If you follow the NFL, or you live in San Antonio and are not a karst invertebrate, there's a good chance you've heard about Oakland Raiders' majority owner Mark Davis' recent visit to, and subsequent tour of our fair city. Davis is looking to move his team from its current shared stadium into a modern facility, and seems prepared to at least entertain the thought of packing up his footballs and eyepatches and moving north, south, or east if he doesn't get what he wants from Oakland.
At the moment, there are several factors which would prevent the Raiders from landing in Bexar County. First, and not least of which, are the two NFL franchises already based in Texas. Of those two, Bob McNair's Texans are just beginning to establish a fan beachhead in San Antonio, while Jerry Jones' Cowboys pretty much own the beach and all the prime real estate next to it, including the cabanas and surf-shops. Neither of those gentlemen seemed overly thrilled upon hearing the news of Davis' South Texas sightseeing tour.
There's also the gravitational pull of Los Angeles, NFL-vacant since 1995, and a market which Commissioner Roger Goodell wants to fill with franchises as quickly as possible. Then there's San Antonio's relative size. Though the city is often touted as the country's seventh largest, the San Antonio-New Braunfels metropolitan area ranks 31st in population, its media market ranks 36th, and its metropolitan GDP ranks 36th, so there are not as many eyes to watch games, butts to put in seats, and dollars to buy merchandise as you'd find in Riverside, California, let alone in Los Angeles.
But let's say all of that doesn't matter, and the Raiders find a way to move to San Antonio. What does it mean for the Spurs?
On the surface, there appears to be what Mad Men-types might call "synergy." Throughout their histories, both the Raiders and Spurs have inspired loyal, possibly rabid, fan bases. Both franchises started out in lesser professional leagues (the Raiders in the AFL, the Spurs in the ABA) and were brought as part of mergers with their competitors. Both have employed legendary, some might say infamous, head coaches. Both have a long-standing rivalry with a franchise which wears gold on its uniform (Lakers and Steelers), and both have lost playoff games to that team in heart-wrenching fashion (0.4 and "The Immaculate Reception.") Both the Raiders and Spurs have won multiple championships in their current cities, with the Raiders' three titles coming over a seven-year span between 1976-1983. And, wouldn't you know it, the Raiders sport the same black and silver color scheme as the Spurs.
Sounds like it was meant to be, doesn't it? (Note: I find it odd that there's been concern expressed over the Raiders' colors matching the Spurs and diluting their brand, as if this has been a problem in other cities: the Steelers-Penguins-Pirates, Seahawks-Mariners, Cowboys-Mavericks, Falcons-Hawks, and so on. Maybe it's just my personal OCD, but I love it when teams and cities have matching color schemes and/or themes. I wish it happened more often.)
So does a move by an NFL team to San Antonio, whether it be the Raiders, Chargers, Jaguars, or whoever else happens to be angling for new digs, serve to help the incumbent team? Or will it only weaken the Spurs' stronghold on the market? To try and find out, I looked at Phoenix, Indianapolis, and Charlotte, three NBA-only markets which subsequently gained NFL teams through relocation or expansion. To keep things simple, I used both the easiest and most telling number available: attendance per season.
Prior to 1988, the Phoenix Suns were the only game in town. From the founding in 1968 until 1992, the team played in the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The franchise currently sports the NBA's fourth-highest winning percentage and have made 29 playoff appearances in their history. The team had success quickly and reached the Finals in 1976, a mere eight years after its birth. No surprise then that attendance steadily climbed throughout that decade and into the 80s. What's particularly interesting, however, is that between the 1987-88 and 1988-89 seasons, when the Cardinals moved from St. Louis to Arizona, the Suns' average home attendance actually jumped from 11,251 to to 12,465, a record at the time. The two years following, the last two the Suns played in Memorial Coliseum, the team also set records for attendance.
All told, between 1987-88 (Phoenix's last season as an NBA-only city) and 1991-92 (the last season before U.S. Airways Arena opened), attendance jumped by a whopping 22%. Lest you think that Bush-era boost in attendance was due to Charles Barkley, remember the Round Mound didn't roll into Phoenix until the summer of '92. Maybe you can credit Kevin Johnson, whose first season as a Sun was '88, but either way these figures clearly show that the Cardinals didn't hurt attendance for the Suns.
The NBA Pacers had the market to themselves between 1976 -- when they moved over from the ABA with the Nuggets, Nets, and Spurs - and 1984, when the Colts relocated from Baltimore. To put it bluntly, as good as the three-time ABA Champion Pacers were, the NBA version was mildly atrocious, averaging a middling 36 wins their first four seasons with zero playoff appearances. Then they traded away Alex English to the Nuggets in 1980, changing the course of history in terms of retro jersey sales for early 2000s hip hop artists. After that, they traded their 1984 No. 2 draft pick (yes, that was the pick before Michael Jordan was selected) to Portland for John Owens. Given that Portland used the pick to acquire Sam Bowie instead of Jordan, this trade is probably the most depressing in NBA history.
The losing continued in the years leading up to the 1987 draft, when the Pacers finally found a legitimate franchise player in Reggie Miller. But in the midst of the boneheaded trades and the season-long belly flops on the court of Market Square Arena, a strange thing happened: attendance steadily increased. The arrival of the Colts in 1984 seemingly did nothing to stem the increase, as the Pacers set attendance records between 1983-84 and 1986-87, after which there was a brief dip before attendance started progressively climbing again. Attendance at Pacers games remained steady until the Ron Artest years, which also corresponds, though not perfectly, with the advent of the Peyton Manning era. Weirdly, the worst Colts season of the Manning era, 2011, also saw a dip in Pacers attendance. On the other hand, Pacers attendance began a multi-season slide beginning in 2006-07, following Peyton's lone Super Bowl victory. This also marked the start of four consecutive non-playoff seasons for the Pacers, which probably has more to do with the dip.
