Spoils Sports

Think loyalty means anything in professional sports these days? Ask fans in Houston, where the owners of the Oilers, the Astros, and the Rockets are scheming to jump ship if taxpayers don’t bow to their demands.

January 1996By Comments

A $4 TOUR OF THE ASTRODOME WILL BREAK ANY SENTIMENTALIST’S HEART. I took the tour one November afternoon, accompanied by a family from Denver and another from Ontario, and for an hour it all came back to me: the bouffants and Jetson-like polyester minidresses of the Astrodome waitresses, the grounds keepers in their fluorescent orange space suits, the mammoth $2 million scoreboard, the silver ceiling above, and all that wonderful artificial green grass below. In the flush of gee-whizzery, I was an eight-year-old boy again, stepping into that astounding citadel for the first time in 1965 and imagining the coming years when I would no doubt be riding the monorail to school and inhaling steaks through plastic straws.

Thirty years later, I watched from the sky boxes as the grounds keepers, sans space suits, painted the boundary stripes for an upcoming University of Houston football game. A sense of man’s folly hung gloomily in the climate-controlled air. The so-called Eighth Wonder of the World is now the smallest and, by any reasonable measure, the most obsolete of the ten domed stadiums on earth. Its roof cannot retract; its walls and floor cannot be adjusted. Its AstroTurf, now faded and seam-riddled and providing almost no cushion against the concrete surface underneath, has earned a reputation as one of the most hazardous playing fields in all of professional sports. There are only 19,000 seats between the two goal lines, and nearly 2,500 seats have obstructed views. The trademark scoreboard is long gone, and the sumptuous VIP Suites (complete with a bowling alley and a medieval chapel) have given way to blasé luxury boxes. When one of the tourist lads from Ontario ran toward the notorious playing field, I nearly yelled, “Stop! You’ll tear your anterior cruciate ligament!”

It would be tempting to feel sorry for the Astrodome, were it not for the mischief it has wrought. For it was the ’Dome, with its corporate sky boxes and plethora of merchandise shops, that ushered in the modern era of sports-arena-as-profit-center. That era has now induced chronic morning sickness in readers of sports pages across America. The National Football League’s Cleveland Browns are moving to Baltimore. The two Los Angeles football teams, the Rams and the Raiders, have already relocated to St. Louis and Oakland, respectively. Four other gridiron teams may move too: the Chicago Bears to Indianapolis, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to Orlando, the Seattle Seahawks to Los Angeles, and the Arizona Cardinals to whoever will take them. The National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, and Major League Baseball are similarly afflicted. And with few exceptions, professional teams are leaving home not because they’re going broke where they are, but because, as one Houston sports analyst told me, “the only way for an owner to appreciate his capital these days is to sell his team or move his team.”

Once owners were wealthy men content to view their teams as baubles. Now they expect to make money, and the big money comes from stadiums with high-priced corporate luxury boxes. Where arenas are deemed incapable of enhancing profits, one can expect threats of desertion. In all, according to one estimate, at least 38 pro sports owners are playing this cynical new game of stadium blackmail—most of them threatening outright to seek new destinations where, as Houston mayor Bob Lanier puts it, “working-class taxpayers will pay to build luxury boxes that they’ll never be able to afford to sit in.”

Lanier should know: Three of his city’s pro franchises number among the 38. Bud Adams is moving his Oilers to Nashville, Drayton McLane is threatening to sell the Astros, and Rockets owner Les Alexander has secretly investigated moving his champions to Las Vegas. In San Antonio and Dallas, the unsatisfactory pro basketball facilities have inspired much speculation that the Spurs, and possibly the Mavericks, will soon deliver ultimatums to their cities. Though Dallasites may remain smug in their conviction that the Cowboys will be with them forever—particularly after Texas Stadium’s renovation—no observer of Jerry Jones would seriously claim that civic loyalty is what fuels his entrepreneurship. Is it so preposterous to imagine, someday, the Los Angeles Cowboys? The Mexico City Cowboys?

It is enough to make a grown man shut off his television on a Sunday afternoon and storm off to the opera. “Sure, sports are important to a city’s image,” Lanier conceded at a United States Senate subcommittee hearing on pro franchise relocation in November. “But in my judgment it’s more important to have parks, police, water, and youth programs.” Has it now come to this, that a city can either police its streets or field a pro football team—but not both? The story of how Houston’s sports owners sought to betray their hometown is a story of greed, shortsightedness, arrogance, and naiveté—qualities that are hardly unique to the city of Houston. It is a story that begins in the Astrodome, but Lord only knows where it will end.

