An in-depth look at the challenges
Lost Ya Blue: Returning the Oilers to Houston, and what it will take.
Editor's note: John Long is an advocate for the cause.
"Down here, the Oilers are about as popular as green suede shoes."
- C.W. Nevius, commenting on Memphis fans' reception of the Oilers in 1997
The Oilers once again share something in common with the Houston Astrodome. For 28 of their 36 years of existence in Houston the franchise shared a lease with Astros for the rights to play in the Dome, cultivating an iconic brand that still resonates deeply with the City. The Dome and "Luv Ya Blue," together, symbolize longed days of prideful professional football in Houston. Currently, in morose irony, the Oilers and the Eighth Wonder of the World share an unfortunate existence as decaying artifacts.
This story isn't new to Houstonians: Bud Adams was tired of the Astrodome, and the financial burdens that came with playing in it. Hell, Adams' beef with the Houston Sports Association, the entity that owned and operated the Dome, ran all the way back to day one when Adams couldn't settle on lease terms for the Oilers to start playing there before eventually moving in to room with the 'Stros. Adams never liked the idea of paying the local baseball team to play football.
He made it no secret decades later that he wanted a new stadium for the Oilers, to be predominantly paid for by Houstonians. He initially planted the seed back in the 80's that he was willing to take the team and go. Adams proposed a new multi-use downtown stadium only years after getting the city to pay for renovations to the Astrodome (RIP to the coolest videoboard of all time), and - in objective fairness to him - he offered to put up $75 million of his own money toward the proposed project. Houston responded with "no thanks" and that was that. Although Bud's proposal to build a mutant Alamodome in Houston was as unpalatable then as it would be now, knowing how that idea turned out for San Antonio, Adams believed he was validated when Houston built multiple new venues entirely on the back of public funding after he left.
"You've got warring parties on all sides, and you've got powerful egos at play. To sum it all up, it's a big mess."
- Mike McClure, former Executive Vice President of the Oilers
A prideful man who felt disrespected, the option of Adams "pulling a Browns" and leaving the Oilers logo in Houston for a future team to use was never on the table. No love was lost by the end when the Oilers' departure became imminent, and Houston and Adams exchanged one-finger salutes for one inglorious 2-14 season. With Houstonians bailing on the team, Bud's plan for the Oilers to use the Astrodome as a hospice house for two more years - like the Raiders recently did the Coliseum - was no longer an option.
So, the Oilers brand was drugged, kidnapped, and shipped away in some metaphorical Mayflower truck, through the Ark-La-Tex all the way into West Tennessee, to exist as a refugee brand for two transitional years before being sent out to the pasture in 1999. If you looked closely those two years, you could see the oil derrick on Steve McNair's helmet shooting out tears. The Oilers logo transposed on the Tennessee flag could be used to incite a riot in some parts of H-town.
Tennesseans felt as much of a connection to the Oilers as should be expected from an unwilling stepdad. The Zombie Oilers struggled mightily to draw fans in the Liberty bowl the first year, no thanks to Bud referring to the locals as "Memphanites." Ultimately, Nashville didn't give a damn what the team was called (as evidenced by settling on the "Titans" as the team's new moniker, stolen from a former AFL franchise from … New York) as long as they were getting NFL football in the city.
Adams' retention, and continued possession of the Oilers intellectual property marks was never about the people of Tennessee though. The Oilers brand was personal to Bud; it was a scalp from his war with Houston. Possession of the Oilers represented the most visceral way for Bud to keep sticking it to the city and the folks who he felt let him down. The Oilers logo wasn't Houston's, it was his.
Since being replaced in 1998, the Oilers brand has gone on to live the life of a Joe Exotic big cat: hidden in captivity, not to be seen except for the occasional moment of exploitation. No arms were ever ripped off but those exploitative moments were still very awkward nonetheless. There was the "strange" retiring of Warren Moon's jersey – in a city where he never played – in 2006. There was that one season in 2009 when the Titans wore the Oilers throwbacks four times. But that season was the last we ever saw of those uniforms. By this point, it's reasonable to conclude that the Oilers suffered the same fate as some of Joe's less fortunate elderly tigers. If you're looking for evidence that the Oilers logo is still alive, good luck finding it in the Official Titans Proshop.
"When we moved to Nashville, the history just kind of all stopped."
