According to a report from Chron.com, the NFL, after touring NRG Stadium this week, says the stadium needs up to $50 million in upgrades in anticipation of Super Bowl LI, to be held in Houston in 2017. While the upgrades include the installation of Wi-Fi (a requirement for all NFL stadiums that NRG has yet to add) as one component, the bulk of the modifications -- some $45 million worth -- are said to be primarily for the club and suite levels.
They're kidding, right? Apparently not.
So you understand the plight of the multibillion-dollar sports league, here is what NFL Senior VP of Events, Peter O'Reilly, told the Chron:
"This was a state-of-the-art facility in 2004. Comparable stadiums of this age have been helped by updating, (including) suite facilities (and) club facilities.
"That's lacking. In 2004 and those early years, it might have been right at the top of the league, but there's a drop-off now. There are investments that need to be made to have that special Super Bowl experience -- those commitments that were made within the bid when Houston was awarded the Super Bowl.
"That burden rests with the county, the folks that own the stadium and (were) part of that bid as well. I'm surprised a bit, but there's an opportunity to remedy that, an opportunity for people to work together, find a solution and get this done."
Well, Mr. O'Reilly, we have more than those 50 million reasons to deny your request. We have history.
For those of you who are old enough to remember the threats of the Oilers, Astros and Rockets when it came to building them new facilities in the '90s, this refrain must sound eerily familiar. The Astrodome, that now-pathetic dung heap of a stadium we have ignorantly and shortsightedly ignored for the past two decades pretending it would just disappear -- which is like hoping the pile of crap your dog just left on the carpet will magically evaporate if you don't look at it -- was given nearly $100 million in "upgrades" in the late '80s in an effort to keep the Oilers and owner Bud Adams happy. Those included removing the iconic shoot-em-up scoreboard to put in luxury sky boxes. You heard me.
At the time, the Astros claimed the Dome was perfectly fine for baseball with or without the newfangled suites and even when Adams and the Oilers packed their bags for Tennessee, Drayton McLane said the cavernous baseball stadium didn't need anything. Shortly thereafter, he famously threatened to move the 'Stros to Northern Virginia unless a new stadium was built.
Of course, this was all after the Oilers had offered to split the cost of a downtown retractable-roof stadium (sound familiar?) with the city. Then Mayor Bob Lanier and members of City Council essentially laughed Adams out of town, mockingly referring to the $250 million plan (yes, $250 million for the entire stadium, half of which would be paid for by Adams) as the "Bud Dome," saying it was silly to even contemplate a retractable roof in downtown, where people would never go to see any event, let alone sports. Now, after a furious decade of referendums and building projects, we have not one, not two, but three sports stadiums downtown, another just a few miles south of NRG Park and a new stadium at University of Houston to boot.
But for the NFL, it's not nearly enough. What is most galling about the
request demand that taxpayers foot the bill for upgrades to a stadium for one single event is where the NFL wants the money to go, namely club seats and luxury suites, the areas of the stadium reserved for the wealthiest Texans fans and, in the case of the Super Bowl, only the luckiest super-rich people able to finagle tickets to the "big game."
And this is on top of the fact that NRG was the most expensive -- by a mile -- stadium built in Houston, the only one that did not require voter approval and that, in the rush to submit a proposal to the NFL for an expansion franchise, received very little in the way of legitimate negotiation between McNair and the county, and virtually no transparency. Both Minute Maid and Toyota Center were subject to city-wide referendums, two of those in the case of the Rockets arena.
Not surprisingly, the cost for NRG was about as much as Toyota Center and Minute Maid combined, both of which host far more events each year and deliver some of their revenue back to the city. Oh, and remember that $250 million Adams offered to split with the city? Sounds like a bargain now when you consider NRG was about double that, nearly all of which was paid for by Harris County.
None of this is to say I am opposed to publicly funded facilities. I advocated for and even worked on the campaign that would pass the second arena referendum in 2000 and lead to the building of the Toyota Center. But there must be a point where we all can agree enough is enough.
Wi-Fi is a practical upgrade that will directly benefit the tens of thousands of people who attend events at NRG Stadium, and the cost of around $5 million seems reasonable, considering we've known for some time it was an NFL requirement. But the league must be laboring under the false assumption we desperately need (never mind want, which is debatable) the Super Bowl here if it thinks Harris County citizens consider it a good use of funds to fork over $45 million in tax revenue for cushy new digs for the richest football "fans" on earth.
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And don't bother threatening us. The city has received more than its fair share of those from sports league officials over the years, from David Stern to Paul Tagliabue and Bud Selig. Owners from Bud Adams to Les Alexander and Drayton McLane have threatened to move their teams -- Adams followed through -- without new digs. But at least in most of those instances, the threat was about something tangible -- build a new stadium or the team will leave -- and the reward provided a legitimate benefit to the city (stadiums that have helped to revitalize downtown, after all).
This threat is just a bunch of jackasses in suits extorting cash subsidies for the top 1 percent -- not of the general populace, which would be bad enough, but the top 1 percent of people who will go see one game on one day in 2017. Sure, maybe these upgrades will be a nice perk for the season ticket holders who fork over hundreds of thousands a year to Bob McNair, Inc. for the privilege of cheering from the comfort of a luxury suite. But it sure as hell isn't doing anything for average Houstonians, most of whom can't afford to go to a single NFL game and many of whom, I would wager, have never set foot inside NRG.
It's insulting. It's idiotic. And it will probably get paid for anyway. Because, let's face it, they agreed to this kind of oversight when they bid for the game. Either the county didn't read the fine print or they all just hid it from us so we would be too far down the road to be able to argue.
Despite the fact that taxpayers will likely foot the bill for this ridiculous expenditure, we mostly have no say, which is business as usual for McNair and NRG Stadium since before we landed the team and built the building. What the Texans want, the Texans almost always get. Well, except for a decent quarterback, a team that can actually win in the playoffs or a field that isn't the worst in the NFL. But, hey, at least those rich folk will get to watch the team lose from a mink-lined massage chair or whatever they will get for our $45 million.