Houston, You Have a Problem : Oilers Are Going to Nashville, Astros and Rockets Are Talking About Moving--and Sports Fans Are Left in State of Confusion
In 1836, the year the Alamo fell, a couple of land speculators named John K. Allen and his brother Augustus figured that a low, flat, grassy stretch of land about 50 miles north of Galveston might amount to something more than a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
They were right. The place turned out to be Houston, and after a ship channel was dredged to the Gulf of Mexico, it eventually grew to be the fourth-largest city in the United States.
And so the concrete dried and Houston became known as the Bayou City. But the way things are going now in Sam Houston’s town, it’s looking more and more like something different, as far as its professional sports teams are concerned.
The Bye-Bye City?
Forget the scorecard. It’s getting so you can’t tell your Houston pro sports franchises without a moving van.
The Houston Oilers, born there as part of the American Football League in 1960, are pulling up their derricks and hitting the road for Nashville as soon as they can because they couldn’t get a new football stadium built in town.
The Houston Astros began as the Colt .45s in 1962, but they might be out the door and heading for Virginia before you can say adios Astrodome because they want a new baseball stadium.
The Rockets set up shop in Houston in 1971 after beginning as an NBA expansion team in San Diego, and they also are hinting about moving, maybe just to downtown Houston, though, to get--you guessed it, a new basketball arena.
For the Houston sports fan, it’s a confusing picture. But at least it’s intriguing, if you consider that it has the elements to make it a hit on daytime TV.
“You’ve got warring parties on all sides, and you’ve got powerful egos at play,” said Mike McClure, executive vice president of the Oilers. “To sum it all up, it’s a big mess.”
Yes it is. The Oilers struck it rich in Nashville with a $292-million relocation package that included revenue from 46,000 personal seat licenses and 144 luxury suites in a state-of-the-art stadium, which they will move into once their Astrodome lease runs out after the 1997 season.
Oiler owner Bud Adams asked the city of Houston and Harris County in 1993 to get together and build a new stadium for football, basketball and hockey and offered to put up $85 million of his own to help get the $235-million project going. Nothing happened.
There is recent speculation that a plan could be worked out to build a new baseball-only stadium, renovate the Astrodome for football and rodeo, then construct a new arena for basketball and hockey.
Total cost: $625 million.
Adams finds a certain irony in this.
“Three years ago, nobody listened to me,” he said. “How quickly people forget. Now the city and county are looking into building facilities for all three sports to the tune of $625 million.
“It was never my intention to leave. I didn’t want to pull up the anchor, but I couldn’t remain competitive while leasing from the baseball owner.”
That would be Drayton McLane Jr., who bought the Astros and the lease for the Astrodome, Astrohall and Astroarena properties in 1992.
Harris County owns the Astrodome, but McLane owns the master lease, which is the issue that eventually got to Adams. He didn’t want to be a tenant anymore and he didn’t have to be, what with the advent of franchise free agency in the NFL.
Houston and Harris County officials met in June with top NFL financial officers on just how a team might play in Houston. Local officials hope the NFL would put a team in Houston if a new stadium is promised.
But in Houston right now, the Oilers are not, well, they’re not really the Oilers anymore.
The days of Earl Campbell and Bum Phillips and Luv Ya’ Blue! are as dusty and old as some of those streets out in San Angelo, the city where the Oilers used to train in the glory years.
The Oilers aren’t front page news. In fact, they’re barely in the newspaper. When the Oilers extended Coach Jeff Fuller’s contract for two years, the Houston Chronicle carried the story on Page 9.
The Oilers, or whatever they will be called in Nashville, are leaving behind a lot of memories.
“It’ll be sad,” said Bob Allen, sports director of KTRK Channel 13. “It’s going to be the end of an era. I’ll miss them. Bud, I’m not going to miss.”
Adams has owned the Oilers from the beginning and he has the unusual ability to make nearly everybody angry, except in Nashville, where he was the grand marshal in the city’s July 4 parade.
