Here’s some big news on the “more pro sports in San Antonio” front: While the Alamo City is flirting with MLS and spent some time in the discussions to host an unofficial minor league football team in the FXFL, city leaders spent the weekend of July 18 meeting with the ownership of the Oakland Raiders about the possibility of the AFC West’s most beleaguered franchise picking up stakes and heading to San Antonio as a new home base.
That moves the discussion of “could another pro sports league maybe be interested in San Antonio” out of the realm of the theoretical and into a much more concrete discussion: Will San Antonio sports fans be wearing a different silver-and-black logo in a year or two? Let’s look at some of the key questions.
Are the Raiders really looking to move?
The Oakland Raiders are as good a candidate for relocation as any team in football, and better than most. The team’s current stadium lease expires after the 2014 season, and the city hasn’t made any real moves to build a new one—part of the deal that the team wants before they sign a new agreement. The situation in Oakland is unusual, too—the Raiders currently play in the O.co Coliseum, where they share the field with the Oakland Athletics baseball team. (This is why early home games for the Raiders see the field’s grass occasionally replaced by infield dirt.) The A’s just signed a 3+ year deal to play at O.co, which the city enthusiastically approved, and it’s possible that there’s not going to be a lot of political will to keep the team around.
But do NFL teams really move anymore?
Well, they haven’t in a long time. The last team to pack up and go to a new city was, of course, the Houston Oilers, when they moved to Nashville. That happened in 1997, and there was a brief spate of relocation before that: the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens in ’96, in a weird and controversial move, and the year before that, both the Rams and the Raiders themselves moved out of Los Angeles, to go to St. Louis (in the Rams’ case) and to Oakland (where the Raiders franchise had been born, before they moved to LA in 1982). Still, it’s been a long time since a team actually did relocate. Over the past 17 years, these things tend to get resolved with the team getting a new stadium deal in its current hometown. But the Raiders’ situation is unique, as outlined above.
Does that make San Antonio the likely landing place?
“Likely” is overstating it for sure. The two most likely places the Raiders will play in 2015 are Oakland and Los Angeles, because most teams don’t move, and because if the Raiders do move, the NFL has already expressed a lot of interest in getting a team back to LA sooner than later. There are challenges to that, though—for one, Raiders owner Mark Davis, who inherited the team from his father, founder Al Davis, when the latter passed away in 2011, knows that Los Angeles is a surprisingly difficult market for the NFL, which is why the Raiders left in the first place. For another, the LA stadium situation is—and has been—a nightmare for years, and is part of the reason that there’s not already a team in the city. The latest rumors are that the NFL is weighing the possibility of building an LA stadium its own damn self, which would be a pretty unusual move for the league.
So there’s nowhere for the team to play in Los Angeles, and not a lot of political will to give them a great deal in Oakland, especially with baseball guaranteed to hang around for several more years while a long-term solution is sought. It’d still be a surprise to see the Raiders move to San Antonio, but the city is definitely a legitimate candidate.
Could San Antonio support an NFL team?
So, here’s a big question, because it’s what 24 of the 32 NFL owners, who would have to vote to approve a move, would be looking at. San Antonio is the twenty-fifth largest MSA, or metropolitan statistical area, in the country. That’s basically a fancy way to say “city and suburbs.” The only MSAs larger than San Antonio without teams are Los Angeles and Portland (and Portland is almost exactly the same size as San Antonio—Portland’s MSA has 2.31 million people, San Antonio’s has 2.27 million). Portland’s not really in the running for a few reasons, mostly related to the fact that there aren’t a lot of major businesses headquartered there, which makes it hard to sell stadium naming rights and corporate luxury boxes.
That’s not an issue in San Antonio, where companies like ClearChannel, Toyota Manufacturing, Valero, NuStar Energy, and even regional powerhouses like Taco Cabana and HEB could occupy those roles. There are a number of NFL teams in markets that are smaller than San Antonio, too—Cincinnati, Cleveland, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Buffalo, and Green Bay all have fewer people. (Green Bay, of course, is something of an historic anomaly in American professional sports, but Jacksonville and Nashville are two of the newer homes for NFL franchises in the league.) Furthermore, the NFL—unlike, say, MLS—doesn’t care if its stadiums are built in the heart of cities, on the outskirts, or out in the suburbs entirely. The San Francisco 49ers’ brand new stadium, in Santa Clara, is forty miles from the team’s old home in San Francisco; the Dallas Cowboys play in Arlington; etc, etc. Which means that if San Antonio wanted to host the Raiders, they could perhaps develop a stadium deal on the north side, off of I-35, where Austin’s 1.88 million people would have an easy time getting to the stands. That’d be a pretty enticing deal for the NFL, in developing a regional team.