- Amy Adams Strunk, Owner of the Tennessee Titans
Amy Adams Strunk, Bud's daughter and Houston resident, is the current owner of the Oilers IP. While the Oilers marks are currently nowhere to be found in Nashville, Adams Strunk still hosts an Oilers reunion…. in Houston of course, which is where she provided the quote above. Her remark at the recent reunion echoes her other public statements about the future of the Oilers. Figuring out what to do with the brand doesn't appear to be at the top of her agenda, to say the least.
The question of whether we will see the Oilers uniform on an NFL field again continues to come up from time to time, but Adams Strunk doesn't seem eager to address the topic. She previously relied on the NFL rule prohibiting teams from using multiple helmets to deflect the question of when, if ever, she would dust the Oilers throwbacks off and bring them back into use. Although it's not clear if the proposed rollback of the one-helmet-rule has altered her position, she does not seem fired up by the thought of Derrick Henry channeling his inner Earl Campbell in a Luv Ya Blue throwback.
The question was most recently brought to her attention last year and Adams Strunk remained non-committal, responding "I think that it would be something I would take to the fans." No survey has been issued to date. From my independent research, Titans fans are more excited about the possibility of trolling Houston fans by having the Titans wear the Oilers jerseys against - and only against - the Texans than they are anything else. People who cover the Titans and Adams Strunk say don't hold your breath if you're hoping for the Titans to bust out the Oilers garb anytime soon.
Despite Adams Strunk's reluctance to utilize the Oilers intellectual property, she clearly understands the value of the brand. Without question, that value is nowhere higher than it is in Houston.
"[The Adamses], they ought to give back the Oilers' history to the Texans. It's just sitting up there [in Nashville], whereas I think the Texans could really utilize it. Anyone who knows anything about the Oilers is in Houston. And as much as we try to share our history . . . there are just people up there who don't know anything, nor do they care about the Oiler history. . ."
- Bruce Matthews, Oilers legend and NFL Hall of Famer.
Bruce Matthews – for the young folks – is one of the most iconic players in the franchise's history. The quote above is from a few years ago, but boy could the Texans really utilize that Oilers brand these days. Even by Texans standards, this has been a rough offseason. After shipping out one of the definitive best players in franchise history for a questionable return, fan morale is low. Beyond Houston, the brand has never really moved the needle. If the bull on the Texans helmet had a Q-score, it would struggle to score roles in public access commercials. But really this offseason is closer to par for the course than it is a double bogey. The Texans, as a brand, have never been wholly embraced like the Oilers were here.
The Texans brand began with a lackluster reception and it failed to ever gain traction. Like the Titans, the Texans name was ripped-off a deceased pro team, from Dallas no less. Adding to that insult, former Texans owner Bob McNair had to be gifted the right to use the Texans name by none other than Jerry Jones himself. The Texans team name beat out powerhouse contenders like the Bobcats (ironically, the name of a different pro sports team replaced by a former, more popular brand), the Apollos (an Astros bootleg), and ….. the Roughnecks (more on the 'Necks in a little bit).
Despite the team (t-e-a-m) employing a number of superstars during its 18 year existence, and some nice moments here and there, the pulse oximeter typically returns to its usual low and flat trajectory by around the third week of the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Rockets and the heel-turn Astros have never been more relevant nationally and internationally. This franchise was Bob McNair's birthchild though, so naturally the Texans logo means more to the McNair family than it does the everyday Houstonian.
- DeAndre Hopkins, trade piece for David Johnson
Former Oilers and Texans players want the IP to return to Houston, but current residents really want the Oilers back. There's a social media game, popularized during the COVID-19 pandemic, where the reader is asked to pick three items out of a group of nine or so, eliminating the other items for eternity (we will look back on this pandemic as an especially bored era of civilization). If Houstonians were to play the "pick 3" game with local professional sports uniforms, Rockets ketchup and mustard, Astros tequila sunrise, and the Oilers throwbacks survive as the last three standing, and they would win in a landslide. The Rockets and Astros, embracing Houstonians' taste for nostalgia, both prominently display their old looks.
KHOU conducted a poll last year and found that 89% of its audience would want to see the Oilers return to Houston. The Texans' three biggest stars in recent history – JJ Watt, Deshaun Watson, and Hopkins – have all expressed their desire for Houston to reclaim the Oilers. In a big money auction during Superbowl LI in Houston, Oilers memorabilia outsold Texans memorabilia three to one. Perhaps the most recent, and flattering, evidence that the Oilers brand still carries more cache than the Texans was the local popularity enjoyed by the now-defunct XFL's Houston Roughnecks, a Harwin version of the Oilers.
