San Antonio embraces Saints, hopes for NFL team

Updated: September 28, 2005, 6:15 PM ET
Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO -- The line snaked for a quarter mile.

Thousands of football-starved fans were jumping at the chance to buy tickets to see the New Orleans Saints -- and for a chance to show how the nation's eighth-largest city can support an NFL team.

The mayor and business leaders are trying to rally the city to support the Saints, who were forced here when Hurricane Katrina swamped their home city, and prove San Antonio is a major market worthy of the country's No. 1 sport.

"It's unfortunate that it took these circumstance to get these games over here, but it will show San Antonio is ready for a team," said Red McCombs, a San Antonio resident and former owner of the Spurs and the Minnesota Vikings. He's also a longtime friend of Saints owner Tom Benson, who has business and personal ties to San Antonio.

The NFL placed the Saints here for three games at the Alamodome this season, starting with Sunday's matchup with the Buffalo Bills. The Saints will also play four games in Baton Rouge, La.

Little by little, the Alamodome is getting dressed up for the Saints. Team offices occupy much of the space of the lower levels and giants "SAINTS" signs decorate the outside.

"The way we've been treated here so far, knowing that we're going through some things, it's been phenomenal," said Saints wide receiver Joe Horn.

Yet the enthusiastic support doesn't mean it will become the Saints' permanent home or even put San Antonio in position should the Saints or some other team relocate.

Questions remain as to whether this city is too poor and too small for a league that still casts a hopeful eye toward placing a team in a larger markets, particularly Los Angeles.

City leaders are dancing a fine line of wanting to support the Saints while not wanting to appear as if they hope to cash on in New Orleans' misfortune.

"It's improper to talk about trying to bring the team here. New Orleans is a city flat on its back," said Henry Cisneros, a former San Antonio mayor and Clinton administration appointee who remains a prominent city voice. "Then the best way we can show we deserve a team of our own no matter what is to fill the Alamodome three times."

Although the city sold about 50,000 tickets for the three Saints games that first day, as of Wednesday, more than 12,100 were available for Sunday's game. If the game isn't a sellout, the NFL could institute a local television blackout.

On Tuesday, business leaders and politicians held a news conference to push for a sellout.

"Now is our chance on the national stage to prove to everybody ... we are ready to take that step to the next level," said City Councilman Chip Haass.

San Antonio has flirted with the NFL before.

Hoping to lure an expansion team in the early 1990s, the city built the multipurpose Alamodome. The arena has hosted the NCAA men's and women's basketball Final Four, the annual Alamo Bowl and used to be the home of the NBA's Spurs. The Canadian Football League came. And went. The San Antonio Texans of the CFL played in the Alamodome in 1995.

But the stadium could be a problem for any NFL bid. At about 65,000 for football games, the seating capacity is small by NFL standards. And its 38 luxury boxes are far fewer than the league's newer arenas.

The league rejected San Antonio a decade ago in part because it was considered too poor, said Char Miller, a professor of urban studies at Trinity University in San Antonio.

"We neither had the population or economic base that would support a team," Miller said. "The city didn't have the kind of wealth it needed. It didn't have a large enough middle class to pay the type of prices for NFL tickets ... some of that story has changed."

The city has enjoyed an economic explosion over the last 15 years.

Communications giant SBC is now headquartered in San Antonio, along with four other Fortune 500 companies, giving the city some of corporate spending power necessary to buy sponsorship deals, luxury boxes and stadium naming rights, Miller said.

Yet it still lags behind other cities. According to the Texas State Data Center at the University of Texas-San Antonio, the city's median household income of $39,018 ranks below the statewide mark of $39,745 and well below NFL cities like Dallas ($48,068) and Houston ($44,458).

And while the city ranks in the nation's top 10 in population, the overall metro area ranks 30th. The television market is even smaller.

This is where San Antonio leaders get creative. They argue that Austin, 75 miles to the north, and the exploding population in the Rio Grande Valley would be part of their market.

Austin would bring a wealthier economic base and more potential corporate sponsors like Dell Computer. The Valley region would be home to a rabid fan base that attracts tens of thousands of new residents annually, Miller said.

"You combine the Interstate 35 corridor," Miller said, "and now you're looking at a population that has the spending power."

Yet nothing San Antonio does or says might be enough.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue seems determined to keep looking at Los Angeles. In a recent interview with The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, he suggested San Antonio is a "small market."

"Ever since we approved the move of the Raiders and the Rams, I've been saying that our goal is to get a team back to L.A., either through expansion or whatever, and we're not going to be moving any teams into small markets," he said. "We're going to be moving up in market size, not either down or flat. That's our goal."

Still, San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger remains upbeat.

"We think that we can fill up the Alamodome," he said, "to show the doubters out there what kind of city San Antonio is and that there is great interest in the NFL."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press

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