San Antonio still holding out hope for NFL team

Updated: December 17, 2005, 3:38 PM ET
Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO -- When Hurricane Katrina forced the New Orleans Saints to move to this city temporarily, San Antonio began to think about how to keep the team permanently -- or at least prove it could support an NFL team along with a successful NBA franchise.

But that was at the start of the season, before NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue suggested San Antonio was too small a market for a team and vowed to try to keep the Saints in Louisiana next year.

Now, San Antonio, a popular tourist town with 1.2 million residents, awaits a January announcement from the league on whether it'll play host again to the Saints, even if just for a game or two. It will reveal whether the city will have more time to make its case as an NFL-worthy city.

Either way, San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger said he plans in January to talk officially with Saints owner Tom Benson about moving the team to the city. He said Benson indicated in the fall he was interested in making San Antonio the Saints' new home, but since then the league has been more vocal about how the Saints' return to New Orleans could bolster the city's rebirth following Katrina.

While Hardberger would like to work with Benson, he said he will "move forward with or without the Saints" to make San Antonio an NFL city. As part of his campaign platform, the first-term mayor vowed to bring an NFL team to San Antonio, a long-standing desire of residents and the business community.

Hardberger acknowledged he's got tough competition from Los Angeles, the nation's No. 2 television market where the NFL wants to return. Last month, Tagliabue announced a preliminary agreement to return an NFL team to Los Angeles.

Tagliabue offered no timetable but included the possibility of building a new sports arena in the L.A. Coliseum, Anaheim or Pasadena. He also did not say whether it would be an expansion or existing franchise.

"We've always known that certain elements are out of our hands," Hardberger said. "There's not much San Antonio can do to affect what the NFL says or does. We're not part of that equation."

San Antonio has wanted an NFL team for years and built the Alamodome in 1993 to position itself for this goal. The city's mayor then, Henry Cisneros, who is now in private business, continues to advocate for an NFL team among other business leaders.

While San Antonio is the eighth largest city in the nation, its population as a metropolitan area ranks 30th.

And it ranks 37th as a TV market, which is among the city's less appealing factors to the NFL. Still, city leaders have argued that their TV market still outranks cities with NFL teams, including Buffalo at 49, Jacksonville at 52 and even pre-Katrina New Orleans at 43.

Hardberger said he's not willing to build a new stadium for a team, which would likely cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars and require voter approval. But he is willing to put tax money toward an overhaul of the Alamodome to add more luxury boxes and even build a practice facility, both among amenities other cities with NFL teams have provided.

Luxury boxes that make up the financial backbone of professional sports ventures are lacking at the Alamodome, which has 38 luxury suites, compared to 200 at Houston's Reliant Stadium or 382 at Texas Stadium.

State leaders, including Gov. Rick Perry, see economic potential from a third NFL team in Texas. At one time, state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, wanted to consider dipping into the Texas Enterprise Fund, a state economic development account, to bring the Saints to the city.

But state leaders have tempered their initial enthusiasm in light of the league's overtures toward LA and focus on keeping Louisiana home to the Saints.

"I don't think this is the appropriate time yet for the state to be weighing in and dealing with the Saints, or any other team for that matter, that might be looking to come here," Perry said during a November visit to San Antonio.

But while the city waits for the Saints' home schedule to be announced in January, Louisiana leaders are starting to prepare the Superdome for home games next season and to play some games in Baton Rouge.

"It's not about the money. It's about the heart and soul of Louisiana," Louisiana Sen. Ken Hollis said, referring to the 38-year history with the Saints.

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has said the NFL cannot take football from Louisiana, but Benson -- whose 50-year-old car dealership, second home and lawyer are all in San Antonio -- has been noncommittal. Fans have dubbed him "Satantonio" for even considering a move to San Antonio or elsewhere.

If a team were proposed for the city, it would require consent from 24 of 32 owners in the league. Yet even with such approval, not all fans in football-crazy Texas would necessarily support a third NFL in Texas.

"I don't care who you bring here. I'm not going to be a fan. I've followed and lived and died with the Dallas Cowboys," said Mark Patterson, a 48-year-old lawyer from Boerne, Texas, just north of San Antonio.

City boosters were encouraged by a sellout crowd at the Alamodome for the Oct. 16 game against the Atlanta Falcons, following a near-sellout for the Oct. 2 game against the Buffalo Bills.

Now the attention is turning to the Saints' final home game in San Antonio, a Christmas Eve matchup against the Detroit Lions. Both teams have losing seasons but ticket sales were steady, especially as football fans considered the game might be the last NFL matchup in San Antonio for a while.

Cisneros, who believes the Saints ought to end up in New Orleans, said he urges residents to fill up the seats at the final home game.

"Our mission at the moment is to do the best job we can on Dec. 24 and continue to demonstrate that San Antonio is a bright spot in this situation," he said. "We cannot influence the decision the Saints will eventually make, and it's not appropriate for us to do so. It's an opportunity for San Antonio to demonstrate to the country the size of our city and the strength of our city."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press