Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Tuesday night’s exhibition match featuring the national soccer teams of Mexico and Argentina marked the fifth time El Tri has played a game at the Alamodome in five years.
The Mexican National Team, which plays the vast majority of its exhibition or “friendly” matches in the U.S., has become a regular fixture on the annual calendar of San Antonio sporting events. Soccer United Marketing, the U.S.-based firm that carries out international soccer games throughout the Americas, has played a major role in making San Antonio a perennial dot on the map for Mexico’s U.S. exhibitions.
And despite an aging structure not originally designed for field sports, the Alamodome is increasingly relying on the Mexico friendlies as a showcase for the atmosphere, revenue, and economic impact the venue can contribute to all these years later.
First opened in 1993 with a construction budget of $186 million, the Alamodome began as the San Antonio Spurs home court until the Spurs moved to the AT&T Center in 2002. Since then, it’s seen a revolving door of professional football teams march through until their respective leagues folded. The University of Texas at San Antonio’s college football team has played there since 2011, and it continues to host the Alamo Bowl, the annual NCAA postseason clash between the runners-up in the PAC-12 and the Big 12 conferences.
But what the Alamodome lacks in style, it makes up for in substance, said San Antonio officials who help make the case for hosting international soccer in the city.
“We’re not AT&T Stadium [the Dallas Cowboys’ facility in Arlington] or NRG [Stadium, where the Houston Texans play], but this building has certainly proven it’s very capable of hosting these events,” said Steve Zito, Alamodome general manager. “If the City continues to invest in this building, we’ve proven we don’t need all those shiny things to host these events. The City is showing its investment in this building and its commitment to providing first-class facilities, and we’re doing that.”
Latinos make up a smaller percentage of the population in both Dallas (42 percent) and Houston (45 percent) than they do in San Antonio (64 percent), but a large volume of residents in all three cities are of Mexican descent. But the San Antonio market differentiates itself on the travel factor. San Antonio is just a five-hour drive from Monterrey, Mexico’s third-largest city.
With more than 2 million Mexican visitors traveling to San Antonio every year, the country is San Antonio’s top international draw for tourism, said Richard Oliver, director of community relations for Visit San Antonio.
“Mexico is going to be very receptive to soccer here in San Antonio,” Oliver said. “We have a lot of Mexican transplants who live here as well. It’s fertile ground any time you can bring any kind of Mexican sporting event here because we know there is a lot of strength and passion for certainly Mexican soccer.”
In the sea of green and red tailgating outside of the Alamodome Tuesday, Melisa and Samantha Campagna stood out as two nearly solitary Argentina fans. The couple traveled from Houston and stayed at a hotel on the River Walk. For the Campagnas, witnessing an international soccer game in San Antonio had a unique feel because of the city’s close cultural connection to Mexico.
“The culture is a part of the city itself,” Melisa said.
“San Antonio retains a lot of the Mexican culture,” added Samantha. “They’re proud to be Mexican-Americans, which is fun to see, and they’re excited to represent Mexico.”
“The Mexican National Team enjoys a lot of support here in San Antonio,” said Juan Garcia, a Midland resident who was set to watch his fourth El Tri match in the United States and his first in San Antonio. “There was a group that came from Nuevo Leon and Jalisco, about 150 people, just to root on the national team.”
The Tuesday night match saw an Argentina side without its top two goalscorers, Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero, stun the heavily partisan, green-and-red-clad crowd of 56,511, as the South Americans went on to beat Mexico 4-0 in a game that was never close.
No matter the scoreline, Mexican national team games always draw considerable revenue for the Alamodome, Zito said, who added merchandise, food, and beverage concessions always do well during a Mexico game.
“The fans are avid, and they just love cheering for their team,” Zito said. “They have a great time.”
He said international friendlies serve as an audition of sorts to host more competitive matches, including regional tournaments such as the CONCACAF Gold Cup and FIFA World Cup qualifiers, as well as U.S. women’s soccer matches and international club exhibitions. Mexico’s domestic soccer league, the Liga MX, remains the most-watched soccer league in the U.S., topping Major League Soccer and even the popular Premier League in Great Britain.
Thus far, major tournament fixtures have eluded San Antonio. The last time the Alamodome hosted a competitive, non-exhibition men’s match was during the early phases of the 2017 Gold Cup, which crowns a regional champion among qualifying nations from the Caribbean, Central America, and North America. El Tri defeated its already-eliminated opponent Curacao, which FIFA currently ranks 79th among international squads, by a score of 2-0.
Zito said the City failed to win a bid to host a match in the 2019 iteration of the tournament, but that the Alamodome has built a stronger reputation after hosting the 2018 men’s NCAA Final Four, which came after more than $50 million worth of upgrades were made to the facility, including the expansion of the east-west concourse, upgraded concession areas, new LED video walls and ribbon boards, and a renovation of the facility’s northern plaza.
“I look forward to the next opportunity there is to go for the Gold Cup,” said Zito, “because I really feel we can compete with any building out there – shiny or not.”