Victor Wembanyama has San Antonio businesses keen to cash in

Mark Burnett can’t get Victor Wembanyama out of his head. Well, he could, but that would be like giving the “Mona Lisa” a knife.

Burnett, a San Antonio Spurs superfan, had well-known local barber Joe Barajas snip Wembanyama’s likeness off the side of his head just over a week ago. He, like just about everyone in the basketball world, expected the Spurs to pick Wembanyama No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft on Thursday.

“I wanted to show Victor something special, that the city of San Antonio already loves him,” Burnett said at a draft night in the Spurs arena, moments before San Antonio actually chose Wembanyama. , who had shared a photo of Burnett on her Instagram account.

Fanatic? Maybe. But also eminently reasonable, and not just because of the immense promise of 19-year-old French basketball star Wembanyama. As the only major professional sports franchise in San Antonio, the Spurs are the beating heart of the seventh largest city in the United States.

“I want to do my best in all aspects of the job,” Wembanyama said at his introductory press conference Saturday in San Antonio. “The fans have been the best at their job. I can only hope to be on their level.

This magic, however, has recently disappeared in River City. The Spurs have not made the playoffs in the past four seasons; they had done so every year since 1997, winning five championships. A miserable 2022-23 campaign, where they tied for the worst record in the Western Conference, granted a silver lining: a tie for the best chance of receiving the No. 1 draft pick. Now they have Wembanyama.

“It’s going to be a huge boost for the economy,” said Aaron Peña, who owns two bars in San Antonio and plans to open another in two weeks. “We are already planning to hold not only opening nights but also all Spurs games. It’s going to be a party.

For some entrepreneurs, the party has already begun. Chip Ingram owns the Roo Pub, an Australian-themed bar inspired by Patty Mills, a former Australian Spurs guard. Ingram drew a large crowd to his pub on May 16 after announcing that if Spurs won the draw that night he would take note. That night might have cost him a pretty penny, as Spurs won, but Ingram said the spotlight was more than worth it.

Ingram brightened up its menu with a “Wemby Burger” that includes foie gras and strings of French onions. After a $1 promotional offer on draft night, the burger is now $21.50 – a nod to Spurs legends Tim Duncan, who wore No. 21, and David Robinson, who wore No. 50 They too were the No. 1 picks.

Economic research casts doubt on the potential strength of the Wembanyama effect in San Antonio. A 2017 article by Daniel Shoag of Harvard University and Stan Veuger of the American Enterprise Institute found that LeBron James’ return to Cleveland in 2014 increased the number of restaurants and other places to eat and drinks near the Cavaliers arena. But that wasn’t the case in Miami when James joined the Heat in 2010, although he had a significant effect on near-arena employment in both cities. Economists have long argued that professional sports franchises and their stadiums do little to help local economies.

“I think people are going to be at Spurs no matter what, but it just gives San Antonio more attention,” said Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio who was also housing and development secretary. urban development under President Barack. Barack Obama. “It gives the city a boost in terms of how much it’s in the national spotlight. It raises the city’s profile and visibility with people, and it’s always good for business.

San Antonio author and television writer Shea Serrano never passes up an opportunity to discuss his beloved Spurs. He said he “lost his mind” when Spurs won the draw.

“It was in the city at that time like we won another championship,” he said.

Spurs chief operating officer Brandon Gayle said the team had seen a surge in demand for season tickets – and a younger and more diverse demographic than usual. San Antonio’s population is about 66% Hispanic or Latino of any race and 23% white alone, with less than 10% of residents identifying as Asian or Black/African American, according to the US Census Bureau. Gayle said Spurs want to expand their reach into Mexico and Austin, Texas, where the team has played several games in recent seasons.

From the opening of the Spurs’ arena, the AT&T Center, before the 2002-3 season through the 2018-19 season, the last time the team made the playoffs, San Antonio has consistently ranked in the top half of NBA attendance. They were in the bottom five for the past two seasons

Carly Tovar represents the second generation of a three-generation Spurs family. She attended draft night with her young son, Mario Calderon, and his father, Ralph Tovar, who began supporting Spurs when the team left Dallas in the 1970s. Spurs won their first title in 1999, when Carly was in high school. Despite her father’s protests, she drove downtown to join in the celebration, where fans marched down the freeway, honked their horns in jubilation and soaked in victory over the Knicks.

“I came with David Robinson, Avery Johnson, and got to enjoy the next generation with Duncan and Robinson,” Carly said. “So now we’re seeing this happen for the third time.” She gestured to her son.

Ralph accepted. “It’s good for our city,” he said. “There is what is called the shadow, the fire.”

The renewed energy around Spurs has visibly changed San Antonio, in the form of striking Wembanyama tributes from local artists. Oscar Alvarado, a tile mosaic artist who traces his family’s roots in San Antonio back nearly 300 years, built an 18-foot-tall Wembanyama cutout of steel and plywood. Colton Valentine painted a larger-than-life mural of Wembanyama holding two basketballs outside a bar in the artsy Southtown district, earning a visit from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. And Nik Soupe was perhaps the boldest of them all: he completed a mural of Wembanyama wearing a Spurs shirt almost two months before the draw.

Several fans said Wembanyama’s ability to generate palpable buzz was decidedly “un-Spurs”. Duncan was particularly quiet and rarely did interviews or advertisements, much like Kawhi Leonard, who helped Spurs win their last championship, in 2014.

But so far, Wembanyama has reveled in the spotlight. He beamed in an Instagram video as a horde of fans greeted him after he landed in San Antonio on Friday.

“He should expect legions of little old ladies to say prayers in Catholic churches for Spurs to win,” Castro said, “and for his success to be celebrated by people as if he were a member. of their family. It’s the level of enthusiasm and how a lot of people take it personally there.

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