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December 14, 2017

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And so begins the Raiders’ long, awkward goodbye to Oakland

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Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

A Oakland Raiders fan holds up a sign about the team possibly moving during the first half of an NFL football game between the Oakland Raiders and the Atlanta Falcons in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016.

It is the longest of goodbyes, an iconic franchise leaving town but in a kind of suspended animation as the fan base does a slow burn toward anger and heartbreak.

The Raiders aren't escaping in the dead of night, as the Colts did when they left Baltimore for Indianapolis. Nor are they facing a skeptical fan base that openly wondered whether Al Davis would be allowed to move the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles in 1981.

The Band-Aid cannot be pulled off quickly, as was the case when Davis returned the Raiders from Los Angeles to Oakland in 1995, because there is as yet no place to call home in Las Vegas.

So it's possible the Raiders, who received NFL approval to move to Las Vegas on March 27, will remain right where they are for another three years. There has never been an exit like it. Reggie McKenzie, the Raiders' general manager who moves with the speed of a tortoise, could get to Las Vegas on foot quicker than the time it will take his team to move there.

"Nobody really knows what this is going to look like," said Andy Dolich, the Bay Area-based sports business consultant. "What's it going to feel like if you're the ultimate lame duck of all lame ducks?"

It appears there will be no mass exodus of the fan base. Raiders officials say the season-ticket base is holding steady at 50,000, and those who gave up their tickets after the Vegas vote were quickly replaced off a waiting list the club says numbers 20,000.

(Despite the waiting list, the Raiders have no plans on removing the tarp from the East side structure known as Mount Davis and freeing up 11,000 seats, citing game day experience related to security, parking lot space and concessions).

Contrast the tickets sold with 1980, the year Al Davis signed an agreement to move from Oakland to Los Angeles. It had been rumored for two years, and regular-season per-game attendance dropped from 54,559 to 49,336 in a season where the Raiders won a Super Bowl.

Forced to stay in Oakland one last season before winning the right to move in court, the Raiders were again more than 5,000 under capacity in 1981.

The figures represented fans who were disgusted with Davis, while others were in denial.

"There was disbelief," said Steve Mortara, a Raiders season ticket holder whose allegiance dates back to the franchise's inception in 1980. "There were a lot of people who really didn't believe they were going to leave."

With $750 million in public money coming their way, the Raiders' eventual departure is all but assured. But after the first playoff appearance since 2002, fans don't want to miss the coming attraction.

"I think it's so ironic, because as their team is walking away, they're proving what a passionate fan base they are," said Andrew Brandt, a sports business analyst and director of the Moorad Center for Sports Law at Villanova Law School. "It's a very uncomfortable situation optically because the support is there, the team is good, all is good, as if it's not going to happen. But we know the divorce is coming."

The Raiders have a two-pronged approach to deal with the Bay Area fallout.

The public stance of owner Mark Davis is for fans to "blame me, not the team" and is hopeful of giving Oakland Raiders fans a Super Bowl championship on the way out while behind the scenes the team is setting up shop in Las Vegas.

They also threw the local fans a bone in the form of running back Marshawn Lynch, a hometown hero with pride in his Oakland roots.

In a business sense, their timing couldn't be better because optimism surrounding a 12-4 team is as high as it's been since Jon Gruden got the Raiders back to the playoffs in 2000.

For coaches and players, immersed in the here and now, Las Vegas may as well be a mirage.

"I think an NFL season is almost how you look at dog years," coach Jack Del Rio said. "It's like, add seven to it. We're going to be there in 21 years."

Wrapped in the team cocoon, players and coaches barely seemed to notice when Al Davis was unable to get locker room upgrades and luxury boxes and began the process of relocating to Los Angeles in 1978.

"Once you get in the building and on the grounds during the season, that's your entire world," former Raiders coach Tom Flores said. "It's your family. It's everything you need to know. We never talked about it."

Jim Plunkett, a quarterback who moved from Oakland to Los Angeles, said it was business as usual within the team.

"We were insulated not only through Coach Flores, but Mr. Davis," Plunkett said. "All we had to do was go between the chalk lines and play the game. I don't remember thinking it was really too cumbersome or worrisome to any player at the time."

Given that the Raiders were a consistent winner in the late 1970s, angry fans were more prone to jumping ship.

"We had been champions twice in less than a 10-year period and we were coming off one in 1980," Flores said. "Equate that to now, when we're coming off our first winning season in forever. These people are so proud and hungry and anxious and excited they're not going to miss this."

As Mark Davis sat unbothered nearby, reading newspapers and eating breakfast, conversations with Raiders fans in the lobby of the Napa Valley Marriott during training camp uncovered hurt feelings and mixed emotions.

The first thought of season-ticket holder Ruben Ortiz of Modesto, an original PSL holder since 1995, was to cancel his account.

"The Raider fans that are there will be doing it grudgingly," Ortiz said. "My first reaction was to give up my tickets. But my son begged me not to because I've been taking him since he was 6 years old.

"He said, 'C'mon Dad, let's ride this train until it leaves the station.' But I'm not a happy Raider fan, and it's sad because we should be looking forward to the season, but we can't because they're leaving."

Although the stadium will be at capacity, it won't necessarily be full of the same emotion. And should Lynch show his age and the Raiders' season go horribly wrong, all those sold seats won't necessarily have fans sitting in them on game day -- witness Levi's Stadium and the 49ers the past two years.

Griz Jones, founder of the 66th Mob Family fan club and aligned with the group "Forever Oakland," warns "It's going to be different. It already is. Their heart isn't going to be in it. I hope the Raiders are cautious. The pro-Oakland fans don't want to see any Las Vegas stuff. I think it could be a little toxic."

Long goodbyes can be complicated.

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