The Raiders’ flirtation with San Antonio in 2014 attracted a lot of attention, and the appeal was obvious. It’s the largest city in the nation without an NFL franchise. The one major sports franchise that is based there inspires a level of devotion that most other teams only dream of. Not to mention that the Spurs’ colors, like the Raiders’ own, are silver and black! It seemed a perfect match. But when it comes to the game of musical chairs that is relocating a professional sports franchise, San Antonio always seem to be left standing when the music stops.
It’s been clear for some time that the dream of the San Antonio Raiders was dead. By February 2015, Bexar County judge Nelson Wolff was explaining to the San Antonio Express-News that he believed pro-sports franchises “are not truthful with you. They lie.” Others in local leadership held on to the dream through the summer, with City Manager Sheryl Sculley telling the San Antonio Business Journal that she expected to learn more about the team’s plans soon.
Those plans, apparently, did not include San Antonio. The Raiders, in planning their move out of Oakland, zeroed in on a return to Los Angeles, but were ultimately beaten to that punch by two other teams: the Rams, who moved before the start of the 2016 season, and the Chargers, who announced their move to L.A. earlier this month. That didn’t push them into the loving arms of San Antonio, though—instead, the Raiders filed paperwork last week to relocate to Las Vegas.
Losing out to Los Angeles, or to a team that ultimately was looking to leverage the idea of moving into a new stadium in their current city, is one thing. Losing out to a place like Las Vegas is something else. San Antonio is the seventh largest city in America, with a population hovering around 1.5 million people; Vegas, meanwhile, is the twenty-sixth largest city in America, with a population of 623,000. It’s smaller than El Paso, Oklahoma City, and Memphis—not exactly cities on the NFL radar. As combined metro statistical areas go, Vegas is more competitive, with 2.1 million people to San Antonio’s 2.38 million—but it doesn’t have the bonus of being an hour away from Austin and the additional 2 million people without a local NFL franchise.
Las Vegas considered the fortieth largest media market in the U.S. (San Antonio is thirty-one.) Except for St. Louis, which lost its team when the Rams moved to L.A., and Portland, every media market larger than San Antonio has an NFL franchise within 150 miles. And sure, small media markets sometimes end up with teams. Outside of historical exceptions like Green Bay (#68) and Buffalo (#53), Jacksonville (#47) was awarded a franchise when the NFL expanded in the nineties, and the New Orleans Saints (#50)—the last franchise to flirt with San Antonio—retained its team after Hurricane Katrina. But it has to sting fans in San Antonio to see their city passed over not for a larger market, but for a smaller one.
There are reasons, of course, why San Antonio isn’t a lock for an NFL franchise. The city is largely Cowboys country (as is most of South Texas), and there’ve been questions about whether Jerry Jones would have supported the addition of a new Texas team. Additionally, part of the business of being an NFL franchise is selling stadium naming rights and luxury suites to corporate clients. While it’s unlikely that the NFL would approve Caesar’s Palace Stadium, there’s certainly plenty of money flowing through Vegas to fill those luxury boxes for years to come. San Antonio has ClearChannel, Valero, NuStar Energy, Toyota Manufacturing and regional chains like Taco Cabana and HEB, but the bench gets pretty thin after that. Those reasons may help explain why the Raiders passed on San Antonio, but they don’t tell us why San Antonio still gets so little respect from the sports establishment.
We don’t need to go into Charles Barkley’s dumb comments again, but this is hardly the city’s only rejection. San Antonio put in bids to host the College Football Playoff in 2019 and 2020, which both got passed over in favor of Santa Clara, California and New Orleans. (It did manage to land the 2018 NCAA Final Four, after being ignored for a decade’s worth of bids and then promising $41 million worth of upgrades to the Alamodome.) The lack of a state-of-the-art venue certainly doesn’t help anything, but it’s nonetheless strange to see San Antonio never really taken seriously in the sports world unless it has to do with the Spurs making the playoffs.
It’s something that ought to change at some point. There’s a lot happening in San Antonio right now—the days of the city being defined by the Alamo and the Riverwalk are behind us—and as the sixth-fastest growing city in the U.S., there’s only more on the horizon. The city’s best opportunity to show that off will come next year, when the Final Four comes to town. For a few days at the end of March and beginning of April, at least, the sports media world will be based out of San Antonio. Visitors who leave the venue will be in the heart of the city (as opposed to, say, visitors who leave AT&T Stadium in Arlington who need to drive twenty miles before they can enjoy Dallas), and if the city wants to prove that it’s a grown-up player in the world of hosting the sort of events that are on the level of the College Football Playoff—or any given NFL Sunday—it’ll have the chance to impress people whose expectations are likely to be low.
It’s too late for the Raiders, and though the team’s colors would have made for an easy wardrobe transition, San Antonio will survive. The NFL is unlikely to expand at any point in the near future (imagine how bad the games would be with even more B-list starting quarterbacks!), but there’ll be another team that needs a stadium deal at some point, and San Antonio should be a stop for the next owner looking to assess their options. If they can start building a reputation as a sports city outside of the Spurs between then and now, maybe they’ll finally get a seat when the music stops.