The Super Bowl: A Holiday

Only the Super Bowl. Only this event can change the church schedule, force states to change laws (Arizona and M.L.K. recognition), and spark debates over whether or not it deserves to be a federally-recognized holiday. It piques the interest of the public, brings people together and emblemizes Americana. Therefore, the Super Bowl host city becomes subject of intense scrutiny. The geopolitical and socioeconomic aspects of a city go under the magnifying glass. Houston, Texas presents a prime example because it’s up-and-coming, set to host the 2017 Big Game. From who foots the bill to the city’s infrastructure to the Astrodome, many questions are raised. Hosting the Super Bowl is an arduous affair even if it’s more than 600 days away. There are many details which need finalizing, which means the public, NFL, county legislature, host committee and stadium landlords all have many questions.

Money: The answer to most questions. It drives countless decisions every day for everyone. The process of reeling in America’s brightest spectacle fares no differently. Politicians and host committee members boast gaudy figures with many dollar signs when discussing the added economic benefit the Super Bowl will bring. Sallie Sargent, President and CEO of the Houston Super Bowl Committee, created a Texas-sized buzz when she appeared on a local NBC-affiliate news program and projected Houston’s game in 2017 could earn the city $500 million.

But, there’s a catch. Though NRG Stadium (formerly known as Reliant Stadium) only opened in 2002 and hosts the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the Texas Bowl every year, it still must undergo $50 million in repairs to satisfy the NFL’s host requirements. The renovations address needs in club seats, suites, the general concourse and seating area, concessions, restrooms, infrastructure like plumbing or air handling systems, and especially WiFi capability, which the stadium doesn’t have at all now. Those demands, set forth in the NFL’s 153-page manual of hosting stipulations, are in addition to growing fresh sod for the game.

Who pays for all of this, however, is creating a political plume of smoke which doesn’t seem far from fire. The host committee – an extension of the NFL – does not have a budget; its only power is to fundraise. Sargent appeared on the news program to implore the citizens of Houston to invest $50 million for a $500 million return. But citizens are hesitant to pay. This leaves the NFL looking at corporate sponsors, who look at the city of Houston, who looks at the landlord of the property of NRG Stadium, who looks at the county, who looks at the NFL because the region has invested heavily into its own infrastructure. Political jockeying ensues as each group blames the others while progress stagnates. The manager of the county’s budget said Harris County has neither the funds nor the power to underwrite the Super Bowl.

Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack said to the Houston Chronicle in April 2015 that appropriating public funds to improve suites for corporate executives and billion-dollar companies would not happen. “I’m not about to vote to spend a single dollar of county money updating these luxury suites,” he said. Furthermore, Precinct 4 – the landlord body of NRG Stadium – and its Commissioner Jack Cagle said they would not pay for the improvements either, but a clause in the lease agreement says the county must maintain the facility in “first class” condition and “a manner comparable to other stadiums.” At the time of the 2004 Super Bowl, it was first class at just two years old, but now the tenants of NRG Stadium (Texans, Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo) argue the prevalence of WiFi requires the county to pay because it’s not comparable to other stadiums. Currently, negotiations between the tenants, county, and the NFL are ongoing and strained. A high-ranking executive on the Host Committee board said that the taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for anything and that the committee is raising money.

Who raises the money isn’t the only concern host cities have. How much money will be brought in? The average Houston tourist (non-Super Bowl) spent $103 in 2001, which is $137.66 in 2014 dollars. But that’s not a fair valuation of how much people will spend because the city grew tremendously since 2001. Business Insider minted Houston America’s best city in a 2014 article and Forbes called it “one of America’s coolest cities” in 2012, citing the fact that the city actually grew during the Great Recession with 2.6 percent in job growth. If the city was a skinny, pimply high-schooler struggling to lift weights in the early 2000s, Houston is now a 250-pound linebacker with a sub-4.3-second 40-meter-dash time. In 2013, 13 million visitors to Houston spent $16 billion, which equates to $175.82 per tourist per day – a 28 percent increase from the expected value. Super Bowl visitors spent between $350 and $375 per day in 2004, meaning a Super Bowl tourist spends more than triple the regular tourist. The 300-plus percent increase in spending by Super Bowl tourists has been established as a baseline through games over the last decade. By this extrapolation, Houston can expect visitors to spend nearly $525 per day in 2017. The average visitor stays 3.7 days – Friday through Monday, usually – and Houston expects just over 100,000 tourists to head to the Bayou City the first weekend of February. If the averages of visitors and money-spending habits follow expert prediction, $250 million should be invested into the local economy.

But it’s not that simple. In 2004, the host committee expected the impact to be around $330 million, but the Houston controller found that it only made $129 million of direct impact in the week before and the week after the game. The disparity is because the host committee accounts for all Super Bowl spending in addition to regular spending without overlap. Also, a lot of money is made by large hotel and restaurant chains, which increases local tax revenues, but most of the money doesn’t stay in the community because business’ corporate owners pocket it. (Also, the NFL affords heavy tax breaks during the Super Bowl, which lowers local profit.) Host committees also tend to leave out how much the city will need to spend in order to prepare for the Super Bowl, according to CBS.

