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San Antonio back to looking for a team

September 24, 2006|Nancy Armour | Associated Press

Poor San Antonio.

While the New Orleans Saints and NFL get ready for the biggest welcome-home bash ever, San Antonio is on the sidelines again, the gawky one left behind after the cool kids pick their teams.

The Saints' return to their rightful home is cause for celebration, a rare bit of good news for the beleaguered, hurricane-ravaged city. But it also leaves San Antonio looking for an NFL team to call its own.

Again.

"We are going to have a team," said Red McCombs, the San Antonio resident better known as the former Minnesota Vikings owner. "The only question is when, not if."

The better question might be, why not?

When Hurricane Katrina left the Saints homeless last year, the city embraced the team as if a spur, not a fleur de lis, were on the helmet. It opened hotel rooms, cleared space for the front office and provided practice fields.

But the Saints played only three games in San Antonio, not enough to give the city squatter's rights. And no matter how many acres Tom Benson owns in Texas, there was no way the NFL was letting him move the Saints if there was a possibility of playing football in New Orleans again.

But San Antonio has been pining for an NFL team for the better part of three decades now, hardly a passing fling. It's time for the NFL to give the city a serious look.

The NFL has always been lukewarm, at best, to the idea of putting down roots in San Antonio. Though it is the seventh-largest city in the country, it drops way down to 29th in metropolitan areas and is considered a small television market. San Antonio might see itself as Phoenix or Atlanta, but former commissioner Paul Tagliabue saw Buffalo and Jacksonville.

The city's image doesn't help. While Dallas has the glitz and glamour and Houston is space-age cool, San Antonio always has been that quaint little town down the road from Austin. After the Alamo and the Riverwalk, what else is there?

Plenty, in fact.

The San Antonio-Austin corridor is growing fast, San Antonio mayor Phil Hardberger said, with San Antonio alone adding 40,000 new residents last year. The city's reach now extends all the way down to the Mexico border -- not an insignificant factor for a league always looking to expand its fan base outside the United States.

As for star power, AT&T's world headquarters are in San Antonio. Four other Fortune 500 companies call the city home, too, Hardberger said. McCombs said he'd shell out money for a local NFL team "in a heartbeat." And that TV market? It looks small, but consider that Austin, which is about 75 miles north, has its own stations.

Strange as it might sound, the biggest thing San Antonio has going for it is it's not Los Angeles. The NFL is gaga to put a team in Los Angeles, yet that's the same city that let the Rams and Raiders go with barely a backward glance. San Antonio, meanwhile, wants a team.

Desperately.

The NFL can always count on San Antonio for strong TV ratings, and it's standing-room only at sports bars on Sundays.

The three Saints games at the Alamodome were sellouts -- including one on Christmas Eve -- with people lining up a quarter-mile deep to get tickets. All this despite the fact most residents' previous knowledge of the team probably didn't extend much beyond Joe Horn and Deuce McAllister.

"This is a town that's ready for a professional football team," Hardberger said. "There's a little flirtation going on here. We don't have a bribe yet, but we're fully open here to people that want to come, look around."

Hardberger is kidding about the bribe. This is San Antonio, not Chicago in the '60s. But he's dead serious about getting San Antonio an NFL team, this time on a permanent basis.

While the city made it clear it would be happy to have a long-term relationship with the Saints -- love Benson sure seemed to want to reciprocate -- the people there knew San Antonio was getting a borrowed team.

"We loved having the Saints here last year," McCombs said. "We wanted to give them a place to play, and we did that. We let them know we'd like them to stay, but we understood they were first, last and always, the New Orleans Saints.

"And we never got away from that."

Now San Antonio wants a team of its own. Next time there's one available, what's the harm in giving the city a serious look?

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