It's been a few years since Houston's most recent orgy of building new sports arenas for down-on-their-luck franchise owners. There's a new soccer stadium trying to get itself born, but other than that we probably won't be seeing any new facilities being built for a while.
So it's as good a time as any to rank the arenas and stadiums that have housed Houston fans, for better or worse, in the modern era.
These rankings result from highly scientific research, by the way, so they shall not be gainsaid.
Starting from the worst and working towards the best:
10. Colt Stadium (see update): This is where the Houston Colt .45s played before they became the Astros and moved to the Dome. It was a temporary facility built on the Dome parking lot, and looked every bit of a temporary facility. "Fond" memories of the place tend to mention scorching sun on metal seats and mosquitoes which could cripple the weak. And rattlesnakes roamed the field, for the players' benefit. Missed by only a very few.
9. Rice Stadium. Sure, in its heyday, it was a happening place. But it stands as a monument to absurdly optimistic thinking -- "Hey, Rice football is going to need 80,000 seats for years to come!!" Now the Owls play before acres of splintered wooden bleachers. It's hard to believe a Super Bowl was held here, but then again it's hard to believe Rice football ever drew 80,000 fans. Nice location, plenty of parking, but also sort of soulless for a historic venue.
8. Hofheinz Pavilion. Home to Phi Slama Jama and (in the early years) the Rockets, Hofheinz is an odd duck. Squat and bomb-shelter ugly from the outside, fans enter at the top of the seating area and descend down. In its heyday it could get loud, but that heyday is a long, long way gone. During the Phi Slama Jama days, home to some of the worst concession food known to man. On the other hand, I once worked security at an Elton John concert there and gladly took ten bucks from anyone wanting to get on the floor. So it's got that going for it.
7. Reliant Stadium. Shiny, new and huge, but way too corporate an experience for true football fans. The concourse feels like a Hilton lobby; the seats are often half-empty as big-bidness types shmooze their way around and ignore the game. And while the Texans hopefully have exorcised their fetish to keep the roof open as often as possible, you can still get stuck in a sauna of a seat if you're in the wrong section even on a relatively cool day. The real fans are great and enthusiastic when they show up, but they're trapped in a plush expense-account money machine.
6. Robertson Stadium. Home to UH football and Houston Dynamo soccer, Robertson (or whatever rancid nickname UH tries to give it to get the name of big donor John O'Quinn mentioned) is a throwback to the `40s. You can feel like you should be wearing beaver coats and snappy fedoras as you climb the ramps to your seat. Sure, it can get hot in the summer, but at night you have a great view of downtown. The Jumbotron isn't overwhelming, like it can be in some places, and it's just exponentially better than the Coogs' aborted attempts to liven up the Dome. Plus you got Frenchie's for a pre-game meal.
5. Autry Court/Tudor Fieldhouse. Cramped, tiny, stuffy from having no a/c -- who could love old Autry Court? Rice students, that's who. They made the place their own, reveling in the oddities like the curtain behind one baseline. Some opponents sneered the "Autry Army" was nothing but a low-rent version of Duke's Cameron Crazies, but we felt they always held heir own. Rice has finally moved into a new place; we hear it's nice. But it'll never be Autry.
4. The Astrodome. We'll admit, there are people in this world who love the Dome more than we do. And when it first opened, we're sure it was a space-age marvel. But it became a tired place with awful sightlines (especially for football), dilapidated, cramped hallways and an overall feel of a movie queen hitting her 50s. Everyone likes to remember the thrilling Astro and Oiler moments, when the place was rocking off its foundation, but there were few sports experiences grimmer than a desultory mid-August match-up between the `Stros and the Giants, say, with maybe 3,400 fans in attendance.
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3. Toyota Center. We admit, we were well-prepared to hate the Toyota Center, expecting it to be another Reliant Stadium in terms of having a too-luxurious feel. But the place is nicely functional and doesn't reach for anything further in its outer hallways; it feels like a solid arena rather than a River Oaks mancave. The seating set-up is fine, and if you're in the lower bowl it's an easy couple of steps to beer and bathroom. The upper bowl gives great views, too, without outrageously steep inclines. Now if we can just get some of the high-rollers to sit in their seats, and not the bars, sometime before halfway through the third quarter.
2. Minute Maid Park. Let's be clear: We're not talking about the gimmicky hill or Crawford Boxes or Drayton's determination to cover every inch with cheesy advertising. (One benefit of the economic slump: He can't sell all the ad space.) But simply as a game experience, Minute Maid is far better than the Dome -- it's convenient, it's downtown with bars right across the street, you walk in and it's a breeze to get to your seat. The retractable big-window roof makes the place feel like a ballpark and not a warehouse. Yeah, it can get pretty hot in the upper deck, but it's also a place that encourages moving around and maybe improving your view, especially when the team sucks.
1. The Summit. Rockets fans had it all in the Clutch City days -- NBA championships and one of the best arenas in the NBA. Sure, it didn't have the storied history of the Boston Garden, but if you wanted to see an event you couldn't do much better. Parking was free, for crissake (Yeah, they added something to the ticket, big deal; it wasn't the gouging you see nowadays), the location was terrific and inside, fans were right on top of the action. Now, of course, it's a church (of sorts). Back then it was a temple of another kind. Luckily the Toyota Center isn't that much of a drop-off, but it will never replace the Summit.
Update: We confused Buffs Stadium and Colt Stadium in our initial list, apologies and thanks to John Royal for pointing it out.