By Aaron Reiss
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Rockets fans don't come much more avid than Mike Foulard. The oil trader bought season tickets when the Rockets moved to Houston in 1971, and he faithfully renews them no matter how abysmal the team's record. Foulard reckons that over the years he has spent close to $1 million on the team, including about $150,000 for his four courtside seats this season.
You'd think the prospect of his beloved Rockets moving to New Orleans in the wake of the arena referendum defeat would give Foulard fits, but he's not the least bit upset. In fact, he voted no on the deal and is glad the arena went down. "I think the people have spoken, and they voted correctly," he says.
Foulard has been vocal in his opposition. He gave an earful every time someone from the campaign called him before the election and courted his support. And when the Rockets cheerleaders displayed a huge ballot during a preseason game and urged the crowd to turn out in force and pass the referendum, he stood up along the sidelines and turned his thumbs down, booing. (The move earned him a stinging rebuke the next day from the Vote Yes group's chief mouthpiece, the Houston Chronicle.)
Part of Foulard's beef is that as his ticket prices have escalated (he pays $600 more per game this year than last), he's getting less for his money. In the old days, team officials would call him periodically to offer him a chance to travel with the team, obtain choice tickets for road games and generally make sure he was a satisfied customer. Now, no one calls unless it's to ask him for a contribution to the team's annual charitable fund-raiser. Access to the ground-floor restrooms has been shut off, and he doesn't even get free programs anymore.
The new downtown arena wouldn't change anything, Foulard figures. "What's going to get better?" he asks. "Better play? Cheaper seats and parking? Friendlier ownership? Cheaper concessions? Better-looking cheerleaders with no political agenda? I don't think so."
Foulard blames Rockets owner Les Alexander and the tenor of the campaign for the defeat. "I think the foremost reason [the referendum lost] was the approach the team took toward the voters," he says. "It was borderline extortion."
Had Foulard been privy to the haggling that led to the arena deal, he might use stronger language. After Alexander reached an impasse with the Sports Authority in late August, he appealed to Mayor Lee Brown, who took over the negotiations and capitulated to Alexander's demands. According to sources close to the action, the Authority's bargaining team had grown increasingly frustrated with Alexander; in particular, they say, he would frequently agree to fine points after a hard day of offers and counteroffers, only to deny it later. "There was give-and-take on both sides," says one source. "He'd give, and then the next day he'd take it right back."
When Authority members arrived at a special meeting on August 31 to consider Brown's proposal, they found a press release from the mayor on their chairs stating that a deal had been forged -- with the Authority's blessing. Included was a gushing quote of approval from then-chairman Jack Rains, who knew nothing about it. "Jack was furious," the source says.
Flouting Brown's desire to vote his deal up or down, the Authority voted to reinstate four provisions, including a ticket tax, which members considered necessary to protect the city's interest. Two more items, which would have made it economically feasible for someone other than Alexander to own an NHL franchise, didn't make the final version.
The sources say that the fine points worked out by Brown were about $25 million more favorable to Alexander than the ones proposed by the Sports Authority. Alexander wouldn't budge on the hockey-related provisions, they say, but the Authority negotiators were comfortable with the basic economics. "They felt that Les would pay the amount that [the Authority] had agreed on," says one.
That might provide a basis for reopening arena talks, but Brown hasn't yet indicated a willingness to go back to the table. "He doesn't think there's gonna be a better deal," says spokeswoman Laurie Fickman.
With that attitude, Brown may as well help Alexander search for a city more willing to prostrate itself to get an NBA team. Mike Foulard isn't worried. "The New Orleans thing is a bunch of bullshit," he says. "Now you're hearing about Las Vegas. Do I think the Rockets are going to leave the fourth-largest city in the country and move to Las Vegas? No."
Even if Alexander takes his team permanently on the road, Foulard wouldn't mind. He certainly expects the owner to try -- Foulard compares Alexander to a carpetbagger, the derogatory name for the Yankee profiteers who swooped into the South after the Civil War and made a killing buying up real estate and exploiting black labor. "When they were all done raping and pillaging, they left," he says. "That's pretty much what we can expect from Les.
"I love basketball," Foulard says, "but I would live with the decision to leave.
"Let's go Spurs."
E-mail Bob Burtman at firstname.lastname@example.org.