Drayton McLane, who knows a thing or two about the subject, believes Central Texas is closing in on being able to support its own Major League Baseball team. That pronouncement might lead you to wonder what we’ll call our new team—Lone Star Hipsters? Canyon Lake Coyotes?—and to look forward to summer evenings sipping a cold one at the ballpark as the sun sets on the San Marcos River.
Anyway, McLane has precisely the kind of can-do spirit Texas is going to need to land a third MLB franchise. No one thought he’d succeed in purchasing the Astros in 1993, and certainly no one thought he’d persuade Houston voters to approve, in 1996, the construction of Minute Maid Park. He breathed life into a franchise that had never won much of anything and led them to six postseason appearances during a nine-year stretch from 1997 to 2005. That run culminated with a National League pennant, which at the time was close to the sweetest moment Houston sports fans had ever experienced.
Now 84, McLane makes it clear he’s not going to lead this effort. That’s where Nolan Ryan comes in, but more on him later. In fact, McLane admits it’s a tad early to begin putting down a deposit on season tickets.
“Ten years from now, it’s a possibility,” he told me.
Wait, what? Ten years?
“Long-term, I definitely think it’s a good idea,” he said.
I mentioned that some of us weren’t getting any younger, and asked if McLane, with his previous MLB experience and net worth of almost $3 billion, might be able to speed up the timeline?
Slow down, he said. “You have to have a big metro area with lots of substantial businesses that will adopt the team,” Drayton explained. “I’m not sure Austin and San Antonio have that. San Antonio is a tourism city. Austin is more of a government town.”
Sensing my disappointment, McLane found a silver lining. “I do think the area will grow into it,” he said. “I know it’s really prosperous.”
One thing that never came up in our conversation: the availability of a team. That’s the easy part. The Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays are something akin to free agents, with both unable to land new ballpark deals in their host cities. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has given the A’s permission to shop around for better options, and team officials were to visit Las Vegas this week. The Rays, apparently desperate for leverage, have come up with the far-fetched idea of playing half their games in Montreal and half in Tampa or St. Petersburg. Almost no one who follows the sport believes a split-city format is workable, and it seems only a matter of time before the Rays begin shopping for a new full-time home.
Plus, Manfred has said MLB will expand—by at least two teams—once the A’s and Rays are settled. While Portland may have a big head start on Central Texas, are there really four better North American markets than the Austin–San Antonio corridor? Think of San Marcos as perhaps the perfect accessible-to-both-cities spot for a ballpark. And McLane might be underestimating the market’s viability. The Interstate 35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio is booming, and a ballpark accessible to both cities would make the are more appealing than several current MLB cities.
Austin’s economy was the twelfth-fastest-growing among major metropolitan areas in 2019, according to the Austin Chamber of Commerce. A sleepy government and university town no more, Austin now hosts some of the largest and most profitable companies in in the world, from Apple and Amazon to Tesla and Oracle.
There are plenty of TV sets, too. San Antonio is the nation’s thirty-first-largest television market, according to Nielsen, while Austin checks in at number 38. Together, the cities deliver 1.65 million television households, more than a long list of major-league cities, including St. Louis, San Diego, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore.
The greatest hurdle to landing an MLB franchise in Central Texas may end up being the effort to persuade local governments to devote hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to a ballpark that would benefit a privately owned business. Is having big league baseball in the area worth such a massive financial commitment—especially when the economic benefits of publicly funded stadiums often fall short of their price tags?
Reasonable people know this is close to an impossible sell. That doesn’t mean Texas has no chance at a third MLB team, however, because similarly desirable markets in other states are also unlikely to raid the public coffers for a baseball stadium. The San Francisco Giants managed to foot the bill for their ballpark, and other franchises surely could do the same.
Here’s another advantage Central Texas has: Nolan Ryan. It’s hard to name a more respected figure than the Hall of Fame pitcher in Texas and in baseball circles. During his five seasons as Rangers president and CEO, the franchise enjoyed its best seasons, including back-to-back World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011. Ryan has also run model minor-league franchises in Round Rock and Corpus Christi, and his oldest son, Reid, was Astros president for six years before returning to the Round Rock Express in 2020.
No one is better equipped to help Central Texas land an MLB franchise than the Ryan family. But, as Reid Ryan recently told me, the devil is in the details. He drew a line from Georgetown to San Antonio and said, “I definitely think there’s enough fan support. The question really comes down to the economics behind it.”
He ticked off expansion fees, television rights, revenue sharing, and a host of other concerns. “But I do think there’s enough fan support,” he added. “You’re talking, what, five million people in all? I’ve always felt like Texas would have a third major-league team at some point. I think the population is going to continue to come this way. I think businesses are going to continue to come.”
I asked if he was willing to be the front man for a potential group, that is, the person who knocks on doors to raise money and lobby other MLB owners. “I tend to not answer hypotheticals,” he said. “If you don’t have the facts, it really sets people up for a narrative that’s not accurate. If you’re asking me, do I have the desire to be part of a group bringing a major-league team here—yes, without a doubt. Again, though, what are the details?
“We’ve pioneered professional baseball in this market for over twenty years. I’ve got a lot of experience. My dad has a lot of experience. Yeah, we’d be a natural fit, and we’d be honored to do it. And I’d love to do it. But does that mean it’s a reality? I know a lot of people got excited when they heard the A’s might be considering another market. It’s fun to talk about and great to see people excited about baseball.
“But the reality of something like this happening is probably a lot further away than most fans ever realize.”
That’s true for now. But once things begin to move, they’re likely to move quickly, with the A’s and Rays finding new homes and MLB suddenly focused on adding two expansion teams. Thats where the optimism about Central Texas comes from, and that’s absolutely realistic.