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Brice Cherry: Imagining an NFL with three teams in Texas

Brice Cherry: Imagining an NFL with three teams in Texas

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Fans in San Antonio watch the New Orleans Saints play during a game against Atlanta in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina forced the Saints to temporarily play games elsewhere. Sixteen years after that NFL experiment, San Antonio is still waiting for a permanent team.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but turns out that Texans appreciate the game of football.

So, why are we limited to “only” two NFL teams?

Before the Raiders ever moved from Oakland to Las Vegas, that franchise used San Antonio as a leverage option. Similarly, earlier this year the Buffalo Bills reportedly threatened a move to Austin if they did not receive a new stadium deal. Such flirtations were never consummated, but they at least got me imagining a world where Texas has (at least) three NFL teams.

San Antonio sticks out like a goalpost in a cow pasture, as the largest U.S. city without an NFL team. The Alamo City ranks 7th in the country in total population, and is one of five Texas cities in the top 12.

One of those is its neighbor to the north, Austin. The Texas capital, believe it or not, now ranks as the 10th-largest city in America by population, with upwards of 25 percent growth over the past decade.

If you still consider Austin to be just a big ol’ college town, you’re living in the past. Have you been on I-35 near the Drum lately? Or Mopac? Austin traffic is the worst. Clearly, it’s not just the UT kids on their bikes and Birkenstocks causing the gridlock.

Now, I’ll admit that Austin doesn’t really feel like an NFL city to me. First off, it’s got two pro football teams already.

One of those, of course, being the Texas Longhorns. Say what? Yep, the Longhorns might as well be a pro football team. They’ve got the financial coffers, the oversized stadium, the bloated media attention. Heck, in the NIL age of college football, they can even pay the players like pros on the Forty Acres.

The other pro football team? It’s Austin FC — the Austin Football Club, if you want to get technical about it. You and I call the game soccer, but around the world it goes by the F-word. Austin joined the ranks of major league cities when it kicked off its inaugural MLS season earlier this year. The franchise is averaging 20,738 for its home matches this season, which ranks fourth in the MLS and far outpaces its two Lone Star MLS rivals, the Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas.

If Austin can pull in 20,000 a night for a sport most of us associate with orange slices and minivans, couldn’t it triple that for real-life, red-blooded, chest-thumping American football? (Insert your Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor grunt here.)

I’m not sure, honestly. Do hipsters watch football? Hold on, let me check the attendance figures for San Francisco and Seattle … yeah, looks like they do.

OK, OK. It’s not just hipsters who call Austin home. One look at the crowd at DKR-Memorial Stadium tells you all you need to know. UT fans have a longstanding (and from this corner, well-deserved) reputation as the wine-and-cheese crowd of college football. (Or more recently, the whine and jeez crowd.) NFL fans — at least the rank and file of NFL fans — tend to be more of the blue-collar, jersey-wearing type.

Austin doesn’t have a tailor-made NFL stadium at the ready, either. Sure, DKR is plenty big enough (and then some) to accommodate a pro football crowd. But of all the things you can accuse the University of Texas of being, prone to sharing isn’t one of them. (Currently, no NFL team shares a stadium with a college team.)

It’s possible that Austin could support an NFL team, but it just feels like there’s a much better Texas option a few I-35 exits south.

Which brings us back to San Antonio. Not only does the Alamo City do tacos better than the rest of Texas — just ask any San Antonio resident — but at least in the 21st century they do pro sports better, too. Only one team from the four major league sports calls San Antonio home, and yet it’s easily the most successful and well-run of the Texas pro franchises of the past two decades. The NBA’s Spurs have won five championships since 1999 and made the playoffs 22 straight years until that streak was snapped during the COVID season of 2020.

Spurs fans are a rabid, passionate bunch. (Winning always helps.) I have little doubt that same devotion would transfer over to any other pro team that ever entered San Antonio, but especially the hyper-popular NFL. What’s more, I’m not alone. The mayor of San Antonio thinks so, too, though that’s probably not much of a surprise.

“I said last year or the year before, I think San Antonio is an NFL city within 10 years, I still stand by that,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg told KSAT-TV earlier this year.

Bonus: The Alamodome could easily serve as a temporary home stadium should an NFL team ever be in need of an Air B&B. It’s on the small side by NFL standards, with a capacity of 64,000, but it could at least do the trick until something bigger (think Texas-sized) and more modern could be built.

In fact, it already has proven it. Remember 2005? That year, Hurricane Katrina made the New Orleans Saints a refugee franchise, due to extensive damage to the Superdome. The Saints ended up splitting their home games between the Alamodome in San Antonio and LSU’s Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. Naturally, San Antonio turned out in force for their NFL audition.

At the time, there were rumors that then-Texas Governor Rick Perry and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue were in cahoots to move the Saints to San Antonio permanently. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. That would have been a horrible PR move by the NFL. More importantly, it would have been a dirty thing to do.

When the Alliance of American Football made its short-lived run in 2019, San Antonio proved its worth again. An average of 27.720 fans filled the Alamodome for home games of the San Antonio Commandeers, an attendance figure which led the league. If 30,000 Riverwalkers will show up for a fledgling minor league product, I think they’ll support an NFL team, no problem.

It’s just kind of baffling to consider that the seventh-largest city in America doesn’t have a representative in the 32-team NFL. Obviously, population isn’t everything. You could put an NFL team almost anywhere, and people will flock. Case in point: Green Bay, Wisconsin, the only pro sports city that is actually smaller than Waco.

Still, San Antonio has everything you’d want for an NFL home — a large population base with a well-traveled airport, plenty of big-money corporate types who’d likely be willing to form an ownership group, and a historically hysteric collection of sports fans ready and willing to pony up for season tickets.

Yet 16 years after the Saints’ layover, San Antonio still waits. If any current NFL franchise packed up and moved, it would make sense as the perfect landing spot. Hence the Raiders’ flirtation.

The team whose name surfaces most often in relocation discussions is Jacksonville, but with Trevor Lawrence and Urban Meyer locked into lucrative contracts and plans for a new stadium in the works, the Jaguars don’t appear to be going anywhere. A better relocation target might be the Los Angeles Chargers, who share SoFi Stadium with the Rams. At least one member of the Spanos family, which has owned the Chargers since 1984, wants to sell.

Can you imagine the reaction in San Diego if the Chargers moved to Texas?

CHARGERS EXEC: We’re pleased to announce that we’re moving the Chargers to San … Antonio!

SAN DIEGANS: Yay—what? No!

If relocation doesn’t work for the addition of a third Texas NFL team, there’s always expansion. Obviously that worked out in the state’s favor (with the Houston Texans) the last time the league expanded.

When the league expands again (it’s inevitable), San Antonio should top the list of potential destinations.

Then again, given that the state of Texas hasn’t produced a Super Bowl champion in 25 years, maybe we’d better concentrate on improving the teams we’ve got.

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