San Antonio soccer fans collectively sighed when Austin's city council voted this summer to begin accommodating a potential relocation by the Columbus Crew franchise. The thought process, as we all know by now, is that Major League Soccer wouldn’t want to have two franchises a mere 80 miles from each other, and the efforts that San Antonio, Bexar County, and Spurs Sports and Entertainment put into gaining MLS’ attention all could be for not.
But, if betting on whether San Antonio does end up with a Major League Soccer franchise in the next five or 10 years, I might actually put money on "yes." (Not a lot of money. I’m not a gambling man, after all.) After all, we are the nation’s seventh-largest city, and most top metropolitan markets can claim at least a few pro sports team.
Or it could be yet another disappointment in a long string of disappointments that San Antonio has endured over the decades when it comes to landing — and keeping — professional and semi-pro franchises for the long haul.
The city has always been proud of our arguably our most famous team, the San Antonio Spurs, and what city wouldn’t be? Five NBA championships (probably should be six, maybe even seven, but let's not quibble); a consistent winning tradition; Hall of Fame players and coaches; rabid and loyal fan base; and a business model revered by many other franchises — and not just in the NBA.
But are the Spurs enough for a population of 1.5 million and growing? Are they enough for a community (okay, sports fans mainly) that wants more sports teams? There are many factors — economy, wages, sponsorships, an antiquated media market rating system — to consider.
Our minor-league franchises — the Missions and Rampage — have developed solid fan bases, but there are many more long-gone teams that have made their mark on San Antonio’s sports landscape only to fade away, some in impressive ways, some in sadly comical style.
A History of Football in San Antonio
Take, for instance, the San Antonio Gunslingers of the United States Football League. Ah, yes, that ill-fated attempt to develop a football league that could somehow compete with the NFL.
Jeff Pearlman’s newest book, Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL, outlines the zany history of a league that, at times, appeared to have some traction. After all, it did produce future NFL stars and Hall of Famers such as Steve Young, Jim Kelly, Reggie White, and Herschel Walker.
Overall, the short-lived USFL was comprised of colorful players, coaches, owners, and executives who were not ready to lead an upstart football league. Take, for example, the owner of the New Jersey Generals, a certain future reality television star turned United States president. As an owner, Donald J. Trump decided spring/summer football was not enough, and filed a lawsuit against the NFL, a decision which helped drive his league into the ground.
While the scene in New Jersey was chaotic, I can say this much: I don’t think Generals players had their paychecks bounce. The Gunslingers did. That’s what happens when your owner, supposedly one of the richest people in Texas, fails to make a required capital investment in the team. It’s also what happens when an owner instead opted to pay expenses out-of-pocket as they came up.
Clinton Manges, an oil magnate turned aspiring major league football owner, was that guy. He had dubious associations, and the shadiness by which he often operated caught up with his football dealings.
Football for a Buck explains how during one Gunslingers home game — a nationally televised match, no less — the lights at Alamo Stadium went out for nearly an hour. Turns out someone cut the lights on purpose.
There was also the time when Manges allegedly issued bounties on opposing players just to inspire his own guys. And, oh yeah, about those bounced checks? When that was revealed to the public by the San Antonio Express-News, Manges retaliated by revoking the newspaper’s media credentials.
And all that was just a mere sample of the insanity that surrounded the Gunslingers’ two years in 1980s San Antonio. Yet the Gunslingers were among multiple failed shots at pro and semipro football in San Antonio.
After the USFL disaster, San Antonio football fans tried their luck with six other football teams. Some were more well known (Texans, Force, Talons, Riders) than others (Matadors, Steers).
The San Antonio Wings actually had a winning record (7-6) in their first year playing in the World Football League, which offered unique deviations from the NFL, such as yellow footballs and seven-point touchdowns. But the league folded later that year just before the Wings could have a taste of the postseason.
From football to fútbol and beyond
Football isn't the only sport that has floundered in San Antonio. Long before San Antonio FC and the Scorpions, Alamo City soccer fans had their fútbol fill with the Thunder, Pumas, and five other clubs, all of which are gone.
And as San Antonio minor league baseball transitions from the AA Texas League, where it has resided since the late 1880s, to AAA Pacific League play, let us remember the dozen or so variations of organized baseball we’ve had during all that time.
San Antonio has also been home to WNBA Silver Stars (before their move to Las Vegas) and minor league hockey's Dragons and Iguanas. We’ve even had smashing success with World Team Tennis' Racquets.
So, with all of this storied and sometimes ridiculous local sports history, are we really missing out all that much by not having an NFL, MLS, or Major League Baseball team to call our own?
San Antonio should to do all it can to land more major professional sports franchises. (Although Jerry Jones and Robert McNair are happy to do their part to ensure San Antonio doesn’t even get an opportunity at NFL expansion anytime soon.) But just as well, we could be quite content with more minor league endeavors.
At this point, why not, right? In 2019, the city will welcome spring football coming in the form of Alliance of American Football. Several former NFL stars and coaches are slated to lead AAF teams, including the San Antonio Whatevers. (The Chupacabras?) So, second-tier spring football has a chance to once again excel in San Antonio.
Let's embrace the history of San Antonio and welcome even more indoor soccer or team tennis — maybe even lacrosse? By missing out on those, we could miss out on more colorful characters and unbelievable behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
Let’s have it all, whatever it is. So long as I have media credentials to cover all the action.