They call it “America’s Finest City,” and when it comes to football fans, they don’t come any finer than those rabid Raider rooters in Baja Oakland, a.k.a. Oakland South, South Oakland, and San Diego, California.
But wait a minute. Doesn’t San Diego have a football team of its own? Aren’t they called the San Diego Chargers?
If they do, where were all their fans when the Raiders took on the Chargers at Black Hole South, a.k.a. Qualcomm Stadium, on 18 December 2016?
Estimates vary, but as many as 70% of the 68,352 fans in the packed football stadium were dressed in black.
UPDATE: Since I wrote this post, I've read that some pundits are putting the figure at more like 80%, and from what I saw on television, they might be right!
And, no, none of those black-clad fans were there to root for the Atlanta Falcons or the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Carolina Panthers.
What's more, the unusually large number of Oakland Raiders fans in attendance at the highly anticipated football game did not go unnoticed by the local media in San Diego.
It was, in fact, one of the biggest sports stories in print and on television following the game at the ageing Southern California facility.
Home Away from Home?
“The Raiders came to their home away from home and beat the Chargers 19 – 16,” says Kevin Acee, Sports Columnist at the San Diego Union Tribune newspaper.
“I’m going with at least 2/3rds of those 68,325 fans were Raiders fans.”
As I recall it, many years ago the Chargers stopped selling tickets only to Raiders games in a bid to stop Raiders fans from blacking out the stadium. You had to buy tickets to at least two other games along with your Raiders game tickets! Otherwise, thanks, but not thanks!
Whether the Chargers still do that, I do not know. But surely it is an embarrassment for a team to have play at home in front of a largely hostile crowd.
And surely the turnout of Oakland Raiders fans at this year's football game was far larger– and far more boisterous – than it was in previous years.
SoCal Football Fans Do Raider Nation Proud!
According to Tiffany Baxter, Official San Diego Correspondent for the Accidental Travel Writer, having the Raiders clinch their first playoff berth in 13 years in San Diego was a proud moment for herself personally – and for the entire Raider Nation.
When asked about the huge turnout of Raiders fans this year, Tiffany didn’t seem surprised. Raider fans have been outnumbering Charger fans when the two teams clash at the Q for years – if not decades.
“The Raiders DO have a huge following here in San Diego,” Tiffany says.
“There are over five Booster Clubs here in the 619, better known as the Raiders Home Away from Home. The love for the Raiders shows every game. Fans show up and support the Raiders win, lose, or tie.”
San Diego Football Players React
So what was it like for San Diego football players to play at home in front of a partisan crowd whose loyalties were massively in favour of the opposition?
Sports reporters from the local media interviewed members of the San Diego Chargers following the game, asking probing and sometimes awkward questions of the football players, some of whom looked clearly ill at ease.
Having said that, none of the players tried to hide their embarrassment at having to play before a mostly hostile crowd at their own stadium.
The reporters seemed to taking so much pleasure in the football players’ discomfort that I couldn’t help but wonder if they were, actually, Raiders fans in disguise!
“Yeah, it sucks!" - Joey Bosa, Defensive End, San Diego Chargers
Rookie Defensive End for the San Diego Chargers Joey Bosa was clearly out of his comfort zone when responding to questions, saying it sucked to see all of those fans rooting for the so-called visiting team.
But he had been warned on what to expect, so it didn't come as a surprise. Still, it would have been better if the Chargers had won.
“It was weird seeing the stadium packed with the opposing team’s fans,” Joey says.
“Definitely don’t get that at ‘the shoe’ [whatever that means]. Um, it’s fun playing in a good atmosphere with a lot of people there. It didn’t really bother me. But, I mean, driving in here I kind of got an idea what it was going to be like, so it didn’t … I mean, I had been hearing it all week, how it was gonna be majority Oakland. It definitely was. I mean, yeah, it sucks!”
“It was pretty embarrassing!” - Dwight Lowery, Safety, San Diego Chargers
Safety for the San Diego Chargers Dwight Lowery appeared decidedly downcast when he was interviewed on television after the game, describing the large turnout of Raider fans as “shocking”.
“There was a lot of black out there today,” Dwight says. “It was pretty embarrassing.”
Could it have had something to do with the football team’s stadium issue and talk of the team’s possible moving to Los Angeles as early as next season?
How about the Chargers’ mediocre position in the standings? It’s hard for many teams to put bums on seats when they aren’t playing up to expectation.
“I think it may be reflective of where the team is,” Dwight says. “Everything that’s been going on, I guess, for the past couple of years with the stadium issue and whatnot.”
“Never seen nothing like this in my 14-year career” - Amtonio Gates, Tight End, San Diego Chargers
Tight End for the San Diego Chargers Antonio Gates started his interview by describing the large Raider Nation presence as “pretty interesting’.
Was that the understatement of the post-game interviews, or what?
“We understand that the Raider fans travel and, uh, the impact that they have when we have these home games,” Antonio says.
“But, um, never nothing like this. It was essentially a home game for them. Just the crowd noise. You know, I’ve never seen nothing like this in my 14-year career. So we’re always expecting the Raider fans to come out and support their team, but, um, not to this magnitude of which it was basically a home game for them.”
The Raider Nation Defined
The Raider Nation has what marketers call a “first mover advantage”, and Raiders fans are called the Raider Nation for a reason.
The term was coined, in fact, following the Raiders return from Los Angeles to Oakland to reflect the team's dual fan base. And the term caught on, slowly taking on a national significance.
Simply put, the Oakland Raiders are one of only a small handful of American football teams that can truly boast a national following. And that is why their fans are called the Raider Nation.
