Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
There was no missing Steve Canto on Tuesday night when football fans and patrons walked into Walk-ons Bistreaux & Bar on San Antonio's North Side.
Holding a large flag bearing the San Antonio Commanders logo, the 54-year-old Canto greeted everyone who came to see the Commanders unveil their uniforms and watch the Alliance of American Football League's quarterback draft broadcast live from Las Vegas.
Team officials estimated 300 people attended the event. Those who arrived at the designated start time or after had to park a block or more away. Many arrived wearing team shirts and hats, already showing support for San Antonio’s latest attempt at a professional football future. But Canto had them all beat.
“This was a joy to get this,” he said holding up his flag. “It’s always fun to carry this, wave this in pride.
“Everyone has to realize, if you get an NFL team, great. But in order to get an NFL team, you have to support teams like this.”
The AAF will begin its inaugural 10-game season Feb. 9. Unlike some previous – and shortlived – professional football leagues, the AAF isn’t trying to compete with the NFL. Instead, it is drawing on people with plenty of NFL experience to develop a complementary league that schedules its competition to fill the void between the Feb. 3 Super Bowl and the NFL Draft in April.
How well the Commanders will be supported in San Antonio remains to be seen. Team President Vic Gregovits declined to discuss ticket sales numbers because he said the league has asked teams not to. The team will play its home games in the Alamodome, but a contract has not been finalized with the City.
Without ticket sales information, it is difficult to predict how much of the stadium, which seats 64,000 for football, might be filled for the team’s five home games. But team management sees positive signs in the turnout for the draft watch party and an estimated 600 people attending a Sept. 25 event at which the team name was announced.
Also, the Commanders already seem to be developing a robust social media following, with 4,996 followers on Twitter, 1,996 followers on Facebook, and 4,679 followers on Instagram as of Friday.
“The City of San Antonio has been unbelievably supportive,” said team General Manager Daryl Johnston, a former Dallas Cowboys standout. “I know that this has happened to them a number of times where the potential for a professional football team has come to San Antonio, but I hope that this is a different experience for them.
“We have great people at the top and this is starting to gain momentum. I think people are starting to see [co-founders] Charlie Ebersol’s vision and Bill Polian’s vision and what it means to the city. We are committed to making this be a long-term relationship with the city of San Antonio, because they really deserve it.”
The city's football fans have seen startup leagues and teams come and go: the Gunslingers of the United States Football League in the mid-1980s, the Riders of the World League of American Football and the Texans of the Canadian Football League in the 1990s, and the Talons of the Arena Football League in 2012. Then there was the flirtation with the NFL's New Orleans Saints, who played three home games here after Hurricane Katrina devastated their hometown in 2005. But despite team owner Tom Benson's longstanding ties to San Antonio, the city was jilted again when the team opted to return to New Orleans.
The AAF, which has no individual owners, is funded by private investors. It is what the league’s name suggests, an alliance aimed at building a strong product in each of its eight cities.
The AAF will be populated mostly with young players who have had some experience in the NFL but haven’t been able to sustain success there. The new league gives each an opportunity to compete against players of similar caliber and work on whatever might be holding them back from making it to the highest level of the sport.
Except for quarterbacks, the league assigns players to one of eight teams in a region nearest where they played college football or last played for an NFL team, in an attempt to maximize name recognition for fans. Players will get three-year, non-guaranteed contracts worth $250,000, as well as an education stipend and health insurance.
The coaches have extensive experience in either the NFL or major college football or both, such as Commanders Coach Mike Riley, who was head coach of the NFL's San Diego Chargers and of Oregon State and Nebraska at the college level.
“Getting something like this again and getting to do it in San Antonio is really special for me at my age and this stage of my career,” Riley said. “I could never have written this story. So I’m just thankful for it.”
The commitment the league has shown up front to the product on the field with a strategy for sustaining it is part of what attracted Ron Dean, his wife and some friends to attend Tuesday’s team watch party already decked out in Commanders gear.
Dean retired from the Air Force in 2007, and he and his wife have supported UTSA football, the San Antonio Rampage minor-league hockey team, and the WNBA Stars when they played in San Antonio.
“I think it’s because we do have a team now and we wanted to show our support from the beginning and run with it,” Dean said, explaining why the group went all-in so quickly on an upstart team like the Commanders. “If you start in at the ground, then you can say you were a part of it when it started off, and that’s what we wanted.”
San Antonio has long coveted an NFL franchise and has flirted with teams in the past, most recently in 2015 and 2016 when the Oakland Raiders considered moving here only to eventually choose Las Vegas.
The City built the Alamodome in 1993 in hopes that it would lure an NFL team to a city once home to Dallas Cowboys training camps. An NFL team hasn’t come to stay, and the facility would not meet today's NFL standards. It is often speculated that ownership of the Cowboys and Houston Texans would oppose having another team in Texas.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and former Mayor Henry Cisneros have both recently suggested the City should pursue the Los Angeles Chargers, who moved north from San Diego last year but are struggling to gain traction in their new home, which now has two NFL teams.
Tommy Doster, 62, retired in San Antonio after a career in the Army and attended the team draft party this week in a Commanders hat. He said he is hopeful that the AAF will succeed where others have failed.
Doster said he attended Saints games in 2005, often tailgating in the Alamodome parking lot, and saw how the city could support an NFL team. With the city's growth, he said he has little doubt pro football can thrive here.
“I love football,” Doster said. “I think San Antonio deserves a football team and this is a way of showing the powers that be that we deserve football. I know we can support it."
Riley came to San Antonio to coach the Riders in 1991 and fell in love with South Texas. He and his wife, Dee, have kept a farmhouse property near the Guadalupe River in Gruene ever since. They spend July there each year and now will be able to call the place home throughout the year.
Riley believes San Antonio will support the AAF because the city has coveted quality professional football for so long.
“Our fan base was as good as anybody in our league at the time,” Riley said of his days with the Riders. “They love football and want to have a team and we’re going to try to provide that good football for them because they are great fans.”