Space City, Bayou City, Crush City, H-Town, the Energy Capital of the World—all these monikers have been applied to the nation’s fourth-largest metro area. “Big Game City” could also be appropriate, considering Houston has earned a reputation as a global destination for premier sporting events.
Game After Game
From Super Bowl VIII at Rice Stadium in 1974 to Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in 2017, Houston has hosted some of the biggest games and names in sports. A culturally diverse melting pot of more than two million people, Houston boasts an enviable sporting infrastructure that continues to grow stronger with its revitalized downtown and expanding public transit system. The city won bids to host the NCAA Men’s Final Four in April 2016 and the NFL’s 2017 Super Bowl, bringing what are arguably America’s two most coveted sporting events to Houston in a 10-month span. It was the second Super Bowl awarded to Houston since 2004 and the second Final Four since 2011.
Over the past 15 years, Houston also has hosted various All-Star games, two NCAA Big 12 Conference football championships, Texas high school football championships and two WWE Wrestlemanias. Add to those events the city’s year-round pro sports teams (the Texans, Rockets, Astros, Dynamo and Dash), its thriving collegiate and amateur athletics and annual events such as the Chevron Houston Marathon, the Shell Houston Open and international soccer and rugby matches and you have the makings of a truly world-class sports city.
“Houston ... has always been seen as an attractive location for hosting major sporting events,” said David Tagliarino, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Houston Dynamo soccer team and a former executive at SMG, the management group that oversees NRG Park. “In addition, Houston is a major gateway to Latin America, Europe and the Middle East thanks to our two international airports [which allow] those events to connect with fans around the world.”
'If You Build It...'
When John F. Kennedy gave his famous “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech in 1962 at Rice Stadium, the venue was one of Texas’ largest stadiums, holding up to 70,000 people. The iconic Houston Astrodome opened in 1965 as the world’s first indoor stadium, earning the nickname the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and introducing the commercial use of AstroTurf, the artificial, grasslike surface commonly installed on playing fields around the globe. The Summit, home of the Rockets from 1975-2003 (and now the home of a giant 16,800-seat church), was part of a lavish new breed of NBA arenas that helped to elevate the league to its current level of prominence.
Today, each of Houston’s four major professional teams plays in a stadium built since 2000. The Astros’ Minute Maid Park, for instance, opened in 2000 in downtown as the first stadium in Houston with a retractable roof. Two years later, the Texans’ 71,000-seat NRG Stadium was the first NFL venue to have a retractable roof. It received a facelift to bolster the city’s bid for Super Bowl LI, which included new video boards that were, at the time, the world’s largest digital displays in any pro sports venue. Toyota Center, the Rockets’ 18,000-seat downtown arena features the largest indoor center-hung scoreboard screen in the U.S., installed in 2012 for the 2013 NBA All-Star Game. BBVA Compass Stadium, which opened in 2012, is a sleek, soccer-specific stadium that holds up to 22,000, and is the home field for the Dash and Dynamo.
Those venues have been the home stadiums of some of the most iconic athletes in Texas sports—Earl Campbell, Nolan Ryan, Warren Moon, Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Roger Clemens, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Andre Johnson, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Brian Ching, James Harden and J.J. Watt, to name a few. Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle, the longest-tenured sportswriter in Texas, says it’s all part of a unique overall package that comes complete with a touch of Texas hospitality.
“We have proven that Houston is a really hospitable city,” said Robertson, who has been covering sports for Houston newspapers since 1972. “Rarely will you find anybody that comes to Houston for a major sporting event that doesn’t think that people are really nice, and we have a community that knows how to come to come together and make big events work.”
Combined with the city’s supportive, influential business community, large fan base and volunteer pool, the city’s position as a host city has become nearly inevitable. “Even in 1974 (before Super Bowl VIII), when the NFL Commissioner’s Party on Friday night was a big deal, it was the party to end all parties ... I mean, they were roasting whole pigs on spits in the Astrodome. It’s that whole ‘everything is bigger in Texas’ kind of thing.”
Connecting the Dots
More than just having world-class facilities is how they are positioned—and in recent years, what connects them: Minute Maid Park, Toyota Center and BBVA Compass Stadium are all within a short walk of one another, triangulated around the George R. Brown Convention Center and downtown’s Discovery Green. The 12-acre park can hold upward of 100,000 people without having to close any city streets—making it an ideal hub for Final Four and Super Bowl activities, from fan expos and concerts to special pregame events.
Across the street, upgrades to the convention center in advance of Super Bowl LI include a mixed-use pedestrian area and 15 restaurants. Get to NRG Park (as well as other downtown destinations) via Houston’s METRORail. The light rail train system opened in January 2004, just before Super Bowl XXXVIIII, with a 7.5-mile north-south Red Line that transported passengers to the stadium from downtown through Houston’s Museum District, Rice University, Memorial Hermann Hospital and the Texas Medical Center. In 2015, the city expanded the light rail system with additional lines that connect to Houston’s Theater District, BBVA Compass Stadium, the University of Houston and Texas Southern University.
“The amount of development taking place is setting Houston up for a tremendous future,” Tagliarino said. “The infrastructure, resources and support by the City will enable Houston to continue to compete regionally, nationally and internationally in attracting future events to our great city.”