It’s easy to see why the city and county don’t care for Adams. Harris County shelled out $87 million to add 10,000 seats in the Astrodome for the Oilers in 1987 at Adams’ request.
He also signed a 10-year lease that he would just as soon get out of before 1997, but probably can’t, which leaves whatever Oiler fans are left in Houston even more disgusted.
Meanwhile, Mayor Bob Lanier sensed an anti-Adams sentiment and threw up his hands over the Oilers, then the city and county squabbled about who would pay for what stadium for whom and where it would be built.
Then McLane, the Astro owner and the Oilers’ landlord, after insisting the Astrodome was indeed a suitable sports facility, turned right around and decided it was no good for baseball anymore. Last week, McLane said he didn’t like a stadium proposal by Harris County that was supposed to convince him not to sell the Astros.
The plan called for a new, $250-million stadium to be built near the Astrodome by the 2000 season, but McLane said the Astros would have to contribute most of the money. McLane has flirted with prospective buyers for the Astros in Northern Virginia, and he isn’t happy with attendance in the Astrodome.
Before the season began, McLane said if the Astros didn’t average 35,000, which would add up to about 2.84 million fans, he didn’t think he could keep the team in Houston.
Since the Astros have never drawn more than 2.28 million at home in 34 years, somebody’s probably dialing Bekins right now.
Astro President Tal Smith said McLane may lose $10 million this season and estimates McLane already has lost $65 million in cash since 1993.
“We just can’t continue at this pace,” Smith said. “Your bills cannot continue to exceed your income.”
Of course, it was McLane who spent $36.5 million on two total busts, pitchers Greg Swindell and Doug Drabek.
Smith said even though Houston is the fourth-largest city in the U.S., the Astros’ top attendance year would rank 25th among 28 teams, ahead of the best years of only Pittsburgh, San Diego and Seattle.
“For some reason, despite a good product, major league baseball has not been supported in Houston the way it has in a lot of other markets.”
According to Smith, there is only one way the Astros will stay.
“If the club is to remain in Houston, a new stadium is essential,” he said. “It was once the Eighth Wonder of the World, but the Dome is 35 years old. If you have a house or an office building 35 years old, chances are it would be a tear-down or subject to major renovation.”
The Summit, which was built in 1975, is where the Rockets play. Like the Astrodome, the corporate boxes are too few and too far removed from the action, although the Summit does avoid one of the Astrodome’s biggest pitfalls--too few seats between the goals.
Owner Les Alexander wants a new arena. Since the Florida-based Alexander, who made a fortune in junk bond trading, is the only Houston pro sports owner actually to have won a championship, he might get what he wants.
There are some snags, however. The lease to the Summit was recently purchased by John Watson, who owns the city’s International Hockey League team. Watson would need to be compensated should a new building plan go into the works with the idea of attracting an NHL franchise.
Alexander, whose NBA reputation rests on firing the team mascot and half his front office days after the Rockets won the 1994 NBA title, for painting the Summit floor and changing the team uniforms, may eventually see his team moving to a new arena downtown.
“He may get it done,” Allen said. “After all, his team is the only one that’s ever even been to the big game.”
The big game in Houston these days is trying to hang on to teams. This is the area in which Boom Town has gone bust, or close to it. The days of Judge Roy Hofheinz, the brainchild behind the Astrodome, are as gone as a cargo vessel down the ship channel, heading for open water.
It’s not like the old days. They always could build things bigger and better and quicker in Houston, where there was no end to the horizon.
“Now this city can’t get anything done,” McClure said. “The deal-makers, the visionaries, those guys are either broke or dead.”
And the late, sometimes-great Oilers are heading for Music Row in Nashville. There they await their future in a new building with a new name.
McClure isn’t sure what Houston’s soon-to-be-former football team will be called in Nashville.
“It won’t be the Oilers, that’s all I know,” he said.
If you think about it, they’re really not the Oilers now.