What about Jerry Jones?
Every discussion about a San Antonio NFL team inevitably invokes Jones’ name, because he doesn’t seem to want it to happen. The Cowboys have a powerful fanbase in San Antonio, and Jones isn’t known for being the sort of guy who shares well. The last time an NFL team was in talks to head to the city—when the Saints set up temporary shop there after Hurricane Katrina, and considered making the move permanent—he stepped to the mic to oppose the idea. But that was a unique situation, where San Antonio would be poaching a team from a wounded city. Oakland’s situation is very different.
So far when asked about it, Jones has downplayed the possibility, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “I don’t make a lot of this. At all.” (Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, meanwhile, told the Chronicle‘s beat writer John McClain that “it’s not surprising they would look there.”) Neither owner seems enthusiastic about splitting Texas into a three-team state, but it’s not like that can’t work—Florida, New York, and California are each home to three teams at the moment. Still, it’s probably safe to suspect that neither Jones nor McNair would be among the 24 “yes” votes for San Antonio. The bigger question, then, is whether they could convince seven of their fellow owners to join them in the “no” category. It’s hard to say for certain on that, but the notion that Jerry Jones is a powerbroker who could single-handedly prevent San Antonio from hosting an NFL team seems overblown.
Is this just another franchise jerking San Antonio around?
That’s the biggest question, probably, for San Antonio football fans who are tired of the occasional teases that a team might be coming. It happened in 2005 when the Saints came by, it happened in 2011 when the Minnesota Vikings needed leverage to get their new stadium built… There aren’t a lot of cities that are viable potential NFL homes, which means that anytime any owner wants a new stadium deal, San Antonio’s name is going to come up. Local leaders, after a flirtation with MLB’s Florida Marlins in 2006, declared a hiatus on negotiating with teams unless they had the relocation blessing of their league, according to MySA.com, and former mayor Henry Cisneros downplayed the significance of the meeting when asked about it, saying that he and the Raiders owner were friends and Davis was coming to visit the city anyway.
It’s definitely possible that this is all a bunch of smoke and that the real goal for Mark Davis here is to get Oakland to build his team a state-of-the-art stadium that, perhaps, would not also be a baseball diamond during the regular season. If that’s the gambit, though, it’s far from an assured one. Oakland already has an NBA franchise and an MLB franchise, the 49ers new home is actually closer to the O.co Coliseum than it is to the old Candlestick Park, and the San Francisco Giants play ball nearby, as well. This isn’t the sort of hostage situation that, say, the Bills new ownership can hold Buffalo in. It’s entirely possible that the Raiders will be playing their home games somewhere other than Oakland after they finish out the last ten games on their lease, and San Antonio’s a legitimate contender.
Why would they pick San Antonio over Los Angeles?
If the Raiders do move, LA, as the nation’s second-largest television market, is the obvious choice. The NFL is desperate to get a team back there, and the Raiders’ historical ties to the city they spent 13 seasons in make the team the obvious choice. The lack of a stadium deal is a legitimate holdup, but it’s also the sort that can be greased with some money. But Mark Davis—if he’s anything like his dad—might not care much about that. Al Davis was an offbeat iconoclast who gleefully defied the NFL. He was responsible for the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, and later sued the league for “forcing” him to move the Raiders back to Oakland in 1995. (He lost the lawsuit.) He was as fond of making weird football decisions for his team as Jerry Jones is. Mark Davis only took ownership of the team recently, so it’s hard to say what his style is as an owner, but given his breeding, it’s not obvious that he’s the sort of guy who gives the NFL what it wants.
The NFL also needs to keep an eye on the future, and developing a Latino fanbase is an important part of that. Nearly sixty percent of Bexar County is Hispanic, which could make San Antonio appealing to a league that’s looking hard at reaching new markets, and San Antonio’s growth rate of 6.1 percent in the past three years is impressive, as well. It’s also true that while Los Angeles is a massive market compared to San Antonio, the fanbase for the game in the city is unclear—and while the NFL would almost certainly like to be in the nation’s number-two media market, the league’s TV deals have only ballooned since leaving Los Angeles in 1995, suggesting that it’s not really all that important to be in LA.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to know how likely a move to San Antonio is for the Raiders right now, but the sports media is taking the question seriously, and it’s absolutely not out of the question. It’s still a “wait and see” situation, but at least now, San Antonio sports fans know what they’re waiting for.