On January 31, a dozen cities officially applied for MLS expansion. One of those places was San Antonio, Texas. Once home to a second tier NASL team and now the host to the USL, San Antonio has many things going for it, but also several hurdles to get over. It has a large Latin American population and only one offseason professional sports team to compete against, but it’s small market size and proximity to the giants of Houston and Dallas could hurt its chances.
MLS Expansion Profile: San Antonio
Ownership Group and Stadium Plan
The San Antonio bid is lead by Spurs Sports and Entertainment, the owners of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and San Antonio FC of the USL, among other sporting properties. Their CEO is Julianna Holt and her husband Peter. Together, they own the largest Caterpillar construction equipment dealer in the United States and have a controlling interest in four major national companies, including AT&T. Other sporting properties SS&E owns are the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage, and the WNBA’s San Antonio Stars, and the NBA D-League’s Austin Spurs. They certainly have the business clout and sports business experience MLS looks for.
The owners didn’t release any solid stadium plan, but it could center around the suburban Toyota Field, where SAFC currently calls home. Despite not being downtown, it is one the finest lower tier soccer stadiums around. With a current capacity of more than 8,000, it was designed to be expanded upon with relative ease. The owners of the San Antonio Scorpions, who originally built and owned the stadium, had a proposal to add 10,000 seats for a cost of less than $50 million.
Although MLS usually looks for stadium sites within an urban core, the suburban location of Toyota Field makes it easy for residents of both the San Antonio and Austin areas to access. It’s already a fine facility and can be converted to MLS standards for relatively cheap.
Current Soccer Environment
San Antonio isn’t known for having a rich soccer history. They had a short lived franchise in the original NASL as well as a failed USL effort back in the 90s. A pro team didn’t stick around until the Scorpions were founded in 2012. They attracted an average of 9,000 fans during their inaugural season and around 7,000 per year for the following three. They won the NASL in 2014.
Before the 2016 season, the Scorpions folded and their properties were sold off to SS&E. With that, San Antonio FC was born. The team averaged over 8,400 fans in their one season in the USL. Only FC Cincinnati, Sacramento Republic, and Louisville City had more fans turn out on the year. The club also has a fully functioning academy system that started with with 12 year old players last year. They plan to expand and add younger divisions over the next couple years.
As far as major matches, the city has not hosted many. The Alamo Dome is the only venue large enough to host these games with it’s listed capacity of 65,000. The USMNT defeated Mexico 2-0 in a friendly (Jordan Morris scored his first international goal in that one) in front of a capacity crowd there in 2015. That was the first USMNT appearance in the city since 1988. Mexico had played another friendly against South Korea a year earlier. A total of 55,000 fans turned out for that one.
Other Contributing Factors
San Antonio isn’t close to the largest market applying for expansion. They are the 25th largest metro area in the nation and only the 31st biggest media market. It is awfully close to Dallas and Houston, both significantly larger and both home to MLS teams that are lower in the popularity scale. The city is home to five fortune 500 companies, but that is peanuts compared to Dallas and Houston.
On the flip side of that, they are only about 80 miles away from Austin, which is one of the strongest growing cities in the nation. Together, the area around the cities of San Antonio and Austin combine for about 4.4 million people. While it might be a bit of a stretch to say the people of Austin will drive down on a Saturday night for a soccer game, it is still an underserved soccer market that a prospective team can tap.
San Antonio also has a high population of Latin Americans, seventh most in the country. MLS has routinely tried to target Latino fans in their growth strategy. San Antonio would fit in with that goal very well.
They also have a filthy rich ownership group. Spurs Sports and Entertainment have a strong pedigree when it comes to running pro sports teams. The NBA’s Spurs are a very successful franchise both on the court and in the boardroom and the group also operates four other professional franchises, including SAFC. That experience can be invaluable in MLS. The Spurs are the only current major sports team in the city, meaning a prospective MLS team wouldn’t have much to compete with.
San Antonio will really have to bring out the bells and whistles in order to secure an MLS team. Their relatively small media market has them well below the likes of Tampa, Phoenix, Detroit, Sacramento, and every other expansion bid except Cincinnati. Their ownership group may be wealthy, but their stadium plan is somewhat foggy and the easiest option doesn’t have the allure of playing in an urban city center.
Unless the ownership group can really blow away Don Garber and others in charge of making the decisions, San Antonio is probably on the outside looking in. However, their powerful ownership group could have a lot to say about changing their minds.