Commentary

Ultimate Dinosaur

When an owner loves too much

Updated: July 1, 2009, 12:59 PM ET
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine

Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesAfter firing Lane Kiffin last fall, Al Davis told reporters, "The tuck game was the undoing of a lot of things." He was talking about a game played in 2002.

This article appears in the July 13th issue of ESPN The Magazine.

It's tempting to think that most sports problems would go away if only the gazillionaire owners would act more like fans. If they bled team colors like we do, they'd never let beloved free agents walk or threaten to leave town unless they got new stadiums…right?

Well, no. Being a fanatic and an owner means never having to admit you've gone too far. Just ask Al Davis, whose Raiders are one of only three franchises to finish in the bottom 10 (out of 122 teams) in our Standings each of the past three years. (The others are the Knicks, who finished last in 2008, and the Lions, last in 2007.) Since losing Super Bowl XXXVII, Oakland has churned through head coaches (four) and QBs (nine) on its way to an embarrassing 2472 record, wrecking one of the great brands in the history of sports. But admit it: If you got your hands on a pro team, you'd probably run it the way Davis does. Drafting big-name superathletes: Darren McFadden! JaMarcus Russell! Throwing money at key players: $45 million to Nnamdi Asomugha! Publicly savoring every victory, while stewing over defeats for years. That's no exaggeration: After firing Lane Kiffin last fall, Davis talked with reporters about the Raiders' recent history and concluded, "The Tuck Game was the undoing of a lot of things." He was referring to a game in 2002.

Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesThis 2002 AFC Divisional Playoff game became known as, among other things, the "Tuck Rule Game."

Davis' real problem is one of vintage. Since resettling the Raiders in Oakland in 1995, he's failed to address new-era questions that old-time owners didn't have to worry about. Who controls ticket sales? (The Raiders surrendered theirs for years to Alameda County.) Are you maxing out on luxury suites? (Not even close.) Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder have figured out how to snag dozens of millions in unshared revenues, and they've become the larger-than-life personalities Davis used to be. So, they've had the cash to make up for personnel mistakes. And Davis hasn't.

There is hope: Davis, 80, now has three minority partners with Wall Street backgrounds. So maybe they'll get him to act on the lesson all Raiders fans have learned the hard way: It takes professionalism as well as passion to just win, baby.

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.