San Antonio still holding out hope for NFL team

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
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
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
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."