Early voters arrive at the AT&T Center on Oct. 13, 2020. Credit: Stephanie Marquez for the San Antonio Report

With the AT&T Center sitting unused this fall, converting the San Antonio Spurs’ home into a polling place was heralded as a unique experience – the NBA season started just last week, making 2020 the only year this would be possible. But voting at the county-owned arena also came with a hefty price tag.

Spurs Sports and Entertainment (SS&E) charged Bexar County more than $255,000 for setup and personnel working in the AT&T Center’s front lobby that served as one of four mega-vote centers during the November election. The invoice, first reported on by the San Antonio Express-News, was dated Nov. 13 and covered the three-week early voting period and Election Day, which was Nov. 3. SS&E charged the County $15,800 for setting up the location and $14,146 for Election Day costs; the remaining amount was expenses tied to early voting.

The Spurs were one of 22 NBA teams whose arenas were offered for election use after the players union pushed for the initiative during the 2020 playoffs while protesting police brutality and highlighting other social justice issues. (The AT&T Center had been selected as a Bexar County voting site before that agreement was finalized.)

Bexar County owns the AT&T Center and leases it to the Spurs.

“Our goal was to provide the safest, most efficient and most accessible voting environment for our community,” SS&E CEO R.C. Buford said in a statement. “While there were numerous challenges in turning the arena into a mega voting site in the middle of a global pandemic, we are proud of the positive impact this effort had locally, statewide and nationally, as a record number of voters in Bexar County participated in the 2020 election.”

Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) said he was not anticipating an invoice of that size, but added that he didn’t know what the bill should look like.

“I don’t have any way of measuring this … this was really the first time that I’ve been through a huge turnout election, like this it’s the first time we’ve used mega [voting] sites,” he said. “[And] under a public health crisis, so I didn’t have any way of gauging what those costs would be.”

He promised the County would examine the charges to ensure County funds were not being spent without care. County Manager David Smith has asked the Budget Department, the County Auditor’s office, and other personnel to review the invoice, according to county spokeswoman Monica Ramos.

“We’re going to make sure that those costs are justified,” Rodriguez said. “We owe it to the taxpayers. We owe it to the concept of transparency to make sure each one of those costs associated was justified and and and so we’re going to take a close look at it.”

The AT&T Center was the sixth-most used polling place during the early voting period, with nearly 22,000 votes cast in the three-week period. November marked the first presidential election with Bexar County using the vote center model, meaning registered voters could cast ballots at any polling place in the county on Election Day. However, only 620 people voted there on Nov. 3, meaning that SS&E charged $22.81 per ballot cast on Election Day. 

The Spurs group charged a total of $117,434 for its staff’s work during early voting and on Election Day, duties that included security, crowd control employees, an electrician, and a plumber. That did not include “external staffing,” such as housekeeping or traffic directors, or the election judges and clerks who are paid hourly and provided by the Bexar County Elections Department. 

More than 200 part-time staffers worked 8,700 hours over 29 days during the election, according to Spurs spokesman Tom James. SS&E also provided 25 full-time staff who volunteered for part-time shifts and another 10 who spent most of their time helping transform the AT&T Center front lobby into a polling place.

In August, when Bexar County commissioners discussed the potential use of the AT&T Center, it was not made clear that the County would pay for Spurs employees.

“We’ve worked with the Spurs, and they’re going to make some of their staff available to help,” Wolff said at an Aug. 11 meeting.

Rodriguez said he anticipated some costs associated with using the AT&T Center as a voting site.

“It was our biggest location so you’re gonna have more payroll costs,” he said. “… I didn’t know what that number would be, but in my head, I did anticipate those costs being billed to the county. That’s kind of what we had this money set aside for.”

Bexar County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The county had four mega-vote centers total for the November election. St. Paul Community Center charged the county $16,000, Alzafar Shrine Auditorium charged $18,100, while Palo Alto College hosted voters free of charge. The Elections Department usually pays no more than $500 per site for Election Day use, and often polling places cost nothing to rent, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen said.

“We use the libraries and the City [of San Antonio] never charges us,” she said. “The city halls never pass a charge onto us.”

Callanen declined to comment on the AT&T Center bill from SS&E.

The San Antonio Report contacted all of the NBA teams whose facilities were used for voting. None of the teams that responded – including those whose arenas are privately owned – charged local governments more than $4,500.

A spokesman for the Cleveland Cavaliers said that the county elections office paid $300 to rent the arena’s front atrium, the same cost for any other voting location in Cuyahoga County. 

“[The county] covered all the expenses of all the volunteers working and moving the voting equipment in and out, all that sort of stuff,” said Tad Carper, the Cavaliers’ chief communications officer and executive vice president.

The Cavaliers’ Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, which is owned by the Gateway Economic Development Corporation of Greater Cleveland, was used only on Election Day, Carper added. The Cleveland arena was open only to voters in three precincts, serving a smaller subset of voters than Bexar County’s polling places, which were all open to any registered voter in the county during early voting and Election Day.

The Atlanta Hawks opened the State Farm Arena, owned by the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority, to voters at no cost to Fulton County for the November election, according to a spokesperson. The Washington Wizards’ Capital One Arena also was used at no cost, according to a spokesperson from Monumental Sports, the company that owns the team and the arena in the District of Columbia. The Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, which owns the Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City, donated use of the Utah Jazz’s home arena as a polling location on Election Day, a spokesperson for the organization said. The Sacramento Kings did not charge Sacramento County for using the Golden 1 Center, owned by the City of Sacramento, as a voting location.

In Texas, the costs to use NBA arenas also seemed to be much smaller than what the Spurs are asking Bexar County to pay. The Houston Rockets billed Harris County $4,346 to use the Toyota Center during early voting and on Election Day to cover expenses such as electricity costs, according to Elizabeth Lewis, communications and voter outreach administrator for the Harris County Clerk; the Toyota Center is owned by the Harris County Houston Sports Authority. And while the Dallas Mavericks declined to provide information about voting use of the American Airlines Center, the team did not charge Collin County Elections for using its Comerica Center facility in Frisco where the Mavericks’ developmental league affiliate Texas Legends play; the facility is owned by the City of Frisco. (The American Airlines Center, owned by the City of Dallas, also served as a polling site. Dallas County did not provide a cost at time of publication.)

“We haven’t [received a bill] and are not expecting one,” Collin County Elections Administrator Bruce Sherbert said.

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.