In Brian Straus’ exhaustive treatment of all 12 MLS hopefuls for Sports Illustrated, he describes San Antonio as “on the fringe” when it comes to its place as a media market in the modern American landscape.

We hear it all the time in San Antonio, those two dreaded words: “small market”.

San Antonio is the 7th largest city in the United States but the 32nd media market. – Brandon Watts/Photographer.

 

It is, we’re sorry to say, a fair assessment. As of the 2016 Nielsen estimates, San Antonio ranked 32nd in the nation as a media market, ahead of only Cincinnati (36th) among MLS expansion hopefuls.

Here are the full rankings:

  • Tampa/St. Pete (11th)
  • Phoenix (12th)
  • Detroit (13th)
  • *Miami (16th)
  • Sacramento (20th)
  • St. Louis (21st)
  • Charlotte (22nd)
  • Raleigh-Durham (25th)
  • Indianapolis (27th)
  • San Diego (28th)
  • Nashville (29th)
  • San Antonio (32nd)
  • Cincinnati (36th)

In the same Straus piece quoted above, the author points out that San Antonio is, in fact, the 7th largest Hispanic media market in the United States, the leader among the current expansion hopefuls and second only to Miami in cities that don’t currently have MLS.

Still, as modern sports leagues derive an increasing percentage of revenue from national media deals (primarily television, at this stage), it would seem quizzical to even consider the cities near the bottom of this list. But what if the size of a media market didn’t necessarily correspond to the ratings earned on television?

Let’s take a look at Portland. Like San Antonio, Portland had one major league franchise before joining MLS. Like San Antonio, Portland was an NBA town, with the city’s Trail Blazers drawing frequent sellouts in a market they monopolized. Like San Antonio, Portland could hardly be considered a major media market. In fact, Portland currently ranks only one spot ahead of Raleigh-Durham on the Neilsen list, coming in at 24th with 1,136,320 media homes as compared to 907,320 for San Antonio. So Portland is bigger, but is still less than half the size of Houston and one sixth the size of New York, which in relative terms, means Portland and San Antonio are in the same category: “small markets”.

You would expect, then, that Portland would be a rare sight on national television, that their matches would be among the lower rated programs the league offers. And you would be entirely wrong. The small-market Portland Timbers are far from ratings kryptonite. In fact, they are television darlings, again among the league leaders in national television appearances. Why would the league put a small market team on the national stage so often? Ratings.

In 2016, Portland was on national television 13 times in the regular season between FS1, ESPN, and ESPN2. And, on every network, matches featuring the small market Timbers drew more average viewers than the matches without Portland involved.

Does market size matter? Surely, it does. Does it matter nearly as much as the moaning and gnashing of teeth you hear might indicate? Almost surely not.

As the largest Hispanic media market yet to be granted an MLS club, San Antonio can make a claim to actually having a media market advantage. And for the naysayers who would point to the overall market size as a deterrent, perhaps there should be an addendum to San Antonio’s world-famous mantra.

Remember the Alamo! (And remember the Portland Timbers.)

This is Part 2 of The Confident Candidate Chronicles series.

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