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Exodus of Oakland's sports teams may have already begun

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Photo by Flickr user statixc
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By 2017, the Golden State Warriors plan to scamper out of Oakland to the more polished side of the court over at San Francisco’s waterfront. This move was announced in May at a press conference held in San Francisco. That day was cloudless, and the waterfront shimmered on San Francisco’s Pier 30. Loudspeakers belted Train’s “Soul Sista," a fire department boat shot off water cannons, and Mayor Ed Lee smiled as though his daughter were coming home for Christmas, which would be true if his lost daughter were the Golden State Warriors basketball team.

“It's been 41 years since the Warriors played here in San Francisco,” Mayor Ed Lee said. “And in my humble opinion, it's time to welcome them home.”

For San Francisco residents it’s a win, unless they’re trying to get anywhere on the Embarcadero on game day. The proposed arena’s $400 to $500 million price tag will be privately financed, and the city will have a new venue for concerts and conventions. The entire project is proposed to create thousands of jobs and pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the city’s economy, at least according to Warriors co-owner Peter Guber.

“We have one mission today – a world-class venue, a beacon for the Warriors,” Guber said. “And a lightning rod to attract the best performing talent, and cultural talent that this city deserves. It's a mission where everybody wins.”

Everybody? Well, the sun was shining over in Oakland too, but it also cast shadows. Warriors fans watching the announcement from across the Bay felt betrayed. The Warriors currently play in a complex south of downtown Oakland called Oracle Arena, which shares a parking lot with the Oakland Coliseum and a total of three professional sports teams. 

The complex fits a dated model where stadiums were built for people who drove there. “So no one thought, 'Woah, let's build a restaurant around the Coliseum,'” says Scott Oslter, sports' columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. “That was not the mindset when they were built. They built giant parking lots around them.”

The Coliseum was built for the Raiders in 1966. The A’s came from Kansas City in ‘68. The Warriors in ‘71. And they were winners. The A’s won three championships in a row, from 1972 to 1974. And the Raiders, in their 1976-77 campaign, rained terror over the Minnesota Vikings to become Super Bowl champions.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan has said she wants to keep her city’s sports teams. She touts a new “Coliseum City” as the answer. It would include a new ballpark for the A's, a new stadium for the Raiders, a new arena for the Warriors, a convention center, a hotel, and a retail strip. The Oakland City Council voted unanimously in March to spend $3.5 million to come up with a development plan, one which Quan calls a “game changer.” Ostler calls it a “pipe dream.”

“To me, Mayor Quan's plan just seems almost child-like. It seems like, on a scale from 1 to 1000, it's the first little spot,” Ostler said. “It's almost like Mayor Quan and her people sat around at lunch and said, 'Hey! Let's build a new ballpark and put some restaurants around it and stuff, oh yeah, that'd be cool!'”

The Warriors’ ownership says Mayor Quan has never really given them any definitive proposals. So now they’re drawing up plans to cross the Bay to San Francisco. The A’s seem to be trying to find their way to San Jose, and the Raiders. Well, they’ve left once already, haven’t they? Mayor Quan says she’ll build ‘Coliseum City’ whether or not the teams stay.

Of course, saving sports is just part of Mayor Quan’s job. And she has been busy trying to reform her police department and rebuild downtown in a time of budget cuts. And, on the bright side, if the Golden State Warriors do skip town, they will still be required to pay the city $7.6 million every year until 2026 for construction bonds on Oracle Arena. But then, Ostler says, that money wouldn’t necessarily buy happiness in Oakland.

"Would it be a crippling blow? I don't know. I think that having three teams like that, with the support they've been given over the years, it sort of does something for the heart of the city and the soul of the city,” Ostler said. “It means something to the people of the city. It gives them a little pride.”

Abandoned sports stadiums mostly stay abandoned. Houston has spent millions keeping the empty Astrodome open after the baseball Astros and football Oilers left them. No one knows what to do with The Pyramid in Memphis, where the NBA’s Grizzlies used to play. An aquarium? A casino? Looking further back, the Roman Coliseum was transformed into a tourist attraction. If the Warriors, A’s, and Raiders do end up leaving, maybe the city’s abandoned stadiums could stand as iconic symbols of victory – before winning became too expensive for the city of Oakland.