or those pretending to be fans – many of whom took the whole ‘criminal element’ thing a bit too literally.

These days the Raiders are not the bad boys of old and the idea that the fans are violent or that the coliseum is not safe is overblown to the point of being downright absurd. But the Raiders being a team for the passionate, hard-working, blue collar folks remains. Or it will right up until they pull up stakes for their palace at the Broadway of the desert.

Suites and club seats have long been where the money is at for NFL owners. But the heart is with the fans in the seats. They could probably put on a game just for corporate suites and club seats, but can you imagine what a game would be like without the roar of 60K fans? Unpleasant. And really awkward for the TV audience faintly hearing a few rich guys in rolled sleeve powder blue collared shirts high fiving each other.

Fans in cities like Green Bay and Pittsburgh have always had an identity. That identity is literally in their names – the Packers and Steelers. Derived from the blue collar industrial fan base.

A Raider isn’t just some clever mascot. It’s not like a Lion or a Tiger or a Cardinal. It’s the image of a big and bold blustering figure with a weather-beaten face and a bristling black mustache. He’s relatable for many people. Not the least of whom are those who don the uniform to storm the countryside. In that, it’s a family. It’s a shared identity.

Will this identity crisis affect game attendance? Probably not. At least not in the short term while there’s still newness of having a team in Vegas and the product on the field is good. The NFL marches on. But the next time you have a major player rep Las Vegas the way Marshawn Lynch and Kevin King and Damien Lillard rep Oakland will be the first. There’s a reason for that.

It’s not lost on me that the response to this will be received very differently among Raiders fans. As noted, it’s a vast spectrum of fans in this ‘Nation’. Hell, many fans now see Oakland and Raiders as enemies. Those who are opposed to the move or are begrudgingly along for the ride will probably nod to themselves. Unfortunately we’ve all come to expect that division. And I don’t expect it to change anytime soon.