Now to the most recent example of an NBA-only city gaining an NFL team. The original Hornets (now the Pelicans of New Orleans, not the former Bobcats) joined the Association for the 1988-89 season. They played in the massive 24,000 seat Charlotte Coliseum. While Spurs fans might have visions of a cavernous, half-empty stadium during Hornets homes games, a la The Alamodome, the Hornets in fact sold out their home games for almost nine consecutive seasons. Hornets tickets would continue to be hot items even after the arrival of the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995. In fact, the Hornets established attendance records for the 1995-96 season and 1996-97 before tailing off following the team's trade of Larry Johnson to the Knicks. However, if we're to gain insight into San Antonio's potential acquisition of an NFL franchise by looking at Charlotte, this is where the story takes an unfortunate turn.
After the Hornets set a franchise record for attendance in 1996-97, the numbers began to nosedive in the wake the Johnson trade, Alonzo Mourning's departures to Miami and the advent of the Vlade Divac-Matt Geiger era. Maybe fans were distraught at seeing Kobe Bryant play for championships with the Lakers instead of the Hornets, who originally drafted him 13th in 1996 and traded his rights for Divac. Whatever the reason, folks stayed home, and Charlotte Coliseum actually did begin to resemble The Alamodome, sans blue curtain. By 2001-02, the last season for the original Hornets, attendance had fallen over 50%. Given the circumstances surrounding the team, its players, and the 1999 NBA lockout, it's tough to connect the declining interest to the Panthers, who didn't have a winning season between 1996 and 2003, after the Hornets were already gone. On the other hand, the facts are these: Charlotte got its NFL team, and seven years later its NBA team was gone. If you think that's a bit spooky, I can sympathize.
If anything, what Phoenix, Indianapolis, and Charlotte prove is that a winning team and likable players attract fans. If a football team happens to come to town and it wins -- as the Panthers did their first two seasons in the NFL, and as the Colts have done since the late 90s -- that also doesn't seem to hurt. It's also worth comparing population size, which equates to the potential size of your fan base. The 1960 population of Maricopa County, Arizona, which is comparable to Bexar County in the context of its metro area, was 663,000. The population of Marion County, Indiana in 1980 was 765,000, and the population of Mecklenberg County, North Carolina was 517,000 in 1990. As of 2010, Bexar County's population was estimated at around 1.8 million. It would seem to me there are plenty of fans in San Antonio to go around, and enough hunger in South Texas for pro football that the city could support both an NFL team and the Spurs.
Demographics, cable TV penetration, per capita earnings, GDP, and the presence of large corporations are all important, and shouldn't be discounted. In addition to having more seats to fill than basketball arenas, NFL stadiums contain a whole lot more advertising real estate, and it can't all be filled with H-E-B and Valero logos. Market analysts, investors, and the ownership contingent of the NFL, who must actually vote to approve the relocation of the Raiders or any other franchise, will all look at that stuff. And, if that's all you're looking at, San Antonio doesn't exactly look like a market that's begging for someone to stick an NFL team under its Christmas tree.
Ultimately, I believe it comes down to the product on the floor and on the field. Green Bay supports the Packers despite a market that's about the same size as Des Moines. Others, like Kansas City, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Milwaukee all financially support multiple sports franchises, making them viable even though the numbers suggest they shouldn't be able to be. There's no reason San Antonio couldn't do the same. Honestly, once the Duncan era ends we should expect a lull in attendance at the AT&T Center, regardless of whether an NFL team is stealing eyeballs away during October to December. And if the Parker-Leonard Spurs are able to keep the title train rolling, then just remember that the only football being played in June happens with flags down at the YMCA.
There are other possible benefits the Spurs might see, both direct and indirect. Even if an NFL team starts out playing in the Alamodome, it will be a temporary situation while a new stadium is financed and built. The AT&T Center is now over 10 years old and will be needing some significant upgrades in the future to remain copacetic to the NBA. Any such upgrades could potentially be included in the bond package for an NFL stadium, similar to mechanisms Kansas City used several years back to finance upgrades to Arrowhead and Kauffman Stadiums. By extrapolating from recent patterns, it seems likely that any new San Antonio football stadium would be on the short list for a future Super Bowl, which would bring publicity and dollars to the city. Show me a Spurs fan who doesn't appreciate more publicity and I'll show you my chupacabra ranch.
What's more, Peter Holt, along with Red McCombs, has expressed interest in owning shares of the Raiders (and, I assume, any other team) if they relocate, which would provide direct ties between an NFL franchise and the Spurs, and possibly bolster both teams from multiple standpoints, including marketing, sponsorships, community outreach, charity, and revenue.
No one really knows when, or if, San Antonio will get an NFL team. By the numbers, it's a town much more suited to Major League Soccer than pro football. But if it does happen, it's hard to see how a Raiders relocation would negatively impact the Spurs. There's not a lot of real-world correlation between the fortunes of sports teams and their host cities. In the mid-90s, still-booming L.A. lost two NFL franchises, while Detroit and Cleveland, beleaguered for over half a century, have either held onto their teams or received expansion teams. Obviously, the arrival of an NFL team wouldn't be as big for the Spurs as it would be for San Antonio. But if it's a matter of preeminence in the community, or a battle for the hearts and souls of San Antonio that's at stake, then the path is clear. In order for the Spurs to maintain their ownership of the Alamo city, they just have to keep doing what they've done for the past 25 years: Win.