So what’s all this stuff about Patriots Nation, Cowboys Nations, 49ers Nation, Seahawk Nation? If these teams have a national following, why don’t their fans come up with an original nickname rather than copying the Raiders?
Contrary to popular belief, the Oakland Raiders do not have this massive contingent of fans in California that travel to football stadiums throughout the country to root for their team.
While such fans DO exist, most the fans rooting for the Raiders in such place as Seattle, Washington; Miami, Florida; Denver, Colorado; and East Rutherford, New Jersey, actually live within the vicinity.
They simply like the Raiders more than the nearest team. And you can count on them to arrive at the stadium dressed in Raiders regalia.
Take the Tennessee Titans, for example. When the Raiders play the Titans at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee, Larry Da Prez Rogers, who heads RaiderNation of Memphis, estimates that 20 to 30% of the fans attending the game are rooting for the Raiders.
How many of them fly in from California is anyone’s guess. But most of them surely live in Tennessee or neighboring states.
Way Down Yonder in New Orleans
The same thing happened when the Raiders took on the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in the season opener last September.
Long before the opening kickoff at the enclosed football stadium, the Big Easy was awash in fans dressed in Silver and Black.
Santiago and Yvonne Escobar of Corpus Christi, Texas, traveled to New Orleans to attend the game, arriving a few days in advance.
While they “can’t honestly give” an “exact number” of Oakland Raiders fans attending the game, they can attest to the fact that Bourbon Street was “packed with an awesome attendance” of Raiders fans for three days running.
“To have a police escort for a Raider Nation parade the morning of the game tells you that we travel as one mighty Nation, better known as The Raider Nation,” Santiago says.
Oakland Football Players React
If the mood in the Chargers’ dressing room was somber, the mood in the Raiders’ dressing was upbeat. It could, in fact, be described as celebratory.
This was not just another football game. This game - played on "home turf" - signaled a significant turning point in the history of one of the NFL's most storied football franchises.
Was this the beginning of the long-awaited "Return to Glory"?
“That’s our fan base.” - Lativius Murray, Running Back, Oakland Raiders
Running Back for the Oakland Raiders Lavivius Murray says the Raiders can always count on support from their fans when they play away from home.
But the turnout at this year’s San Diego game was exceptional.
“That’s our fan base,” Lativius says.
“They do it game in and game out for us when we’re on the road. Obviously, this was a big one here with that turnout, but the Raider Nation is strong. We really love that when they come out and support us on someone else’s turf.”
“It felt like I was at the Coliseum” - Brian Irvin, Linebacker, Oakland Raiders
Linebacker for the Oakland Raiders Bruce Irvin had never before played a football game at Black Hole South. He seemed genuinely awestruck by the passion of the highly partisan crowd.
“I ain’t never been in an away stadium where an away fan base just took over the game like that,” Bruce says.
“When I was pumping up the crowd, it felt like I was at the Coliseum. Raider Nation definitely played a part in us bringing this back to Oakland.
“We always think we get nine home games a year.” Derek Carr, Quarterback, Oakland Raiders
Quarterback for the Oakland Raiders Derek Carr is just one of many athletes, fans, and sports writers that think of San Diego as the Raiders’ home away from home.
“It’s a strange thing, but when we come here, it’s a normal thing,” Derek says.
“When we come to San Diego, our fans turn it into a home game. We always think we get nine home games a year.”
The Chargers can be forgiven for blaming the relatively small number of Charger fans attending the Raiders game at the Q this year on the team’s lackluster performance on the field and anxiety over the team’s possible departure for Los Angeles, which could happen as early as next season.
But Raiders fans have been outnumbering Chargers fans at these games for as long as anyone can remember.
“It was like my rookie year,” Derek says.
“Obviously, it’s grown a little bit. They’re loyal. They’ve been behind us. They’ve been through all the hard times. They’ve been through the hard times longer than I have. I just feel happy for them to be here and experience that today.”
Next Best Thing?
It would have been nice if the Raiders could have clinched their first NFL playoff berth in 13 years at their home in Oakland.
But if it couldn’t be at their home in Oakland, their home away from home in San Diego was surely the next best thing.
“To look around the stadium and see our fans, uh, just going crazy,” Derek says.
“You know, it was like a home game. Everybody knows that. When we came down here, you know, and they made us feel, you know, they made us feel so good. Walking off the field, um, but I’m just happy for those of us that were in there.”
If Head Coach of the Oakland Raiders Jack Del Rio looked unusually emotional during his post-game interview (he seemed to be holding back tears), it’s easy for those of us that grew up in Oakland and the Greater East Bay to understand why.
Imagine becoming head coach of the team you rooted for as a kid! Could it possibly get any better than this?
Jack, you see, grew up in one of the most fervent Raider fan bases in the Raider Nation: Southern Alameda County.
And if you don’t know where that is, it’s a hop, skip, and a jump from the Oakland Coliseum.
Jack attended Raider home games at the Black Hole, and he watched the Raiders play away games on television. And it shows in the way the coach has been coaching his team.
Jack even graduated from my daddy's alma mater, Hayward High School. The East Bay roots run deep.
As I wrote a few weeks ago in this blog, Jack Del Rio has put the Oakland back in the Oakland Raiders!
“A lot of happy people right now." - Jack Del Rio, Head Coach, Oakland Raiders
Jack is a classy individual, and he was quick to give some of the credit for the team’s win in San Diego to its loyal and long-suffering fans.
“Raider Nation showed up,” Jacks says succinctly.
“It was pretty awesome to see. At least 60 to 70%, I don’t know what the numbers were, but there were a lot of black shirts out there. A lot of Silver and Black. A lot of pride. A lot of happy people right now.”
And so there are.