While host committees bandy about gaudy figures, they explain little about how significant the impact will be. For example, Harris County, Texas, where Houston resides, is the 34th-richest county in the state, of 254. The county has nearly $160 billion in personal economy (roughly equivalent to economic activity), so the Super Bowl – if it reaches $500 million, like the committee said – will only be adding 0.31 percent to the economy. It is an addition, but it may not overwhelm like projected.

The NFL’s generous estimates also don’t include the fact that many of the things people buy – beer, lawn gnomes, other Super Bowl-branded items not attached to the local economy – get-outta-Dodge as soon as the game’s over. Holy Cross professor Victor Matheson, an economist who’s studied Super Bowl impact, says, “Imagine an airplane landing at an airport and everyone gets out and gives each other a million bucks, then gets back on the plane. That’s $200 million in economic activity, but it’s not any benefit to the local economy.” This is also comparable for when Super Bowl visitors buy up all the hotel rooms, it leaves none for other visitors. The Super Bowl economic impact is not on addition, it is addition by subtraction – but usually the addition is bigger than the subtraction. Ultimately, a Sports on Earth columnist concludes – through extensive research of about a dozen economic analysts – that the safest “guesstimate” is about $100 million in economic impact. It’s not nothing, but it’s also not the wild fantasies the NFL and some economists forecast. Some experts doubt economic impact is the real reason cities so badly want to host the Super Bowl anyway.

Perhaps economic impact is only a peripheral vision of the Host Committee’s. After all, when Houston won the bid in 2013 to host Super Bowl LI, all city and county officials either said they did not know what the economic impact would be or referred the asker to the bid committee. The committee said trying to forecast the impact of an event nearly four years out was like “nailing Jell-O to a wall” to the Houston Chronicle. They pointed to New Orleans’ net of $480 million in 2013 from the Super Bowl and Greg Ortale, president and CEO of the GHCVB, said, “You have to assume we’ll be bigger.” Still, there’s assumption there. Usually, to tax-paying citizens, assumptions aren’t good enough explanation. So if the economic uncertainty didn’t deter any bidding, there must’ve been another factor spurring Houston forward.

Chalk it up to civic pride. When visiting the official site of the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee – housuperbowl.com – a 60-second video montage consumes the screen. It’s a heart-pounding, prideful anthem which makes even someone from New England want to move to Houston. The first screen reads, “Houston is…” followed by “The Home of Friday Night Lights,” “The Home of Team Work” and finally, “The Home of Team Spirit.” The text is interspersed with highlights of the Houston Texans football team and fans with face-paint, Texan hats and other garb cheering at stadium-shaking levels. It flashes a clip of J.J. Watt, the NFL’s most interacted with player on social media, spurring on crowd noise as if to market one of the league’s most visible – and liked – faces as synonymous with the stadium, even though the Texans likely won’t be playing in the game.

The promo focuses on the mystique of Texas football. The home of transcendent books about high school players, the state which produces countless legends in the League, and the setting for a television series which shows crazed-parents pushing 10-year-olds as if they play in the Super Bowl every day at practice. There’s a reason ESPN the Magazine produced a special issue about Texas, which a cover teaser blared, “America’s football holy land.” Texans know their reputations for football, so what better plan than to host the Super Bowl? The crowning jewel of America’s most popular sport will be played in the place it’s most popular.

To say that the Super Bowl induces civic pride bordering on jingoism within the city of Houston may be an understatement. In a clip of the video, a crowd of 30 passionate fans stand outside of NRG Stadium dressed in Texans colors and yell, “We live for Houston! We live for football!” It seems as if the host committee is trying to make the words ‘Houston’ and ‘football’ synonymous. The music begins to fade away, but before the video ends, the official logo glosses over the screen and a voice growls, “We live for football.”

Houston hopes to capitalize on its state’s reputation for football prestige, but the state won’t benefit unless Houston, like the player’s on the field, showcases it prowess under pressure. This means the city will improve its infrastructure and progress community development in order to “put its best face forward,” like Sargent said. Houston already figures to be ahead of where it was in 2004 when it hosted for the first time. Then, Houston’s hotel sector downtown had only four properties with 1,800 rooms. Now, the city maintains about 25 properties and 7,500-8,000 rooms, not including the 1,000-plus room new Marriott hotel scheduled to open months before the Super Bowl in September 2016. The hotel – named the Marquis – will have over 100,000 square feet of meeting space and will be connected, via skybridge, to the George R. Brown Convention Center, the second-largest convention center in Texas. Also, per the Marriott website, the Marquis utilizes “a one-of-a kind Texas-shaped lazy river and affinity pool, a full service spa and fitness center, high energy two story sports bar, two specialty restaurants, wine bar, cafe, and pool bar & grill.” The hotel is smack-dab downtown and overlooks Discovery Green Park, which is conveniently where the NFL plans to host Super Bowl Central, its entertainment zone for 10 days leading up to the game.