WELL INTO THE EIGHTIES, THE ASTRODOME was so ingrained in the pride and character of Houston that only a civic pariah would dare slight it. Leave it to K.S. “Bud” Adams, Jr., then, to declare in 1986 that the ’Dome was an inadequate football facility. Already, the Oilers’ owner was probably the most hated man in Houston: a rotund, tight-fisted oil heir who had bought a football franchise in 1959 for $25,000 and thereafter subjected the loyal Houston fans to some pretty dis mal football while his investment grew until today it has surpassed $150 million. His firing of Coach Bum Phillips at the close of the 1980 season remains the single most unpopular act ever committed by a Houstonian. As if trying to outdo himself, in 1986 Adams threatened to move his team to Jacksonville if the city didn’t finance 10,000 more seats and several dozen luxury boxes for the Astrodome.

In truth, Adams had a point about the ’Dome: By the mid-eighties, it was the smallest pro football facility in the NFL and antiquated in a variety of ways; it was, in the words of one Texas sports executive, “the retarded uncle that no one wanted to talk about.” Grudgingly, Harris County taxpayers and businesses ponied up $100 million for refurbishments, and in exchange Adams signed a ten-year lease agreeing to keep the Oilers in the ’Dome through the 1997 season. In the meantime, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle assured Houstonians that a refurbished ’Dome “would be very adequate for a future Super Bowl site.” But when the Astrodome lost out on the bid for the 1991 Super Bowl—an event that brings several hundred million dollars to an area’s economy—it was plain to Adams that the standards were already changing. Newer, flashier facilities designed specifically for the gridiron were springing up everywhere. Only a handful of teams were still playing their home games in so-called multipurpose arenas. The Oilers were the only NFL team whose landlord was the owner of a baseball team. It was bad enough that the round Astrodome was structurally tailored for baseball, creating severe limits on premium football seating. But having the Astros as landlord also meant being at the mercy of Major League Baseball—which, as the latter’s playoff system began to expand, meant that the Oilers faced scheduling uncertainties until baseball season was over. It was a precarious way to run a $75 million operation. None of this made it impossible for the Houston Oilers to continue to play at the Astrodome. But like most businessmen, Bud Adams didn’t relish the notion that he was getting one of the worst deals in his profession.

On June 5, 1993, Adams visited Mayor Bob Lanier’s office. The first-term mayor had spoken much about revitalizing the downtown area, and with this in mind, the Oilers’ owner floated a not-so-modest proposal: a $235 million downtown sports facility near the George R. Brown Convention Center, capable of hosting the Oilers, the Rockets, and a National Hockey League franchise. Adams would put up $50 million if the city would provide the rest.

After Lanier was assured that Adams wasn’t going to blackmail the city with threats to relocate the Oilers, he admitted to being intrigued. The mayor suggested that they bring the two new figures on the Houston pro sports scene, Astros owner Drayton McLane and Rockets owner Les Alexander, into the picture. But little communication with McLane and Alexander had been done by November 1993, when Lanier went on a television sports talk show and announced that he and Bud Adams were giving some thought to a brand-new domed facility.

Houston fans were aghast. Bottom-Line Bud was sticking it to them again! Pay for a second Astrodome and a hundred more luxury boxes? Like hell they would! In the meantime, Astrodome landlord McLane and Kenneth Schnitzer—who owned the Summit, where the Rockets played—swiftly hired lobbyists to persuade the Houston city council to block such a move.

A few interested parties prevailed upon the mayor to ease the conflict. In December 1993 Lanier invited the three owners, along with their lieutenants and a few intermediaries, to his home at the Huntington for lunch. After the host and his wife, Elyse, had served coffee, Oilers executive vice president Mike McClure carefully explained why the team needed to leave the ’Dome, and why the new facility was the answer. “Our payroll was $47.5 million last year,” Adams chimed in. “If it weren’t for the expansion fee [the several million dollars each NFL owner received for agreeing to give Jacksonville and Charlotte pro franchises], I would’ve lost money.”

The Oilers’ owner turned to McLane. “Drayton,” he said, “now’s the time for you to quantify what you need for things to be okay for your Astros. We’ll see to it that your building and your franchise don’t suffer.”

The Astros’ owner seemed taken aback. He hadn’t expected such a forceful presentation. “I need to take your numbers and analyze them,” McLane said. The meeting ended with a feeling of disquiet. It would be well more than a year before McLane spoke again to his tenant.

