Jan 11, 2024 - News

Sports facilities are turning into adult playgrounds, and San Antonio wants in

Illustration of three foam fingers: one with a rock hand sign, one holding playing cards and one holding a shopping bag.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

When Spurs fans go honking after a victory, they leave the East Side and head downtown to Commerce Street.

  • "It, to me, makes perfect sense that you would relocate the arena downtown," Trish DeBerry, CEO of downtown advocate Centro, tells Axios.

What's happening: As San Antonio reconsiders its sports facilities, stadiums of the future are at the core of new entertainment and commerce meccas, making money even when there's nary an athlete in sight.

Why it matters: A downtown sports district could help boost a San Antonio city center still largely reliant on tourism — but it's far from a guarantee, Heywood Sanders, a UTSA professor who studies the economics and politics of sports and convention centers, tells Axios.

  • Many sports facilities receive public financing, as did Frost Bank Center, and bring more development. That means the community should be part of the conversation, Sanders says.

Catch up fast: San Antonio officials approached the Spurs about a new downtown arena at least a year ago, the Express-News first reported. Hemisfair is a possible location, per the newspaper.

What they're saying: "Our downtown has suffered from the impacts of the pandemic, and it remains very dependent on tourism," Sanders says. "So the idea of getting the Spurs downtown … is a particularly appealing prospect for folks who want to boost and promote downtown."

  • The Spurs did not respond to a request from Axios for an interview or comment.

State of play: The Frost Bank Center ranks last — by a long shot — among NBA arenas for walkability, with a transit score of 35 out of 100. That's per Walk Score, a Redfin company that assigns a "usefulness" value to the nearby transit routes based on frequency, type and distance between stops.

  • In the more than two decades since it opened, the East Side arena has not led to the surrounding development many local leaders hoped to see.
  • But the arrival of Victor Wembanyama has brought renewed energy around the Spurs.

The big picture: Downtown is at a crossroads, DeBerry says. And she thinks a centrally located arena is more likely to lead to surrounding development than the East Side arena did.

  • "Downtown is an automatic gathering place, and I think that's the differentiator," she says.

Zoom out: The Washington Capitals and the Wizards are planning to move to a new facility in Virginia. There, they'll have room for a $2 billion development that'll include not just an arena but restaurants, a performing arts center, shopping and more.

  • In 2017, the Atlanta Braves fled downtown Atlanta for Truist Park and The Battery, a $400 million temple of suburban commerce with shops, dining and so on.

Yes, but: A thriving sports district doesn't always lead to vibrancy for an entire downtown, Sanders says.

Reality check: While the entertainment mecca approach is working out for teams like the Braves, it hasn't been a slam dunk everywhere.

  • The NBA's Pistons shacked up with the NHL's Red Wings at downtown Detroit's then-new Little Caesars Arena in 2017. But hopes that the arena would spark a major downtown renaissance have not materialized.
  • Plenty of economic research, meanwhile, casts doubt on the benefits of taxpayer-funded subsidies for new stadiums and sports complexes.

The bottom line: Many questions remain about the possibilities of a downtown Spurs arena, Sanders says. Where would it go? Would it be accompanied by a development plan? Who will pay for it and how? Will it require a public vote?

  • "To date, it's been remarkably obscure," Sanders says.
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