Can the San Antonio Spurs function as a regional team with games in Austin?

AUSTIN, Texas — For the second time in as many seasons, the Moody Center on the campus of the University of Texas became the temporary home court of the San Antonio Spurs.

A standing-room-only crowd of 16,222 treated the Spurs’ Friday night game against the Denver Nuggets as if it were a playoff matchup. And never mind that the Spurs (14-53) were playing the reigning NBA champion Denver Nuggets (47-20), which are now back atop the Western Conference standings.

The atmosphere was electric — from start to finish.

What fun it was, even for the Spurs big men who had to deal with 2023 NBA Finals MVP Nikola Jokić, looking lately very much like this season’s most valuable player.

“Actually, it is (fun),” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said a few days ago of facing Jokić. “He’s something else.”

“Something else” for Jokić on Friday was 31 points, seven rebounds and five assists without him playing at all in the fourth quarter of Denver’s 117-106 victory. In  the three quarters he played, Jokić gave Victor Wembanyama another lesson in what the Spurs rookie called “controlling the pace of the game, never being in a hurry and making his teammates better.”

Sounds much like the description of an MVP.

Austin proved a welcoming host to both teams as it neared the conclusion of its 2024 South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival despite Nuggets coach Michael Malone’s bemusement at having to play a game in a “non-NBA” city.

“I don’t know why we’re here,” Malone said 90 minutes before tipoff. “I’m still trying to figure that out. But, here we are, so you’ve got to embrace it.”

The game was in Austin because the Spurs organization is committed to embracing its fans in one of the fastest-growing cities in America. They will play a second game there on Sunday against the Brooklyn Nets to finish off what the organization calls “I-35 Series,” recognition of the highway that connects the two cities separated by about 70 miles of the heavily trafficked freeway.

You also can call it one more intriguing aspect of Austin’s annual SXSW festival, and therein lies much of the reasoning behind the Spurs organization’s outreach to Texas’ capital city.

What better way to shed the team’s long-standing designation as a small market franchise than to cultivate one of the wealthiest cities in one of the fastest-growing areas in the country during one of its singular events?

“We have a market that isn’t in the top 10 in the country,” R.C. Buford, CEO of Spurs Sports and Entertainment (SS&E) told The Athletic. “When we connect our San Antonio and Austin markets we become one of the major players in the professional sports community.

“We’ve got the fastest-growing region in the nation. Between Monterrey (Mexico), south Texas, central Texas and Austin it’s the fastest-growing economic region in North America. So, we want to come meet our fans where they are. We’ve got great fans and have a community in Austin that’s been a part of our team and culture for years.

“It’s really just being the Bay Area — Oakland, San Jose, Santa Clara, San Francisco — that’s what this is. It’s 60 miles that separates us. How do we connect that?”

Indeed, Golden State is the NBA’s best example of a regional franchise, one that came to San Francisco in 1963, moved to Oakland in 1971 and returned to San Francisco in 2019 with a brief stop in San Jose during an arena renovation in Oakland in 1996-97.

The Warriors now stand as the NBA’s most stable model of success over a diverse but connected region.

The Spurs hope to solidify their regional connection with what may well be annual I-35 week promotions. Those may not always coincide with Austin’s SXSW festival that takes place over two weeks in early March, but the organization won’t mind if they do.

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Jeremy Sochan of the Spurs arrives at the Moody Center before Friday’s game against the Nuggets. (Michael Gonzales / NBAE via Getty Images)

“It’s a great opportunity for us to meet the fans where they are and expand our impact work,” Buford said. “The ability to take our Play ATX programming across Austin is an incredibly unique way to connect with our fans. To be a part of South by Southwest is a unique opportunity.

Play ATX is a multi-year program of the Austin Parks Foundation and Spurs Give, the team’s nonprofit arm, dedicated to renovating parks and basketball courts throughout the city of Austin.

You won’t find this weekend’s two Spurs games listed among official SXSW events. Nevertheless, the arrival of both teams at Moody Center on Friday was met with the same anticipatory buzz that accompanied SXSW musical performances by the likes of The Black Keys and Armani White, among dozens of others.

