This is part one of a three-part series.
Read Parts 2 and 3
As a fan, sports tend to be most fulfilling when you can allow yourself to believe—for a goal, a game, a series, a season—that the fortunes of your favorite team matter for reasons nobler than private profits, and that your favorite players compete not just for a paycheck, but the pride of the community they play for. Pro teams that encourage such faith can add meaning to fans’ lives, as they can unify and augment the communities they call home.
Fandom is far less fulfilling when maintaining such faith is impossible—when the teams you root for operate not so much like community pillars as commodified playthings, the assets of billionaires who whose loyalties lie not with fans but with shareholders, sponsors, and whatever municipal body hands over the largest amounts of taxpayer money.
In Oakland of late, fans have been subjected almost exclusively to this latter kind of experience. In 2017, after a protracted battle with the Oakland city council—which is still paying off the $223 million in municipal bonds it issued to lure the team back from Los Angeles, after it’d abandoned the city for the first time—majority owner of the Oakland Raiders Mark Davis announced he’d be moving his still-beloved franchise from Oakland to Las Vegas, where legislators offered him $750 million in public funding to build a sleek new stadium. Two years later, Joe Lacob and Peter Guber, majority owners of the Golden State Warriors, finalized a move from Oakland to San Francisco, and added insult to injury when they tried weaseling their way out of a reported $45 million still owed to Oakland and Alameda County taxpayers on their way over the bridge.
John Fisher and Dave Kaval, meanwhile—majority owner and team president of the Oakland Athletics—are currently in the process of cajoling Oakland’s city council into forking over hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds so they can build a $12 billion stadium-anchored real estate development on the West Oakland waterfront. They’ve promised that if they’re denied these funds, they’ll move the A’s to Vegas. The A’s are reportedly spending $2 million a month to secure approval to move forward with their real estate ambitions. In the meantime, however, Kaval and Fisher have steadily jacked up ticket prices, slashed budgets, and sacrificed the on-field product and in-game experience: a brazen, unapologetic deprioritization of community partnership in favor of a more unabashedly capitalist conception of what professional sports organizations should do or be.
As a result, most Oakland residents have found themselves either disabused of the inclination to believe in their favorite teams, or, conversely, robbed of the ability entirely.
There is one team in Oakland, however, that appears committed to renewing residents’ faith in pro sports’ beneficent potential. This would be the Oakland Roots, The Town’s upstart Division II men’s soccer club, which played its first game in Oakland in 2019, and which aspires to the ideal of professional sports less as a private enterprise than as a kind of public service: the club’s stated purpose, which can be found on their website and social media pages—and which employees repeat like an incantation—is, “To harness the magic of Oakland and the power of sport as a force for social good.”
A different kind of sports team
The Roots occupy a liminal space in American sports. Their altruistic, collectivist conception of what pro sports can be has been rejected here—particularly in the four major American sports: baseball, football, basketball, and hockey—but it’s embraced elsewhere. One example is the world of European soccer, where the first clubs were set up “by churches or minority groups to represent a class or interest, town or region, [or] even a political affiliation [or] religion,” and where the sport is to this day regarded “as more than entertainment” but, rather, as “something communal, or even tribal”—as London-based Atlantic staff writer Tom McTague has written. Overseas pro sports organizations eschew the term “franchise,” which is popular here in America, because of the sense of corporate rootlessness it connotes. Indeed, some European clubs, such as those operating in Germany, remain publicly owned institutions, which fans are invited not only to root for, but to exert a degree of influence over, as they might the local library.
The Roots are not community-owned—ownership is split between the founders and investors—but they very much see themselves as accountable to Oakland in a similarly elemental way.
“We are here to build a community asset,” Edreece Arghandiwal, the Roots’ co-founder and chief marketing officer, told me recently. “One that’ll be around for hundreds of years.”