FOR HIS PART, ROCKETS OWNER LES ALEXANDER said little during the meeting. The Florida investor was new in Texas and a rookie in the world of pro sports, yet it had to be dawning on him that he was in the catbird seat. The Summit needed the Rockets, and now, so did Bud Adams. Shortly after the December 1993 meeting at Lanier’s home, Alexander met with Oilers’ vice president McClure and said he would accept a sixty-forty investment split on the new facility: He would kick in the forty, as long as the Rockets’ annual lease would be $2 million. “Sounds doable,” McClure said. But both sides waited before inking the deal—and waiting turned out to be a very good thing for Les Alexander.

His Rockets began to win. As early as February, with Michael Jordan retired from pro basketball, the possibility of an NBA championship was distinct. Bringing a winner to long-suffering Houston fans meant more bargaining chips for Alexander; and on the subject of chips, the owner was closely following the prospects of casino gambling in Texas. He spoke to friends about how thrilling it would be to secure one of the first licenses in the state. To Lanier he declared, “If you help me get a casino license in downtown Houston, I’ll build the arena myself!” Lost on the new owner was the likelihood that the image-conscious NBA would strangle such a venture in its crib.

In any event, Alexander was feeling sufficiently buoyant about his prospects that he offered the Oilers another proposal. Under the modified deal, Alexander would run the new facility by himself, pay no rent, and collect all of the advertising revenue after paying Adams a negotiated fee. Adams was indignant, and the two sides parted acrimoniously. Not long after that, Alexander informed Houston Chronicle reporter Eddie Sefko that the Rockets would have no part of the “Bud Dome.”

The Oilers’ owner turned to the mayor for support, only to find that Bob Lanier’s enthusiasm had chilled considerably. At a meeting in May 1994, Adams presented Lanier with a letter from NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, assuring the city that the proposed new facility would ensure that Houston would host a Super Bowl by the end of the decade. Lanier, of course, had seen such a letter written to his predecessor eight years earlier. “That doesn’t mean anything to me,” the mayor reportedly snapped.

Somewhat cowed, Adams and his lieutenants presented the mayor their completed financing plan for the Bud Dome. Lanier leafed through the pages restlessly. It was clear that he wasn’t impressed. “Mayor Lanier,” Adams beseeched him, “years from now your legacy will be a lot stronger for building this facility than for putting five hundred policemen on the street.”

It was as if Adams had stayed up all night trying to imagine the best way to rankle Lanier, whose pledge to upgrade the police force had been the hallmark of his administration. Shortly after the ill-fated meeting, Lanier began to make public statements about greedy owners and their lust for sports palaces with luxury boxes. To those who knew him, it was a case of the famously headstrong mayor not wanting some outside federation telling him how to select his city’s priorities. Still, Lanier sent word back to Adams that he would be willing to engage in a little field research. In the summer of 1994, Lanier’s secretary informed Adams that the mayor and his wife were vacationing at Martha’s Vineyard. Would the owner pick the Laniers up in his private jet and fly them to Cleveland and Indianapolis to tour the sports facilities there?

Adams and his associates flew to the Vineyard and whisked the Laniers away to Cleveland, where the mayor toured the city’s new state-of-the-art baseball stadium, Jacobs Field. Unbeknownst to the Oilers’ executives, that visit only hardened Lanier’s cynicism about pro sports. “The Indians told me they cut the stadium down to size from eighty thousand [at Cleveland Stadium, where the team previously played] to forty thousand and increased the number of luxury boxes,” he says. “They told me that to my face, that all they cared about was more luxury boxes.”

The contingent then moved on to Indianapolis, where they sat in Mayor Steve Goldsmith’s office and listened to him describe the Hoosier Dome’s dramatic impact on the economic development of downtown Indianapolis. But Lanier had had enough talk of stadiums. He gestured toward a window and asked, “What’s that water over there?”

“He was more interested in the downtown canals and apartments than their sports facility,” McClure remembers. “At that point, we realized we must look like damn fools.”

THE OILERS WITHDREW THEIR DOWNTOWN dome proposal in September 1994. Then Gary Bradley paid a call to the Oilers’ executive offices and spoke with McClure. Bradley, an Austin developer who owned a minority share of the Rockets, was making the rounds among the Texas pro sports executives, trying to organize a statewide association that would lobby for franchise-friendly legislation. In recent years, states like Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Washington had taken legislative measures to help fund new sports facilities—for example, by rebating stadium sales taxes or auto-rental taxes to localities. Thus far, the State of Texas had never contributed a cent to sports franchises, and Governor George W. Bush had gone on record stating his opposition to taxpayers being shaken down by pro teams. (This from a general partner of the Texas Rangers, whose new baseball field, the Ballpark in Arlington, was partially financed by a city sales tax.) But state participation was clearly in vogue; and in light of state comptroller figures indicating that only 16 percent of state revenues from pro sports come from stadium-related sales taxes (the remaining 84 percent come from merchandising), the state coffers would sacrifice little by rebating those taxes to finance new facilities.