“Austin’s a great city, and a lot going on here right now,” Malone somewhat reluctantly acknowledged. “If you like music it’s a good time to be here.”

A Saturday afternoon game at Moody featuring the G League Austin Spurs against the Capital City Go-Go will be followed by the Sunday evening game between the Spurs and Nets. Meanwhile, various members of the Spurs family, including Wembanyama, Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson and David Robinson, were involved in additional SXSX activities all weekend.

There have been other so-called regional franchises in NBA history: The Kansas City-Omaha Kings, based in Kansas City, Mo., played 15 home games in Omaha, Neb., 185 miles to the northwest, for their first three seasons (1972-75) in Missouri.

However, it is Golden State that is the true model for what the Spurs seek to become. The Warriors’ 2019 move from Oracle Arena (Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum), where they had played for 48 years, to Chase Center, put them in the geographic heart of a region that stretches from San Jose to Oakland.

Changes in Spurs ownership over the past four years have alarmed a segment of the San Antonio populace that both envies and resents Austin. Austin’s population is now estimated to be just under a million; its metro area is around 2.4 million.

San Antonio’s population also has increased rapidly over the past decade, now estimated at just over 1.4 million. Its metro area population, including New Braunfels, is just under 2.5 million.

When Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Austin-based Dell Technologies, and San Francisco-based Sixth Street Partners, which manages some $50 million in assets worldwide, bought out 11 of the Spurs’ then-22 investors in 2021, there was considerable gnashing of teeth among a San Antonio fan base concerned about what the change could mean for the long term. Sixth Street reportedly gained 20 percent of the club, Dell 10 percent, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

Buford points to the team’s $500 million investment in its Victory Capital Performance Center, on the northwest side of San Antonio, to assuage fears.

“San Antonio is our home,” he said. “We just spent a decade building the most exciting performance campus we could imagine.”

Such institutional assurances likely will need to be repeated often in a greater Bexar County for which community angst sometimes seems like a way of life, especially when Austin is on the other side of any comparison.

For proof, look no further than the “Texas Taco Wars” that erupted in 2014 when a critic for an Austin food magazine claimed the capital city was home to the state’s best breakfast tacos.

Outrage in The Alamo City was instantaneous and viral. A San Antonio restaurant worker posted a petition on calling for the writer of the Austin-fawning article to be exiled from the state. Before long, then-Austin mayor Steve Adler “declared war” on San Antonio tacos. That prompted then-San Antonio mayor Ivy Taylor to challenge Adler to a “taste-off.”

The controversy sizzled like lard on a hot comal, until it didn’t. No taste-off occurred. Both sides smoldered.

That was then.

The Spurs I-35 Series is now.

In terms of connecting its San Antonio and Austin fan bases, the Spurs also have a keen interest in efforts to provide rail service between the two cities. SS&E has kept track of talks between the county judges of both Bexar County and Travis County (encompassing Austin) about revising an old Lone Star Rail District to examine the prospect.

SS&E also is aware of an ongoing study by Henry Cisneros, the former San Antonio mayor, about the overall future of the I-35 corridor, including possible rail lines. Cisneros, who resigned as mayor in 1989 to accept a position as secretary of housing and urban development in President Bill Clinton’s administration, is considered a leading expert on the synergy of the two cities. Members of the Spurs organization already have engaged with the former HUD secretary.

“We’ve connected with the leaders throughout our communities to do what we can to bring this mega-region together,” Buford said. “We would be thrilled to be a part of a rail system that connects our communities.”

Remember, the “incredible mega-region” includes Mexico, where the NBA estimates there are no fewer than 30 million NBA fans. The Spurs have visited Mexico City six times, for both preseason and regular-season games.

Buford would welcome additional Spurs games there, and perhaps a few more in other countries.

Paris, anyone?

“Our club has been incredibly international for the history of our club,” said Buford, whose expertise and experience internationally is nonpareil. “Playing where our fans are, meeting them at their level, is everything we’ve ever tried to do for our club.”

(Top photo of Victor Wembanyama: Ronald Cortes / Getty Images)

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