PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- A big public investment in a big stadium for the biggest sports league in the U.S. doesn't make a U.S. city “big time”: It makes that city Jacksonville.
A National Football League franchise is viewed as civic status symbol. It's a means of getting a city some air time and brings with it the hope that some of the NFL's cash will stay in town. Good luck with that. Last year, the NFL produced $10 billion in revenue. That's greater than the $8 billion produced by Major League Baseball over the same span and more than the revenue produced by the National Basketball Association ($5 billion) and National Hockey League ($3.3 billion) combined. Its television revenue is slated to rise from an average of $4 billion a year to $5 billion annually as new contracts kick in. The networks are more than happy to pay after 34 of the 35 most-watched television shows in the fall of 2013 were NFL games -- with only NBC's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade cracking the Top 35.
But a spot in the NFL's big game comes at a cost. Ask Bills fans in Buffalo, from which the team ships one home game a year to Toronto after forcing local government to shell out $200 million for stadium renovations just to get the team to stay in town for eight more years -- if a new owner decides to keep them there. Ask fans in Minnesota how psyched they felt at this time roughly two years ago, when Vikings management was threatening to move the team to Los Angeles before finally getting the state to pay $498 million for a new stadium.
Ask Jaguars fans in Jacksonville, who lose a home game per season to exhibition games in London and just had about 9,000 seats torn out of their stadium for space-filling swimming pools and cabanas. Ask Falcons fans in Atlanta, who just shelled out $200 million in tax dollars to replace the Georgia dome, which was built less than 20 years ago and renovated less than a decade ago for more than $200 million. Ask Chargers fans in San Diego, who are still fighting with ownership over a new stadium. Ask Rams fans in St. Louis, who just watched owner Stan Kroenke buy up land in a Los Angeles sports complex when it became clear his host city, county and state wouldn't foot the $700 million bill to renovate the Edward Jones Dome into a “top tier” facility.
Ask Bengals fans in Cincinnati, where the surrounding county put itself in debt up to its eyelids building a stadium for an owner who wants even more renovations.
Federal taxpayers are already giving the NFL an antitrust exemption that allows it to keep games off the air in their home markets if attendance is lower than the league desires. They're also giving the league tax-exempt status that basically makes the league an offshore account for owners' money that the government and public have absolutely no access to. Why should a city want to kick the league a few extra million just to vacuum out a lot of expendable income and tax dollars, only to cry about it every two decades when its stadium doesn't have all the cool new toys the other owners buildings have?
It shouldn't. As at least three NFL franchises look toward a potential move to Los Angeles and small-market NFL teams become fodder for rumors surrounding the NFL's international expansion, the following five cities serve as reminders that the “big time” doesn't always include the NFL. If the national football league never came calling, these cities would fare just as well as they do today:
Hey, remember just a few months ago when the National Basketball Association's Spurs were so dominant against Miami in the NBA Finals that they sent LeBron James running home to Cleveland and ended the Big 3 era in South Florida?
You know San Antonio does. This is a town in which the Spurs have won five NBA championships in the past 15 years. Coach Greg Popovich and longtime star and roster fixture Tim Duncan are eyeing up real estate on their second hand for more hardware. In a town filled with minor-league teams, the Spurs gave San Antonio international notoriety.
It's not that there's anything wrong with the Missions being the Double-A affiliate of Major League Baseball's San Diego Padres or the Rampage being the feeder team for the National Hockey League's Florida Panthers. It's just that San Antonio has made a name for itself without much help from any of the other major sports, mostly because it's been kicked around and toyed with too many times to go throwing itself at any big-money league that comes along.
When the original North American Soccer League spread throughout the country in the 1970s, San Antonio enjoyed some brief notoriety as home to the San Antonio Thunder and international stars including England national team captain Bobby Moore and Arsenal standout Bob McNab. When Major League Soccer warmed to the idea of a San Antonio franchise in 2005, however, certain elements didn't like the idea and forced MLS to withdraw.
Part of the problem was that, for a brief moment, San Antonio thought it would be an NFL town. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Superdome in New Orleans, San Antonio offered its Alamodome as a practice facility and temporary home stadium for the New Orleans Saints for the 2005 season. After three games, San Antonio won so much praise from former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones that the city thought it could support an NFL franchise.
Of course, that was before Jones went and built himself a 100,000-seat stadium, moved Cowboys practices out of San Antonio and earlier this year when Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis met with San Antonio officials about a potential move. The once-amicable Jones is now a major roadblock between San Antonio and an NFL franchise, as San Antonio falls within a 300-mile radius Jones has deemed too close for his comfort.
While just about any Texas city would love to have an NFL franchise of its own, San Antonio has never needed one to justify its existence. Tourists line the riverwalk anyway and Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker keep the city among the sports world's elite. Besides, with a television market larger than those in NFL cities including New Orleans, Jacksonville, Buffalo and Green Bay (but smaller than the combined Green Bay/Milwaukee market), the NFL needs San Antonio's upgrade more than the city needs a team.