BBVA Compass Stadium increases visibility of Houston Dynamo, MLS
The Houston Dynamo will play the first match in BBVA Compass Stadium Saturday
The new stadium cost $95 million, $60 million coming from the Dynamo ownership
Soccer-specific stadiums are key steps toward visibility and viability for the MLS
HOUSTON -- You could forgive the Houston Dynamo's lukewarm display in a 1-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls last night. Which team wouldn't feel distracted if it was moving home only three days later?
A seven-game road trip to start the season has left last year's MLS Cup runners-up sitting a fidgety seventh place in MLS' Eastern Conference. But two months of traveling is nothing compared to the Dynamo's six-year wait to switch from ongoing tenants to permanent landlords.
More precisely, it will be 2,340 days between the Dec. 15, 2005 announcement that San Jose Earthquakes were relocating to the US' fourth-biggest city and Saturday, when the Dynamo will host D.C. United in the inaugural match at BBVA Compass Stadium.
That's quite a time span when you consider it was the failure to get a soccer-specific stadium built in San Jose that prompted the move. But the wait was worth the arena's solid caliber and superb location.
Surprisingly, for a city that rivals Los Angeles for suburban sprawl, "The Compass", "The Bank" (or whatever nickname it'll eventually earn) is the most urban of any MLS venue. It's only a short walk from the heart of downtown, just under the Eastex Freeway from Minute Maid Park and Toyota Center.
This goes far beyond simple convenience for the thousands of energy industry workers who populate downtown's smart skyscrapers on a weekday. It's expected that the stadium will act as a major catalyst to help the ongoing revitalization of the long-neglected East End district.
MLS' visibility and viability depend more on the construction of soccer-specific stadiums than simply wooing fading stars from Europe. And there's a long way to go before the league will be appealing enough to viewers to earn the sort of big-money television deals that will be truly transformative. But the foundations are almost all in place, literally. Once Montreal Impact's rebuilt Saputo Stadium opens this summer, of the league's 19 teams, only the Seattle Sounders, New England Revolution, D.C. United and San Jose will not be playing in stadiums designed with soccer as a top priority.
The $1.7 billion construction boom sparked by the successful opening of Columbus Crew Stadium in 1999 is not done yet, as San Jose hopes to start building its new digs later this year.
"You're now in a position where you can easily walk from the Toyota Center to Minute Maid Park to BBVA Compass Stadium. It's an interesting triangle of great venues," said Steven Powell, the Dynamo executive vice president, sitting in the club's offices, which overlook the Houston Astros' ballpark.
"The county and city are very interested in whatever they can do to regenerate this part of the city. Minute Maid Park was an incredible addition. You see the growth and development with some beautiful condos and office buildings. The footprint and what the city looks like now is night and day from what it was ten or 15 years ago. It's safe, it's clean, it's vibrant, it's robust."
With AEG sure to sell its 50 percent ownership stake at some point, the new stadium adds clear value to the franchise. The Dynamo claim that the cozy design means that there is not a bad seat in the house. And there's not a seat to spare for the grand opening, a 22,000 sell-out.
New stadia inevitably provide significant spikes in attendance, crowds that can be preserved if teams are successful after the novelty factor wears off. Sporting Kansas City's average crowd spurted from 10,287 in 2010 to 17,678 in LIVESTRONG Sporting Park last year.
The Dynamo have doubled their season ticket sales, to 12,000. "I've heard rumors that that number of 12,000 is on par or greater than the Astros and the Rockets. Now that is an interesting statistic," Powell said.
"There are clubs towards the bottom half of the [Barclays] Premier League who don't have 12,000 season ticket holders. And most of them in the Championship. It's been a huge shift for our business, it's been that game-changing shift we anticipated. We've always done a great job in attracting families, Latinos, an international audience that really loved the game. What we were unable to do at Robertson Stadium is really grow our corporate base. People that want to entertain clients, buy suites. Robertson Stadium was growing old and showing signs of that age."
The tired venue they rented from the University of Houston did provide passion and perspiration, but the Dynamo hope that the move to a more luxurious environment will not affect their strong home record.
The proximity of all fans to the field should make for a rowdy atmosphere and the sticky summer weather will be at least as unpleasant as ever -- perhaps even worse given the steep, enclosed stands. Saturday's match is one of three afternoon kickoffs. Don't expect to see many long-sleeved jerseys when Los Angeles Galaxy comes to town on May 26 for a 1:30 p.m. kickoff.
At a cost of $95 million, $60 million of which was absorbed by Dynamo ownership, the project comes in at less than half the price of LIVESTRONG Sporting Park or Red Bull Arena.
The tight budget left no scope for a roof or other form of on-pitch air conditioning, other than the breeze-friendly holes in the metallic mesh that wraps around the exterior and is the stadium's most original and striking feature. Everything is so orange that entering the seating bowl feels like being given a shot of Vitamin C.
"It's a nice marriage of creativity and cost effectiveness. They've done an excellent job of giving it a personality without breaking the bank. It's a stadium that will serve the team well. It's neat, it has impact," said Zach Woosley, the managing editor of the Dynamo Theory fan site. "They'll look like the Major League team that they are."
Paul Dalglish, a part of the Dynamo's title-winning roster in 2006 and 2007, agrees. "There's no doubt the new stadium is absolutely fantastic. It's what they deserve. I've got really fond memories of Robertson Stadium, our supporters created a great atmosphere and we had some special nights there, but it wasn't theirs. This is a stadium they can call their own and one they can be proud of and I'm sure it'll be absolutely rocking for the opening game," he said.
Brad Davis and Brian Ching are the only two remaining Dynamo players who were transplanted from California to Texas. Davis believes the arena adds to MLS' credibility. "This is just another thing to legitimize ourselves among professional sports in the US. It's a fantastic thing, especially being downtown," the midfielder said.
"I don't think people ever didn't take [the Dynamo] seriously but having the stadium you're going to get a lot more than the diehard fans, other people are going to want to come out and see what the stadium and team are all about. I think the sport is going to grow tremendously here in Houston."
Tom Dart is a U.S.-based freelance journalist and a former soccer writer for The Times of London. He can be followed on Twitter at @Tom_Dart.
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