Imminent Domain

While a doddering Dome watches, wranglers and the ultrarich welcome a sports palace

Cruising past the formally dressed waiters offering trays of delicate pastries, sipping fresh coffee from an elegant cup and saucer, perusing the tables piled high with fruits and croissants, you might have asked yourself two questions:

1) Was all this luxury really being produced to celebrate the formerly blue-collar sport of football?

And 2) Who the hell is playing the porno video?

Mayor Brown (far left) takes the groundbreaking sitting down.
John Childs
Mayor Brown (far left) takes the groundbreaking sitting down.

For there it was, wafting through the huge tent that housed the gala: a relentlessly pounding soundtrack, repeated endlessly on a loop, that could have come from the soundtrack of any bad '70s slice of pornography -- a pedestrian bass riff building soullessly up to a climax, only to start all over again in one more feigned attempt at passion.

The answers to both questions quickly became obvious:

1) Yes. The swellegant March 9 event -- the official groundbreaking for the $367 million, retractable-roof stadium that will house Houston's new professional football team -- offered all the evidence anyone needed that the NFL has allied itself firmly with the superbox-buying corporate elite who drink their coffee from china cups, and that as far as the league's concerned the regular fans who slurp their whiskey-spiked java out of Styrofoam can stay home and watch on TV.

And 2) That tepid soundtrack wasn't coming from a porno movie. Strictly speaking, anyway. The synthesized sound accompanied a slick video touting the new stadium that was being shown on screens scattered throughout the tent, featuring various high-speed gridiron collisions and rollicking rodeo action. As the computer graphics lingered seductively over the gaudily expensive details of the new building, though, you couldn't help but wonder if the film was indeed aiming to arouse the decadent prurience of the city's elite who have money to burn.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the new stadium, to be called whatever the highest corporate bidder wants it to be called, was a stark contrast to the desultory groundbreaking 30 months ago for the soon-to-be-completed Enron Field, home of the Astros.

Back then, the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority was struggling gamely to get its act together, and Astros owner Drayton McLane was even threatening to boycott the event. Dignitaries tried to convince the joyless crowd that they were witnessing a wonderfully happy event, but the mood was more of sullen distrust than elation. Not a china cup or hors d'oeuvre-size quiche was in sight.

The mood was decidedly more festive, if more bizarre, at the football ceremony.

If you simply saw a report on the event on the TV news or in the Chronicle, you couldn't be blamed for thinking that the imminent arrival of a new NFL team was the major topic of discussion at the event. If you had been there, though, you would have realized that the major theme of the day was We're the Rodeo and We're Important, Dammit.

Although every living soul in attendance knew that the media would be ignoring the rodeo in its coverage -- and that the football folk would rather have just given a condescending pat on the back as they took the $70 million the organization is putting into the new stadium -- the groundbreaking ceremony was rodeo officials' chance to shine, and they were going to milk it for all it was worth.

Mike Wells, the president of the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, got a big hand from the attendees who were dressed in free T-shirts from either KILT-FM or Young Country radio. Wells talked at length about the scholarships the rodeo hands out each year, and then introduced Brandon Hill, a teenage scholarship recipient. Hill, as smooth a speaker as any TV anchor, heaped praise on the opportunities provided by the bigheartedness of rodeo officials, and then heŠ well, he read a poem called The Marks That We Leave in Life, which he said exemplified the values upheld by the group.

Master of ceremonies Ron Stone followed by proudly booming that "Today is truly a historic day here in Houston, because we have the commissioners of two great sports leagues here." John Tagliabue, the commissioner of the NFL, the Rolls-Royce of sports leagues, could only look at his shoes as up to the mike bounded the cowboy-hatted Steve Hatchell, commissioner of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, perhaps the Yugo of sports leagues.

After announcing proudly that the cowboy who won the recent Houston rodeo was going to be on the Today show soon, Hatchell lavished praise on the visionaries here in Houston who had decided to build a magnificent new facility for the rodeo, which apparently could also be used for a football team.

The new stadium "will be the pre-eminent venue for the presentation of rodeo," Hatchell said, referring later to "rodeo and its limitless possibilities." He assured those in attendance that "you will be the leaders of rodeo for a long, long time."

Finally it was time for some football talk. Tagliabue mumbled his way through some remarks, and then a standing ovation greeted energy mogul Bob McNair, the man who spent $700 million to buy an expansion team. "Sports are an element that within a community can be a uniting force," McNair said.

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