Forgive the thought, but every now and then it seems as if the San Antonio Spurs have been living on borrowed time in the Alamo City for the past 35 years. Their departure felt imminent back in the eighties—right up until a seven-foot-one graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy named David Robinson arrived at the end of the decade and kick-started the Spurs’ transformation into one of the most successful franchises in NBA history.
Then, in 1999, the organization again seemed to have one foot out the door when San Antonio voters first rejected then approved the construction of the $186 million AT&T Center. Thus ended the Spurs’ talks of possible relocation to Nashville or Anaheim. The team had won the first of its five NBA championships five months before the election that okayed the arena, and somewhere in that story there’s a reminder about the importance of timing.
Anyway, here we go again. The Spurs have not threatened to leave San Antonio this time. They don’t need to. Instead, they asked for—and received—permission from Bexar County commissioners to play two home games in Austin next season. Specifically, the franchise outlined a “two-year pilot program” regarding Austin. Amid the stirring of some familiar and understandable insecurities within one of the NBA’s smallest markets, commissioners approved only the two games for next season (in addition to one in Mexico City and another in the Alamodome).
Contributing to San Antonians’ angst is the awareness that Austin is precisely the kind of place where professional sports franchises thrive these days. The league’s economic engine runs largely on the availability of corporate wealth to splurge on suites, courtside seats, and assorted VIP services. There’s much more of this type of money sloshing around in Austin than in San Antonio. Think Dell, Apple, Tesla, Oracle, Samsung, and all the rest. Did we mention that Michael Dell, billionaire founder of the computer company that bears his name, purchased a piece of the team?
The Spurs’ request comes just as the University of Texas opens its $375 million Moody Center, a state-of-the-art basketball arena that can be configured to seat 15,000 for an NBA game in Austin. It has all the cash-generating bells and whistles: 44 luxury suites, almost two thousand club seats, three in-stadium clubs, and 57 loge boxes.
The AT&T Center has a similar number of club seats and luxury suites, but it can’t match Austin’s wealth. San Antonio is the twenty-sixth-largest television market in the thirty-team NBA, with the nineteenth-largest metropolitan population. AT&T announced last summer that the telecommunications company would opt out of its naming rights deal for the arena (worth $2 million a year), effective this fall.
The county commissioners predictably said the quiet part out loud while questioning Bobby Perez, chief legal counsel for Spurs Sports & Entertainment, at Tuesday’s meeting: have the Spurs decided they can’t stay in San Antonio and pay the likes of a Stephen Curry or a Kevin Durant, both of whom pulled down more than $40 million this season?
One of the commissioners, Tommy Calvert, wondered if the Spurs were “testing the waters” for an eventual move to Austin. County Judge Nelson Wolff wanted assurances from Spurs CEO R.C. Buford and chairman Peter J. Holt this was not the case. Neither attended the meeting. “I’d feel a lot more comfortable if the owners were here, and they say what they wanted to say,” he said. “It’s the ownership that decides whether they’re going to stay or not.”
Instead, the Spurs sent Perez to the hearing to represent the organization. He told the commissioners that home games played outside San Antonio were “about building that brand from Mexico to Austin.”
The Spurs surely knew there’d be a storm of speculation, despite their ongoing lease with the AT&T Center, which runs through 2032. Oddly, this is coming at a moment when the franchise’s bond with San Antonio seems stronger than ever, after the announcement of plans to build a $510 million training facility that will include ample space for restaurant, retail, and commercial tenants.
If the Spurs were seriously thinking of bolting for Austin, they would not be partnering on such a project. “This location right here becomes our home and our place that we’re putting our flag in the ground for decades,” Perez said.
Buford struck a similar tone in a statement released this week: “We believe San Antonio is uniquely positioned from a cultural, geographic, and economic standpoint to serve as the anchor for this region. San Antonio has been home for five decades, and the organization will continue to innovate, positioning the Spurs to thrive in San Antonio for the next 50 years.”
Motives are never clear in these things. Could the Spurs be eyeing some sort of team-sharing arrangement similar to the Tampa Bay Rays’ proposal that they play half their home games in Montreal and half in Tampa Bay? That idea went nowhere. If the Spurs were to try something like it, that too would be DOA, because teams belong to a city. “Our team” means nothing when the franchise is also their team, whether that’s referring to the fans all the way up in Montreal or the folks eighty miles up Interstate 35. But is there some number of home games that could allow the Spurs to tap into Austin’s wealth while remaining San Antonio’s team? What would it be—ten games? A dozen?
What we can’t know is how much urgency Spurs ownership feels to pad the bottom line after the team failed to make the playoffs for a third straight season (after 28 postseason appearances in 29 years). Missing out on those lucrative playoff home games has cut into the team’s overall attendance and television ratings.
The average attendance at Spurs home games was 15,014 this season, an 18 percent drop from the NBA’s last pre-pandemic season. Between 2002 and 2018, the Spurs filled 99 percent of the seats at AT&T Center. That number fell to 81.8 percent this season. Local television ratings also took a hit, with Sports Business Journal reporting in February that the Spurs were on track for a 74 percent decrease from the 2015–16 season.
On the other hand, let’s not dismiss the possibility that the Spurs’ interest in Austin could be exactly what the team’s representatives have said it is: an opportunity to extend the franchise’s brand footprint to other markets. Would two games a season be enough? How about five? Would the Bexar County commissioners rework the arena lease to allow that many away “home” games? That seems unlikely, given the tone of the first meeting.
In addition, the University of Texas would almost certainly oppose the presence of an NBA franchise in its hometown. That is, unless there were money to be made. No corner of this country is more motivated by wealth than the fine men and women who run college sports, and it would be a mistake to think UT officials wouldn’t at least examine how the Spurs’ presence in Austin might fill the school’s coffers.
Thirty-five years ago, the Spurs staved off a possible move by winning the 1987 NBA draft lottery, which allowed Robinson to arrive in San Antonio two years later, after fulfilling his commitment to serve in the Navy. Without him, there would almost certainly be no NBA basketball in San Antonio today. Former Spurs owner Red McCombs once put it to me like this: “The franchise was dead.” Instead, Robinson sparked a three-decade run of excellence in which the Spurs became the league’s gold standard for success and smarts.
San Antonio celebrated five NBA championships between 1999 and 2014. In Robinson’s fourteen seasons, the Spurs missed the playoffs once. That was in 1996, when a back injury limited him to six games, and the Spurs went 20–62. Against all odds, San Antonio won the draft lottery again that year, which gave the team the chance to select another future Hall-of-Famer, Tim Duncan. Gregg Popovich took over as coach, and over the next eighteen seasons, the Spurs never fell out of title contention.
Things are different now. The Spurs have no cornerstone player. Popovich is 73. Even if the Spurs could afford to pay a superstar, it’s hard to imagine that player would choose to live and play in San Antonio over more glamorous (and potentially lucrative, in terms of endorsement opportunities and other off-court business pursuits) locations in South Florida or Southern California.
Popovich and Buford have been so good at unearthing talent—think Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker—that there’s no reason to doubt their ability to rebuild a championship-level roster. But how long will they be around?
And even the second coming of Tim Duncan might not stave off the existential threats the franchise faces in San Antonio. Spurs fans won’t like their team flirting with Austin, but a limited relationship with that city and its emergent class of tech billionaires could turn out to be a lifeline that provides the Spurs with a financial lift they can’t find at home.
Before taking a tougher tone in the hearing, Wolff, the Bexar County judge, told the San Antonio Express-News, “This is not costing us anything to help them be able to spread their fan base and get more people here. From their perspective, they think these out-of-town games are important to be able to build a wider network of Spurs support.”