In February 1995 representatives of the Oilers, Rockets, Astros, Aeros, Cowboys, Mavericks, Stars, and Spurs convened in Austin. Meetings with comptroller John Sharp, Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, and the Speaker of the House Pete Laney encouraged the sports executives to help craft a sports facility bill that would include tax rebates and other creative funding provisions. But at a separate meeting among team officials, an Astros executive stood up. “I’m sorry,” the executive said, “but I have to tell you this. I don’t think Mr. McLane wants to see any legislation pass that would enable the Oilers to get out of the Astrodome lease.”

A disturbed silence overtook the executives. McLane had indeed been pressuring Adams to stay in the ’Dome, which he had been trumpeting as a “first-class facility” since his purchase of the Astros at the end of 1992. Yet at the December 1993 meeting at Lanier’s house, McLane had admitted that the ’Dome was “tired and old and needs a new look.” Furthermore, McLane had visited Baltimore’s state-of-the-art Camden Yards in 1993, and the impression he was left with, he would later tell me, was that of “a magic feeling, like going to Yellowstone . . . The multipurpose stadium began with the Astrodome, but everything changed with that one in Baltimore being all tailored for baseball.” But as late as February 1995, McLane was letting it be known through his surrogate that he didn’t care whether the ’Dome made good business sense for the Oilers. He didn’t want to lose the Oilers’ $3 million lease that the Oilers arrangement brought him, and that was that. Unlike the numerous baseball owners in other cities who had parted amicably with football tenants over the years, McLane wasn’t going to go down without a fight.

These kinds of antics were at variance with Drayton McLane’s well-groomed public persona. The wealthy Temple grocery distributor and amiable Baptist deacon was a bona fide Houston hero, the man who had bought the Astros from the pernicious John McMullen (under whose ownership Nolan Ryan had been allowed to depart to the Texas Rangers) and had pledged to win a World Series. McLane was everything Bud Adams wasn’t—a rock-ribbed, sharp-eyed, articulate pitchman who personified the bygone wholesomeness of professional sports. It was McLane’s misfortune to purchase the team just when the league’s network television deal was dissolving, and on the eve of a ballplayer strike that would prove catastrophic to league revenues and demolish pro baseball’s public image. Valiantly the new owner had done all he could—player trades, a new manager, spiffier concessions—to make the Astros the hottest act in town. But McLane had committed more than a few mishaps of his own. He had alienated one front-office executive after another; spent thousands of dollars trying to grow flowers in the horticulturally hostile ’Dome; thrown tens of millions of dollars at three native Texas pitchers (Doug Drabek, Greg Swindell, and Mitch Williams) who proved to be past their prime; and finagled tax dollars for ’Dome “improvements” that turned out to be hokey and ineffectual.

Still, Drayton McLane saved his most onerous misdeed for the 1995 legislative session, when he spent somewhere between $50,000 and $150,000 on lobbying fees to sink the sports facility bill. “The only issue we had there,” he says now, “is that the bill would have taxed our events at the Astrodome to pay for events at other facilities.” In fact, under the provisions of the bill, the ’Dome’s events would have been taxed only if McLane requested that the ’Dome be given “qualified sports facility project” status—in which case the ’Dome would also have received money to aid in renovations. The bald truth is that, between the strike, the lost television revenues, and McLane’s own misjudgments, the Astros were losing some $20 million annually, and McLane couldn’t bear to see another $3 million leave his pocket.

McLane got his wish. The sports facility bill was defeated in the state House. With that, the Oilers lost their last opportunity to play in another Houston facility. To many local observers, and perhaps to McLane as well, this meant that Bud’s Oilers—now without Warren Moon and coming off a 2–14 season—would languish forever at the Astrodome. Who else would want them?

Now we know.

EVEN BY TODAY’S INFLATED STANDARDS, the $292 million Nashville package was a sweetheart deal: a new stadium, complete with 140 luxury boxes, and a $28 million relocation fee thrown in. Never mind that Nashville was a smaller media market than Houston. NFL owners shared all the TV revenue anyway, and besides, the Oilers’ new town had a higher per capita income than their old home—which meant higher attendance, more concessions purchased, and those high-priced luxury seats filled to capacity. No longer would Bud Adams have to endure the pity of his peers for suffering tenancy at the Astrodome; now he was the envy of them all.