It might be easy for residents and fans to write the Roots off as something admirable but fundamentally cute were it not for the club’s competitive ambitions. Beyond serving Oakland as a community asset, the club wants to leave a legacy and one day fill the void left in Oakland by the teams that have all but abandoned it.
“I’m not going to shy away from saying this,” Arghandiwal told The Athletic, in 2020. “I want to be the biggest sports club in the world.”
“We knew when we started that the Raiders had left [and] that the Warriors were about to leave,” Mike Geddes, the Roots’ chief purpose officer, told me recently. “But we believe Oakland deserves great sports teams. We aim to provide that.”
Oakland was once recognized as the greatest sports city in the nation. The teams and experiences who buoyed that reputation—the Raiders and the Black Hole; the Warriors and “Roar-acle” Arena—were internationally recognizable institutions. Their absence has left the Oakland sports scene on life support. The Roots are a three-year-old lower-division soccer club. It could seem silly to invest too seriously in their resuscitative potential.
And yet, in pursuit of precisely these ambitious ends, the Roots have already proven demonstrably, improbably successful. They’ve risen to a level of cultural and communal prominence rare for its sport and remarkable for its rapidity. Less than three years into their young life, the Roots are already by some metrics the most popular pro team among Oakland sports fans. The club’s crest—an Oak tree rising like a clenched fist out of stained-glass soil—has become ubiquitous, spottable everywhere, from stickers affixed to light posts along Lake Merritt to the chests of such high-profile stewards as Portland Trail Blazers’ point guard (and East Oakland native) Damian Lillard and Hamilton star Daveed Diggs. The club has amassed political capital and assembled a team of high-powered investors, including former Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch. They’re a celebrated and affecting community partner, collaborating with a diverse array of nonprofit organizations all over the city. And they’re expanding; the club recently announced the launch of a women’s team.
Most of the Roots’ home games sell out, and the crowds they draw contain no small number of former A’s, Raiders, and Warriors fans. Several times this year, in a stadium designed to hold twelve times fewer fans, the Roots have even outdrawn the A’s.
And the sense among at least some of those fans is that the Roots are already a serviceable alternative to the Town’s formerly beloved major league squads.
“You can feel it in the stands,” said Roots’ diehard Maurice Greer. Greer was a Raiders’ season-ticket holder for 15 years, and a member of the fabled Black Hole. He also used to attend “at least 50-55 A’s games a year.” But after the Raiders left, and after growing tired of the A’s obstinate frugality, Greer told me that he couldn’t stomach supporting either team any longer.
“The owners were just there to put more profit in their pocket,” he said. Then one day, in the fall of 2019, Greer caught a Roots’ game on TV. It was the championship match of the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA), a Division III league, where the Roots had played their first season. The Roots lost 2-1, but played valiantly. The following year, Greer attended the Roots’ home opener at Laney. He hasn’t missed a home game since. “The diversity of the crowd, the pride, the energy,” he told me. “There’s something special we’re building here.”
‘The spirit and the atmosphere is special’
One night in April, I went with my wife to go see the Roots play Virginia’s Loudon United at Laney College, which serves as the Roots’ home field. If I’m being totally honest, I was skeptical about what I would find, buzz about the Roots be damned. There were two reasons. First, I’m new to soccer and have never been a huge fan of the sport. I believe I harbor a baseball player’s subconscious distrust of not being able to use your hands. More pertinently, I’d spent the better part of the last two years documenting the depressed state of Oakland sports, and I was sensitive to how much damage the scene had incurred—and dubious about the potential of any upstart team to revive it, even one with lots of good press. How “special,” I wondered—how lively or restorative—could a soccer match possibly be?
The answer, turns out, is roughly as lively as a rock concert, and about as restorative as a kind of summer cookout held at a beloved community gathering place, and attended by seemingly everybody in town.
“It is special,” as Joanne da Luz, co-founder of My Yute Soccer, a provider of free soccer camps operating in and around Oakland, put it to me a few days later. “The spirit and the atmosphere is special. It makes you feel great as an Oaklander.”
