Another MLS stadium, another chance to honor Lamar Hunt

A rendering of the Houston Dynamo's new grounds

Every time a shovel goes into the Earth for the purposes of a professional soccer stadium, everyone should stop and take a minute to honor the late, great Lamar Hunt.

I’m thinking about this today because Houston just announced the long-awaited ground breaking for its new facility in downtown Houston, just down the way from Minute Maid Park. I was at a local pub before the MLS All-Star game last summer, a Dynamo-friendly place located roughly halfway between the baseball field and the site of Houston’s new $110 million facility. The area is a little rough, but just in a blue-collar way, not in a menacing, you-might-get-cut way.

Long story short, I think this place (good renderings and more info here) will make the Dynamo even more successful than it already has been while as a tenant at the University of Houston. (Which, by the way, is not exactly in an area of gabled estates as it is.)

So, here are the two connections with Hunt:

First, everyone should always remember what a tremendous leap of faith Crew Stadium was.

I guarantee you that in 1999, when the Hunts opened Crew Stadium as the country’s first, major professional soccer stadium, nobody was thinking 12 years down the road that 12 or 13 dedicated MLS soccer stadiums would rock the country. Hunt had already lost oodles and oodles of money, and yet here he was sinking another $30 million or so into a stadium, propped up only nothing more than faith in the league.

(Hunt once told me he never talked about how much money he lost in soccer, just as he never talked about how much he made or lost in other financial interests. He simply thought it was impolite to talk about his money. He was a really genuine soul that way.)

Later, Hunt would develop FC Dallas’ grounds for another $80 million-plus. So, Houston’s new park, the renovated PGE Park in Portland, Sporting KC’s new grounds, etc., are all branches off the Crew Stadium tree, so to speak.

Here’s the other reason everyone needs to thank “Uncle Lamar,” as some fans affectionately know the man:

The facilities in Columbus and Dallas aren’t perfect. Far from it. But every stadium built today benefit from the lessons learned. Not just from a design standpoint, although that’s a major factor.

They also benefit from the teachings on location, on what works and doesn’t work.

I don’t beat up on FC Dallas for the location of its stadium – 23 miles north of downtown Dallas.  I know a lot of people do, but I don’t. Lord knows I’ve beat up on that organization for some of its operational choices since opening the grounds in 2005.  But that’s something different. Frankly, it’s unfair to dog the Hunts for their choice of spots; it’s important to understand a little of the history here.

There was such a tremendous land deal available in Frisco at the time. And “the time,” in this case, was a tremendously tenuous moment. The deal was being negotiated in 2002 and 2003, when there was barely an MLS. Seriously.  The league was perilously close to folding in 2002. And yet there was Hunt, still showing amazing faith in it all, still building at the cost and risk of millions. He was able to risk a few million less by going to Frisco rather than someplace closer to the urban core.

Once built, everyone soon realized that it was simply too far from the city. The fact is, somebody had to push the outer boundary. Somebody had to determine, exactly, how far a club could venture in search of inexpensive land, and still be viable to the inner core.

So now we know. Twenty-three miles is too far. FC Dallas is doing the best it can to deal with it.

Sure, it’s easy in hindsight to admonish the Hunts for their selection of locations. But it’s not fair.  They may have suspected that it was better to be closer to the city, but they certainly weren’t armed with all the evidence we have now.  In the absence of that evidence, and given the tenuous situation of the day, the calculus of the decision was wildly different than it is today.

That’s why Houston is building downtown. The evidence looks clear now.  But someone had to pay the price to acquire that evidence.

Good luck, Houston. Your stadium looks great.  And it’s OK to have a nice, sharp-edged rivalry with Dallas. But do take a  moment to acknowledge what your neighbors to the north, and its ownership patriarch, did to help you get here.

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