The nonbinding agreement to move the Oilers to Tennessee was struck on November 15, by which time Drayton McLane was himself negotiating in earnest to sell the Astros to Virginia telecommunications magnate Bill Collins for about $150 million. When word of his doings leaked out, McLane seemed unprepared for the outrage. Showing a side of himself that Houstonians hadn’t previously seen, the Astros owner gave the city two weeks to agree to pledge 25,000 in season ticket sales in each of the next five years, find some local businessmen who would buy out 30 percent of McLane’s ownership, and—surprise, surprise—agree to finance a new stadium with a retractable roof. The demands were outlandish; the best the city could do was promise 17,200 season ticket holders over the next two years. McLane clucked that the response was “very disappointing,” but that was nothing compared with the disappointment he felt when baseball officials informed him that he could forget about letting the team move to Virginia—at least for the time being.

Houston has one more year, McLane says today, to prove to him that “it can host a major league baseball team that’s successful at the level it needs to be competitive.” The Oilers may serve out the end of their ten-year ’Dome lease before moving to Nashville, though such a lame-duck scenario has prompted negotiations for a lease buyout. In any event, both owners have looked beyond Houston because other teams in other cities are making more money through better revenue-producing facilities. Make no mistake: It is not merely the owners who have driven up the price of franchises. This year Adams had to cough up $28 million to sign rookie quarterback Steve McNair. McLane offered his star second baseman, Craig Biggio, $20 million and Biggio turned it down. More money means better players; better players mean championships; championships mean more money.

By now, this cycle of greed should surprise no sports fan. The question is what to do about it. Lanier emphasized that he doesn’t “hold Adams a bad guy for all of this. He’s just in the system. This is the way the system works.” Lanier made clear his loathing of sports monopolies. But as one Houston sports insider reminded me, “One city can’t remake the world.” Astute as Lanier may be, his mayoral legacy now includes the imminent loss of one pro franchise, and possibly a second.

And possibly a third. Dismayed by the recognition that he made a mere $500,000 in luxury box revenues last year while the Chicago Bulls cleared $16 million, Les Alexander is apparently convinced that the Summit will eventually prevent the Rockets from remaining “competitive.” After the first championship, a Florida businessman offered to buy the Rockets from Alexander for $125 million—a $45 million return on his investment. Alexander brushed aside the offer; despite about $20 million in earnings last year, a good part of that figure came from expansion fees, and Alexander has made public his concerns that the Rockets will soon top out if they continue to stay in the Summit.

What Alexander has not made public, according to two sources close to the owner, is his interest in Las Vegas as a future destination for his two-time world champions. And why not? Las Vegas is the nation’s fastest-growing city; its casinos could finance a new stadium, replete with the coveted luxury boxes, in a heartbeat. Unlike Adams or McLane, Alexander has no allegiance to Texas. (His wife, Nancy, a devout animal-rights activist who has sought a ban on leather basketballs in the NBA and a ban on furs in the Summit, has never felt altogether simpatico with Houstonians.) And, as is documented by the Rockets’ heinous new uniforms, the owner has an appetite for kitsch that perhaps only Las Vegas could sate.

Lanier has heard the Vegas low talk and will only reply tersely, “He’s got a lease in the Summit till the year 2003.” But as Lanier himself pointed out in his Senate testimony, “In terms of breaking leases—man, they’re experts at it.” And Alexander has litigious impulses. Adams and McLane have made their plays. Now, says one confidant of the Rockets owner, “The guy that’s lying behind the log is Les Alexander.”

And what would all of this do to Houston? To any town? It is true, as the Greater Houston Partnership has pointed out, that the Oilers make up only 0.1 percent of the local economy. It is further true that cities like Baltimore and St. Louis did not suffer either economic or psychic collapses when their teams abandoned them. If the Roman Empire can expire, so can the NFL. If the Colosseum can become obsolete, so can the Astrodome. And without speaking for Cleveland, if the Oilers and Astros and Rockets leave Houston’s life, I imagine that Houston will go on living.

Already, a Canadian Football League team—the Baltimore Stallions, now looking for a home given their likely displacement by the former Cleveland Browns—has visited the ’Dome. At this writing, no deals had been struck. Still, we can hope. There aren’t many stallions left in Houston; then again, there aren’t many oilers left either. There also isn’t much innocence left; but maybe a game played semi-competently by the low-paid and unendorsed, in a creaky old dinosaur of an arena, would do us all some good. Bring on the Houston Stallions.

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