Adams Strunk scoffed at the idea of relinquishing the IP to the Texans for nothing in return, but in her defense the Oilers IP is worth a whole lot more than nothing. No state or municipal law was ever passed to prohibit the Oilers marks from leaving Houston, and the league didn't purchase the retired marks, so the Oilers brand is legally Adams Strunk's. Brand popularity translates to monetary value, and the McNair family would certainly reap a financial benefit from reclaiming the intellectual property. Merchandise sales are split equally among NFL members, but there are plenty of other ways for the Texans to profit from acquiring the marks, especially if it were to lure back a large minority of Houstonians who refused to jump over to the Texans after the Oilers left. The McNairs should pay the Adamses for the Oilers rights, but how much?
While there have been some seemingly similar situations involving the reclamation of pro sports brands in other cities, none are quite like this. Michael Jordan, of The Last Dance fame, brought the Hornets back to Charlotte, but he did not have to transact with another team's ownership to get the intellectual property marks. The NBA itself owned the Hornets IP, which made that transaction easy. The move to ditch the Bobcats brand for the Hornets, by the way, resulted in a financial windfall for Jordan. In Cleveland, Art Modell gave the Browns back to the city, but that was part of a legal settlement resulting from litigation surrounding the departure of the franchise to Baltimore, hardly the same as what's going on here. The fact that there is no clear guiding precedent could truly make for a fascinating negotiation for the Oilers, should the two sides ever come to the table. If the Texans were to obtain the rights to wear the Oilers uniforms, it would not be the first franchise to wear the jerseys of a different franchise that previously represented the same city.
Sadly, the McNairs could sit pat and remain content with never visiting the issue. The Texans, despite the milquetoast brand and all, are among the top 10 in NFL franchise valuation. Houstonians continue to flock to the stadium despite the unpopular front office, the results, or the team rolling out the likes of Vanilla Ice for halftime performances. Stalin's lesson of the plucked chicken is a recurring course that is taught on Kirby Dr., so why would things be any different with respect to the Oilers IP? The McNairs have no reason to confront the situation as long as the bottom line is right.
"It's almost like the Oilers are on the shelf, packed away in a dusty warehouse, like 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' or something."
- Frank Wycheck, former Oilers and Titans tight end/quarterback.
The Oilers currently hold the dubious distinction of being the only abandoned brand in NFL history since the NFL-AFL merger in 1966. The uniqueness of this issue and the passion behind the brand itself ensure that this topic won't go away anytime soon. In Houston, this isn't just a move that's favored by the old-timers who packed into the Dome to sing a cheesy fight song in support of the run-and-shoot. Everyone in Houston still wants the Oilers back.
Would Adams Strunk consider selling the Oilers IP to Janice and Cal McNair if she were to receive a bona fide offer? Would the McNairs even be willing to come to the table with a proposal if Adams Strunk is willing to listen? These are the most critical questions to those who care about returning the Oilers to Houston. For now, the stakeholders on both sides remain silent, and even Indiana Jones can't return the Oilers IP to Houston until they address those two questions.
What makes the story unique right now is that the franchise patriarchs, on both the Titans and Texans side, are deceased. The further away we get from the nasty separation between Houston and Bud, perhaps, the more likely that personal vendettas could give in to the desire to – equitably – return the Oilers brand to the City who craves it. Conversely, the McNair family must be willing to give up their own personal attachment to the Texans brand in recognizing the enormity of goodwill that could be restored to its constituents, Houstonians, by either incorporating the Oilers history into the organization, or by rebranding back to the Oilers entirely. The Texans may discover that doing so not only boosts the city's confidence in the organization, at a time when it desperately needs it, but also their own coffers.
What's most certain about this story is that the City of Houston wants the Oilers back. Even Bud Adams, the Oiler King himself, recognized that it's the fans who deserve to possess the identity of the team. When Bud christened the Titans in Tennessee, he proclaimed "This is going to be Tennessee's team." Wouldn't now, with all that's going on in the world, be a great time to put aside personal feelings for the greater good and sell Houston its team back?
Perhaps one day when all is right Houstonians can celebrate the return of the Oilers at whatever it is the Astrodome becomes, if it is ever to be resurrected as a public use facility again. For now, the Oilers continue to rot while Houstonians are left to only hope.