SAN ANTONIO — Despite assurances the Spurs will stay in San Antonio, Bexar County leaders expressed concerns about the organization's pitch to play two home games in Austin next year.
Commissioners narrowly voted Tuesday to advance certain negotiations with the Spurs. The franchise asked Bexar County to affirm and expand their ability to play home games away from the AT&T Center.
County Judge Nelson Wolff said the court's 3-2 vote was "not a good sign."
"It shows there's a divide in this community as to the intention of the Spurs," he told Spurs attorney Bobby Perez. "There's a lot of concern about just what the heck you're doing."
The Spurs' current contract with Bexar County, which owns the AT&T Center, says the team can host two home games away from the facility annually.
But Perez said the clause is murky. He said the franchise has not exercised its right to host games elsewhere, fearing the move could trigger a "relocation" breach-of-contract that carries a $130 million penalty.
The Spurs have played games in Mexico, but as the visiting team.
The franchise seeks clarification of the relocation clause and also asked to expand the deal from two to four games. Perez said the organization would host games in the Alamodome and Mexico next season.
The Spurs have also discussed hosting two games at Austin's Moody Center, a new multi-use facility on campus at the University of Texas.
Commissioner Tommy Calvert told Perez his constituents fear the proposal signals the Spurs are "testing the waters" for a move to Texas's capital.
"It's not about playing in Austin," Perez told the court. "It's about building that brand from Mexico to Austin."
Perez said he hopes new fans in the capital region would buy tickets to watch the team in San Antonio. Franchise leaders have discussed tailoring ticket packages to encourage this practice, he suggested.
"I think you've picked up on a lot of the angst is always about, 'Are the Spurs staying in San Antonio?'" commissioner Justin Rodriguez told Perez. "That angst is amplified when you start talking about our friends up I-35 in Austin."
San Antonio and Austin residents have long-enjoyed friendly competition, but U.S. Census data indicate Austin anchors the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the nation.
"Austin is a draw for a lot of industries," said Jeff DiPietro, who co-runs Sports Cards Plus memorabilia shop in San Antonio. "It feels unfair to some of the fans that they're getting something else - especially from us."
"But I think it's like we're sharing a bit of our identity," he continued. "That's not a bad thing."
DiPietro and Perez both say playing games in the capital region could build the franchise's regional following. The Spurs already enjoy strong fan bases in Europe and South America.
"We have to accept they're trying to reach their full, regional market potential," DiPietro said. "That's totally understandable. I don't think we need to live in fear the Spurs are going to disappear overnight."
County commissioners will meet with the Spurs representatives again in two weeks to finalize language allowing the team to play some games elsewhere.
Wolff asked the franchise to send its owners to the next hearing, expressing some frustration they did not appear before the court Tuesday.
Still, county leaders seemed willing to give the Spurs' proposed experiment a shot.
"They're our partners and we want to try to give them a chance to work their theory," Wolff said.