There are few owners in professional sports who took over their team in a worse situation than Mark Davis did, following his father’s death in 2011. The Raiders’ salary cap was in dire straits, the talent was aging and overpaid, the team’s reputation was in the dumps and the stadium was badly in need of replacement, being the lone multi-use stadium left in the US.
To make matters even more challenging, Mark inherited the team from a true titan of the sport, a man who had either the utmost respect or the most fervent dislike from other members of the football community. Al Davis is a true legend, a Hall of Famer, a former AFL Commissioner, an AFL Coach of the Year, a pioneer in the hiring of minorities and one of the men who made the NFL into what it is today. That is not an easy man to take over for, even if you are his son.
Mark is not a rich man; he is not a real estate developer like many of today’s NFL ownership. His family’s wealth is tied up in the Raiders and Davis has been somewhat of a reclusive figure for much of his adult life. The two things he was known for, however, give us a little insight into who Mark Davis is. As a member of the Raiders’ equipment team, Mark Davis was responsible for inventing the hand warmer muff that quarterbacks wear around their waists in cold weather.
The second thing that Davis is known for is representing legendary Raiders WR Cliff Branch in contract negotiations with Al Davis. The negotiations went so well for Mark and Branch that Mark was kicked out of his parents’ home for being “too close to the players”. So not only is Mark Davis an innovative and creative guy, he is also a very player-minded man who has been on the players’ side of the table.
Mark is, at heart, a simple guy. He drives a 1997 Dodge Caravan. He drives hours to go get his signature bowl cut, making him look like cross between Dumb and Dumber-era Jim Carrey and an orangutan. But these things are proof that money hasn’t changed Mark Davis. He is as he’s always been. But is that such a bad thing?
What do we, as fans, want from an owner? We want someone who hires good people and, for the most part, stays out of the way while they do their jobs. We want a man who always looks out for the best interest of his team. We want owners who are honorable men. In all of these ways, Mark Davis is the polar opposite of the gold standard for shitty, subhuman NFL owners, Washington’s Dan Snyder, a man so degenerate and morally bankrupt that he pimped out his own team’s cheerleaders,
One of Mark’s first moves upon gaining control of the Raiders was jettisoning noted team cancer Hue Jackson, who came at the king and missed in his attempt to turn the Raiders into his personal fiefdom. Next, he hired Reggie McKenzie, whose primary directive was to relieve the team’s woeful cap situation. This, McKenzie did, although he did little else of note besides drafting Derek Carr and Khalil Mack.
Another skill an owner must possess is to get rid of good people at the right time, and he did this with both Jack Del Rio and McKenzie, before bringing in Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock. While Gruden’s first year went poorly, Mayock so far seems to be doing a tremendous job with a solid draft and a productive free agency period. The jury remains out on them both, but if the Raiders ship isn’t turned around in the next few years, no ten-year contract will save anyone’s job.
The one thing Davis is often panned for is the fact that the team is leaving Oakland to set up shop in Las Vegas. Fans have an emotional reaction to this, as the Raiders have been part of the very fabric of Oakland for almost 60 years and to see them leave is unconscionable. But they have left before, when Al Davis moved them in 1980 to Los Angeles in search of a new stadium. He didn’t get one there, and the team played for 14 years in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum because Al couldn’t get a stadium deal done. That stadium is so old, the ‘Memorial’ part is in reference to World War ONE.
Mark, at the very least, is moving the team to a place that is actually building a stadium for the team. If you go on Youtube, you can see how the construction is going. It’s going to be really slick when it’s done. It won’t have the same atmosphere that the Oakland Coliseum has, but that is true for every other venue in the entire country. You cannot replicate it. But the thing the Vegas stadium will have is lots of Raider fans, and they are the ones who will make the experience unique.
Personally, I don’t believe Mark Davis ever really wanted to leave Oakland, but internal city politics are what they are and Oakland clearly made their choice by approving a new stadium deal for the A’s. The A’s, of course, have a fabulously wealthy ownership group consisting of real estate developer Lew Wolff and The Gap heir John Fisher. They get their stadium because they can help build it, as if anyone will come once they do. Mark Davis is a pauper by NFL ownership standards, and Oakland left him and the Raiders out to dry.
In the end, Mark Davis did what was best for the Raiders. He didn’t grab his ankles for the City of Oakland. He did what Mark Davis does, and he negotiated a deal. He didn’t move the team across the country like Stan Kroenke did with the Rams, or even as far as Bob Irsay or Art Modell had taken their teams in decades past. He moved them to Las Vegas, which is almost exactly the same distance by plane from Oakland as Los Angeles is.
People underestimate Mark Davis constantly. His haircut and eccentric lifestyle almost demand it. But Davis has the haircut specifically so that people will take him lightly. It’s a trick. What we have here is a shrewd owner who knows how to make a deal, holds people to account for losing, and does what is in the team’s best interest- even, at times, over the interest of the fans themselves. Raider Nation is worldwide, and Davis has far more than just Oakland fans to think about.
It’s no secret that Al Davis didn’t get along with the NFL and the league office or the other owners. Lamar Hunt and the other AFL owners went behind Al’s back to negotiate the AFL-NFL merger, and Al was removed from the Competition Committee in 1979 by Pete Rozelle, who would later nix a draft-day trade that would have brought John Elway to the Raiders. And just what did Al Davis’ renegade ways get the Raiders? Besides cultivating their counter-culture image, I would argue all of Al’s bravado and maverick streak earned the Raiders exactly bubkes. In fact, his iconoclastic character turned the entire NFL against Oakland. This made them very popular, and continues to do so, with malcontent fans, but ultimately does little for the on-field product.
Conversely, Mark Davis knows how to play the game. When the Carson stadium deal came around, Mark stepped aside and let the Rams and Chargers share a stadium in Inglewood. There were better deals to be had for the Raiders than being a tenant to Stan Kroenke as the Chargers will be, and the Chargers are now stuck in a city that couldn’t care less about them and barely acknowledges their existence. Mark also sends the Raiders abroad on a regular basis- not just because the Raiders have a worldwide fanbase, but because their stadium situation requires a certain amount of goodwill. This year alone, the Raiders will play in three different countries. Al would never have allowed such a thing, but he never got a shiny new stadium either.
We’d all like to think the Al Davis way of basically being a grown-up Eric Cartman and saying “Whatever, whatever, I’ll do what I want” and “screw you guys, I’m going home” would be effective in today’s mega-corporate NFL but in all practicality, it’s not. Let’s remember Al for being a revolutionary coaching genius, a self-made man, and a pioneer in terms of minority hiring, rather than getting no new stadiums built for his team during his entire life and winning his third and final championship in 1983.
Al was a great and wise man, and he always said, “The greatness of the Raiders is in its future.” As I watch the Las Vegas stadium go up, day by day, I see that greatness coming into focus. But just as Moses was set aside and Joshua took the Hebrews into the Promised Land, it will be Mark who takes them into that great future.