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?
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 he 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.
Then came the groundbreaking. A trough of dirt had been placed in front of the stage, supposedly where the 50-yard line of the new field will be.
Stone had noted that the groundbreaking ceremony for the Astrodome 30-some years ago had featured dignitaries firing six-shooters into the ground, in honor of the baseball team that was then called the Colt .45s. (County Judge Bob Eckels, apparently a graduate of the Lloyd Kelley School of Road Rage, noted oddly in his remarks that "I wish I had a .45 to shoot today -- I was thinking about that today on the freeway on the way here.")
No guns were present in this politically correct age, of course; instead the VIPs donned hard hats and wielded souvenir shovels. Then they walked outside and posed for another shot, with the Astrodome in the background.
The forlorn Dome had been sitting just outside the tent all morning, of course; the new stadium will be built only a few yards away from the old. In a superslick video shown during the ceremony, featuring far more computer-generated special effects and better music than the pregame one, you had to look quickly to catch sight of the dotty old Eighth Wonder of the World as it looked over the shoulder of the futuristic, glass-walled edifice that one speaker had, inevitably, referred to as the Ninth Wonder of the World.
No one knows what will become of the Dome. County officials glibly talk of making it a supersize convention facility, but there's no public money available to do it. The question of whether the private sector would take a chance on it is very much up in the air. Eventually, since the new stadium and related facilities will take up a large section of the current parking lot, people forced to walk long distances from their cars to their seats might clamor to tear down the Dome and use it for parking spaces.
All of which presents a somewhat sobering thought on how fleeting are the lifetimes of these taxpayer-funded palaces.
As the assorted dignitaries posed with their shovels March 9, proudly congratulating themselves on their vision, few probably were thinking ahead 30 years. They probably weren't imagining that not too distant day when their images would be shown for nostalgic purposes to yet another happy crowd of the powers-that-be, who were celebrating the groundbreaking of a new facility to replace the doddering, outmoded relic that first began taking shape in a large tent in the year 2000.
E-mail Richard Connelly at rich.connelly@ houstonpress.com.
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