Houston Astros second baseman Craig Biggio is pretty smooth turning a double play, but when it comes to sports-related slickness, he's a bush-leaguer compared to the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.
There's nothing like watching the stadium boys in action when they want something and have to come up with numbers to justify it.
Take the Port of Houston Authority, which has the apparent audacity to own a 36-year-old building diagonally across from the future Ballpark at Union Station. Sports Authority chairman Jack Rains says the bland 12-story edifice is "one of the ugliest buildings in the world."
The aesthete in him wants the Port to tear it down and lease the land to the Sports Authority for $1 a year so that a park can be built that would more suitably serve as a neighbor to the majestic baseball stadium. Such a park would allow the underappreciated Port Authority to "tell its story" to the world, he says.
Unfortunately for Rains, the Port is a public, taxpayer-supported entity, and the taxpayers may not look too kindly at the Port giving away a building that one estimate says is worth $3.2 million.
But that's no problem for a guy like Rains. In a presentation to the Port commissioners on May 26, he produced a spiel and a set of figures that all but proved Port officials would be financial fools for passing up the fantastic investment opportunity he was offering.
Sure, he got some dates wrong -- an information packet provided to commissioners noted that ballpark neighbors Annunciation Church and Incarnate Word Academy were built in 1869 and 1890, respectively. While buildings were constructed on the sites then, says Houston architectural historian Steven Fox, the familiar steeple of the church was the result of reconstruction that finished 25 years after 1869, and the oldest building remaining on the Incarnate Word campus dates back to 1905.
While the Authority's grasp on history may be shaky, its ability to forecast rosy financial scenarios remains unparalleled. Putting up some green space across from the stadium and naming it "Port Park" would be worth at least $250,000 a year in free publicity to the Port Authority, Rains told commissioners. Or maybe it'd be worth $750,000 a year. Or, according to one letter of support he provided, $500,000 a year. But definitely, at the very least, $250,000. Definitely.
The park name, by the way, would not be formally included in the stadium's title, as in Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards. But that doesn't mean it wouldn't get plenty of exposure, says Sports Authority spokesman Chris Begala.
"You can see ESPN panning away from the stadium to show the atmosphere of the area, and an announcer saying, 'There's Port Park; the Port of Houston is one of the biggest in the world,' and then talking some more about how important the port is," he says. "They'd be showing the park on television for the next 30 years."
The Sports Authority produced letters from naming-rights experts who came up with varying estimates of the worth. Most worked under the Sports Authority's assumptions that five to six million people would visit the park each year (that's three million more than the Astros expect to draw), and that the controversial Cotswold project would go forward, transforming Texas Avenue into a pedestrian mall.
One leading sports-marketing firm, the New York-based Marquee Group, said it was impossible to put a number on what the worth would be without extensive further study, but that didn't stop other guesstimators.
Leisure Management International of Houston said it was confident that the naming rights should be valued "at or in excess of $250,000 annually." Lee Carruthers, a Colorado marketing executive, wrote that the naming rights should be "conservatively valued at not less than $500,000 and probably closer to $750,000 annually."
And, in a heartwarming display of civic boosterism, Dwight Brown, vice president of advertising for the Houston Chronicle, offered his opinion that the naming rights would be worth more than $350,000 a year. (Memo to Chronicle reporters and editors: Brown wrote that "Port Park" would be mentioned "in the print media" at least 250 times a year.)
"Coverage of the announcement, the construction, [and] the first year's events" at the park would be equal to purchasing up to $200,000 in Chronicle advertising, he said. It's a purchase the Port would apparently not have to bother with.
Brown pegged the value of the "total package" at $850,000 a year, a figure too rich even for Rains, it appears.
Sports Authority spokesman Begala admits the numbers are a bit fluid right now. "We wanted to kind of give them big, fat numbers to chew on," he says. The Sports Authority is preparing a more-detailed study, he says, that "will break it down to the nth degree," quantifying how many media mentions the park will get and what those mentions would be worth in free advertising.
To provide "political cover," Begala says, the Sports Authority must prove to Port commissioners that a park would have value sufficient enough to prevent taxpayers from protesting.
Port chairman Ned Holmes didn't make any commitments after Rains's presentation, and a decision on what to do with the land and building is likely months away.
"He wants to do what the citizens want," Port spokeswoman Rosie Barrera said of Holmes, who was unavailable for comment. "If the citizens want a park, then that's what we'll do."
Ironically, the Sports Authority may fall victim to its own financial projections. If property values around the stadium increase as much as ballpark supporters claimed they would during the campaign to win approval for the project, Port commissioners may find offers from private investors too high to turn down. The authority now finds itself arguing that land values won't go up enough to make it worthwhile for the Port to hold onto the land for a few years -- in other words, the stadium is good for downtown development, but not that good.
Of course, if land values do increase and the Port is on the verge of selling to a commercial developer, the Sports Authority is probably ready with another series of estimates on how incredibly (if nebulously) valuable having a "Port Park" would be. The million-dollar-a-year barrier is just waiting to be broken by some ambitious sports-marketing firm.
E-mail Richard Connelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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