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Numbers Game: Calling San Antonio the Seventh-Largest City Has a Nice Ring, But It Doesn’t Reflect Reality 

click to enlarge MELISSA MCHENRY
  • Melissa McHenry
Live in San Antonio long enough and you’ll hear somebody pose the following question: “If we’re the seventh-largest city, why don’t we have an NFL team?” Or maybe you’ve heard a variation of that query where better music festivals, direct flights to Europe or some other shiny object subs in for a sports franchise.

At first, it sounds like a reasonable line of inquiry.

After all, city leaders and local media have repeated the seventh-largest tag frequently enough that it’s stuck. As such, it can sound odd — maybe even shameful — that a top-10 city like SA doesn’t boast the same cool stuff as nearby Dallas or Houston.

But experts caution that our seventh-ranked status — determined by the estimated 1.5 million people living inside our municipal boundaries — paints a false picture.
Largest U.S. Metropolitan Statistical Areas // Rank/Name Population (in millions)
1. New York-Newark-Jersey City // 20
2. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim // 13.3
3. Chicago-Naperville-Elgin // 9.5
4. Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington // 7.5
5. Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land // 7
24. San Antonio-New Braunfels // 2.5
Source: U.S. Census

The size of a city’s metropolitan statistical area, or MSA, is a far better barometer for a city’s heft, economists argue. That designation, created by the U.S. government, refers to a region consisting not just of a city proper but its suburbs and surrounding communities.

Count the population of the Alamo City plus its outlying burbs, and our status slides — correction, plummets — from the top 10. Ranked by our MSA population of 2.5 million, we’re 24th on U.S. Census’ 2018 rankings, sandwiched between Charlotte, N.C., and Portland, Oregon.

No. 7 on the federal MSA list is the sprawling Miami-Fort Lauderdale area, home to 6.2 million people — or two and a half times metro SA’s population.

“The seventh-largest city description of San Antonio is a fig leaf — a fiction,” said Char Miller, a professor at Pomona College in California who’s made a career of studying our city. “Partly, it reflects a lack of willingness by our leaders to be nuanced in their evaluation of where the city actually stands.”

Critical Mass

Part of the issue here is that cities in more densely populated regions, such as the East Coast, had their boundaries constrained by nearby growth. San Antonio, meanwhile, annexed land at a brisk pace starting in the early part of the 20th century. (See this issue’s CityScrapes column for a look at why that happened.)

Christine Drennon, an urban studies professor at Trinity University, often uses the disparity between San Antonio’s city population and the size of its MSA to make a point to her introductory classes. Look at SA by city population alone, and we’re bigger than Atlanta, for example. Consider the size of the MSAs, though, and the Atlanta area’s 6 million residents leave us in the dust when it comes to buying power.

“When people wonder why San Antonio doesn’t have ... [more] sports teams, it’s because we don’t have the critical mass in our surrounding suburbs to support those kinds of things,” Drennon said.

Knowing the population within a city’s limits is important when it comes to evaluating administrative issues such as how much it budgets for trash collection or how to expand its water system, said Lloyd Potter, Texas’ state demographer.

But when it comes to understanding whether a city has enough mass to be considered for an NFL expansion team, be in the running for Amazon’s second headquarters or even whether it will be a tour stop for particular musical performer, it’s the MSA that’s all-important.

“If you want to look at a city and its surroundings as an economic system, then the metropolitan statistical area is the best way to do that,” Potter said.

In the end, calling San Antonio the seventh-largest city makes a good marketing gimmick for local leaders, Potter said — something that offers a leg up as they vie for corporate relocations or tourism dollars.

“If I were in their position, I’d be doing the same thing,” he added.

Decades of Failure

But Pomona College’s Miller, who’s written several books on San Antonio, is troubled by the way leaders continue to trumpet its status as a top-10 market. The tag creates a false impression among residents about our successes and shortcomings. What’s more, local media’s willingness to repeat it without question reeks of boosterism.

“When I moved to San Antonio in 1981, it was the same conversation,” Miller said. “The numbers were different then, but the implications were the same: ‘The symphony should have more money because we’re the 10th-largest city.’”

In the end, Miller is troubled less by the mythmaking than the lack of vision it embodies. While long eager to pursue growth and outside investment, San Antonio leaders showed an unwillingness to tackle the city’s deep, troubling problems with generational poverty and poor educational opportunities.

“My worry is less with the rhetoric itself but what lies beneath it — our unwillingness to deal with the social ills that hold the city back,” he said. “If the strategy is that we can grow ourselves into world-class status, we’ve failed pretty miserably. We’re still having the same conversation we could have had four decades ago.”

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