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.

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

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