For over a decade, Bob McNair has been given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his ownership of the Houston Texans. "He brought football back to Houston and he spent a billion dollars to do it," is the familiar refrain. Part of that sentence is true. After the Oilers left, he most certainly brought a team back to Houston, albeit at large part because of LA's unbelievable ineptitude (they were given every opportunity to get the next NFL franchise and fell flat on their faces each time). But, the idea that McNair shelled out $1 billion for the Texans is inaccurate, and he's made more than his share back...and then some.
First, a history lesson. In 1994 there was a real possibility the city could end up with zero pro teams and no new stadia. The Oilers were on their way out the door. The Astros were threatening a move to northern Virginia and the Rockets would soon be playing footsie with Louisville. Yet, within 10 years, the Astros moved into Minute Maid Park, the Rockets into Toyota Center and the Texans were born at Reliant Stadium.
That began with a very narrow victory in 1996 at the polls and the passing of a somewhat controversial bill in the Texas Legislature, which created the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority and allowed that entity to collect a few pennies of car rental and hotel occupancy taxes for the purpose of building sports facilities. First up was Minute Maid Park (then Enron Field, shudder) followed by an extremely contentious pair of elections needed to pass the funding for Toyota Center.
In fact, the Rockets' home is by far the most used facility, yet it required two referendums to pass and a bunch of money from team owner Leslie Alexander. At the time the second referendum was underway, it had become a foregone conclusion that the county would pay to build a new football stadium for what would become the Texans.
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What was not really discussed at that time -- and something that could have easily torpedoed the second basketball arena referendum and sent the Rockets packing to Louisville -- was that Reliant Stadium would cost about as much as both other facilities combined and very little would come from the team, something opponents to Minute Maid and Toyota Center had argued over vehemently. In fact, former Oilers owner Bud Adams was laughed out of town and all the way to Nashville when he suggested the city assist him in building a retractible roof stadium in downtown for which he would foot nearly half the bill. Not only did the Texans get an essentially free stadium, which represents nearly half of that $1 billion McNair supposedly paid to get the team, but they get 75 percent of the more than $300 million in naming rights being paid by Reliant. It's the third largest naming rights deal in all of sports. Toyota Center clocks in at under a third of that amount and Minute Maid is a little over half.
This is not to begrudge McNair or the Texans, but to point out that they didn't exactly have to suffer great hardships to bring an NFL team to Houston. They received tremendous financial support from Harris County and Rodeo Houston, which shares in a small percentage of the revenue of the facility. At some point, the whole "but, but, he gave us our football back" argument needs to cease because a big chunk of those efforts rest at the feet of the taxpayers too.
So, when NRG, the company that bought Reliant in 2009, wants to change the name in a rebranding effort, it doesn't really matter. It's just a name. It was one thing when the original name of Minute Maid -- The Ballpark at Union Station (appropriately nicknamed the BUS) -- was changed to Enron and ultimately Minute Maid. That's going from cool to crooked to corny. Reliant to NRG is probably an improvement.
But, it is worth mentioning as this "re-branding" occurs while a name change pales in comparison to discussion of what the Texans will do this offseason, that name is putting an awful lot of cash in McNair's pockets. Let's hope he spends it wisely. It's debatable whether he has thus far and it's OK to say so.