In case you haven’t been, here’s what a Roots game is like. First, you arrive, and find as you trundle through the turnstiles something of an impromptu Oakland-centric street fair. (Ahead of each home game, the Roots close off two blocks of East 10th Street—the road that abuts the football stadium at Laney—and fill it with local food trucks, alcohol vendors, graffiti artists, and music.) You walk around, sampling local beer, watching parents struggle and ultimately fail to corral kids screaming joyously about in Roots scarves and kits, all while young people representing damn close to every one of Oakland’s various cultural, economic, and denominational pockets mingle, drink, eat, and chat.
Then it’s gametime, and everyone transitions the bleachers, which, by kickoff, are packed and rollicking. Led by the concatenation of supporters’ groups who cram themselves sardine-like into the bleachers’ southern end—which groups go individually by the names of La Brigada Del Pueblo, the Homegrown Hooligans, the Roots Radicals, and the Oakland 68s, though they refer to themselves collectively as “The Function”—the crowd does not stop singing, chanting, waving flags, or banging on drums all game long. Banners the size of small billboards are unfurled and lashed to rails. (“LOVE FOOTBALL | HATE RACISM” read one particularly memorable statement, billowing at field-level.) Most fans stand rather than sit, and the stomping of feet against metal fills the pitch with a kind of constant vibrating hum. Whenever there is the odd kinetic lull, the spirit of Mac Dre elbows his way out of the loudspeaker and enlivens things anew. Though nothing excites the crowd quite like a goal, which, on the night of the Loudon match, the Roots scored four of, en route to their first win of the season.
“It’s love out there, man,” said Steve Murakami, a co-founder of the Homegrown Hooligans, with whom I spoke on the phone the next day. “Being in the bleachers, alongside all the supporters groups, it sort of feels like one big family. I love it.”
Murakami testifies to the devotion the Roots inspire: not too long ago, he had the Roots’ logo tattooed on his chest. It hangs dramatically over a thatch of chest hair on his left breast, like a harvest moon rising over an unplowed field in autumn.
Such devotion also exemplifies—in fleshy microcosm, perhaps—the poignancy of the impression the Roots have made on Oakland thus far. It extends beyond the Laney College bleachers or even the bars where Roots’ supporters watch away games—at least, that is, when they’re not traveling en masse to those away games. The team has carved out a place of respect for itself among city political and civic leaders. As Oakland city council President Nikki Fortunato Bas told me recently in an email, “I’m proud the Roots are based in my District. I look forward to continuing to witness and support the team’s positive impact in Oakland.”
She’s not the only one. Last March, Oakland city councilmember and Mayoral candidate Loren Taylor went so far as to author a resolution to “Recognize the Oakland Roots Sports Club for its many contributions to the City of Oakland” and its “dedication and commitment to the city.” When I asked him to elaborate he told me, “They show up consistently across Oakland and partner with a diverse cross-section of nonprofit organizations throughout the city, from East to West and from flatlands to hills. And the games are hella fun to go to.”
How is it that in such a short period of time, in such a disaffected scene, and with such apparent ease an upstart soccer club has been able to cultivate such an inspired and loyal following and become such an overall big deal? One feels inclined to grope about for a catch. (Because certainly there has to be a catch.)
I’ve spent the last few months trying to find one. And while I don’t think there is, in the end, any sort of catch, what I did find is instructive. The Roots’ rise is real, but it has not come easy. Indeed, if it is possible to believe that the Oakland Roots could well define a new, more symbiotic and more fulfilling future of professional sports in Oakland—one in which the previously predatory paradigm is flipped to look something more like a healthier, more mutually beneficial partnership between city and team—it is partly because of the tough choices the club has had to make, the adversity it’s weathered, and the controversy it’s overcome.
More than anything, however, it’s a product of what the Roots have built and set out to accomplish off the pitch.