The NFL event in Discovery Green Park was originally called “Super Bowl El Centro” in an attempt to attract fans from Mexico, Central America and South America, but the plans were scrapped and the name changed to the Anglicized equivalent because they wanted to be more inclusive to all fans, currently and potentially, a member of the host committee said.

The hotel industry isn’t the only one being re-vamped before the game. “I believe between now and 2017, there is $3 billion worth of development happening in and around downtown alone,” Sargent said in a September 2014 article in the Houston Business Journal. A.J. Mistretta, senior public relations manager for the GHCVB, said the investment is closer to $3.5 billion. Upgrading hospitality is the biggest concern because the food and beverage sector is “pretty good,” and the entertainment and attractions part of it “seems to be really doing well,” said Bob Eury, the President of Central Houston and director of the Downtown Management District. Houston also has a new 48-story, 1.05 million-square-foot office tower under construction downtown, scheduled to open in early 2017. No tenants have been announced, but the city continues work on 13 other projects including a 1,600-space parking garage, thousands of rooms in smaller hotels and more than 3,000 units of apartment buildings. All projects are scheduled to open between the end of 2016 and early 2017 – just in time for the Super Bowl.

While the accommodations and business sectors make a push to give Houston a good name in 2017, Sargent still has one big fear for the city.  “The last thing we want to do…” Sargent said in a 2015 Houston Business Journal article, “Is have people be disappointed because they couldn’t make it from one location to another because of traffic.” In February, a rough plan was established which utilizes light rail and a park-and-ride service to reduce stress on Houston’s congested highways. The light rail would connect direct to NRG Stadium with many stops on the way because Sargent sees opportunity to place events at various locations like Minute Maid Park (MLB’s Astros) and the Toyota Center (NBA’s Rockets).

To make these strides in bettering an already-successful Houston, the city will boost employment in order to meet the demands of construction leading up to the event and to accommodate the high-volume influx of tourists which comes with the Super Bowl. One of the construction projects currently underway in Houston is southeast and east end land lines for METRORail, extending 6.6 miles southeast of downtown and 3.3 miles east. This created about 100 jobs. When Atlanta hosted the Super Bowl in 2000, 2,736 jobs were created. The new jobs helped not only the citizens of the city hired to do those jobs, but also the local economy because the employees are more likely to spend their earnings in the area. Besides the direct economic impact, hiring citizens also required interviews and training for the employees, which helps the education of the employees, a boon for the Houston population and businesses.

Houston’s costly initiative to better itself by drastically improving its infrastructure, developing its community, and employing locals is in search of something money cannot realistically buy. Reporters gushing on television, column inches devoted to description of the city of Houston, and tourists returning home thinking, “Wow! Houston was incredible. I should go back.” The advertisement and positive impression – the chance to receive “free” advertising from the media and rope in first-time visitors – is an invaluable opportunity. Houston essentially has 10 days to pitch its city’s greatness to people with millions of followers on Twitter. Look at the Sochi, Russia Olympics. Journalists slammed the place over and over, tweeting pictures of deficient amenities and laughing at the preparation. Should Houston pull a similar stunt, its reputation would be damaged with its visitors, but even more negative words would spread to the public. This is why Houston has spent so much time preparing. If the masses flocking to Houston for the Super Bowl enjoy themselves, then they create a reputation and lasting image for all its visitors. That could generate an economic impact of return visitors or intrigued visitors far beyond February 2017 and well into the long-term.

The Host Committee wants to leave that impression, but there must be something to distinguish from Houston from all the other cities, a “wow factor” as Sargent calls it. New York City had a fan toboggan in 2014 and Glendale had a locally-built rock wall the next year. The Host Committee has yet to pick their specialty, but one blogger suggested Houston use its iconic, seldom-used, “8th Wonder of the World” as it’s called by the Houston Chronicle, the Astrodome, vacant since 2006. The world’s first domed stadium, where Elvin Hayes led the University of Houston in an upset of Lew Alcindor’s top-ranked UCLA, where Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the famous “Battle of the Sexes,” and where Earl Campbell and Warren Moon ran the Oilers in the “Luv Ya Blue” era. In a poll at the bottom of the article, 53 percent of the over 10,000 voters wanted the stadium stripped out, converted to venue space and used to house activities before the Super Bowl.

Whether or not Houston decides to utilize the Astrodome, the Super Bowl will have a “wow” factor, simply because it is singularly the largest and most tuned-into event in America every year. Though the economic impact may not be as rewarding as the host committee may portray, it still offers some direct economic impact. More than the direct, though, is the ability to host hundreds of thousands of visitors and the opportunity to give them an incredible impression of the city. As media members write about their experiences, if it’s a good experience, then it’s advertising money couldn’t even buy. And then there’s civic pride. The biggest game will be played where the sport is the biggest. If the blend of parties, patriotism and pride doesn’t make the Super Bowl worth it, then it wouldn’t be played every year. But it will be, because it’s ingrained in the fabric of America. Only the Super Bowl.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com. 

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