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Feature

Q&A: Janis Burke on Harris County-Houston Sports Authority’s 25-year journey

Images: Harris County-Houston Sports Authority

The Harris County-Houston Sports Authority (HCHSA) celebrated its 25th anniversary earlier this month, on the back of the organisation claiming another win with confirmation that the Texan city will host matches during the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

The HCHSA was formed on September 1, 1997 to help keep professional sports teams in Houston, build world-class stadiums, oversee the bond debt service for those stadiums, and become a landlord to sports team tenants. Once those things had been successfully accomplished, HCHSA eventually evolved into the sports marketing agency for the region.

Since its inception, the HCHSA has overseen the construction of four major world-class stadiums in the form of NRG Stadium, home of the NFL’s Houston Texans; Minute Maid Park, which houses MLB’s Houston Astros; Toyota Center, host of the NBA’s Houston Rockets; and MLS franchise Houston Dynamo’s PNC Stadium.

HCHSA has also secured hosting rights to numerous major sporting events, bringing significant economic value to the region and a positive impact on the local community. NRG Stadium was in June confirmed as one of 11 US venues for the 2026 World Cup, which the United States is co-hosting alongside Canada and Mexico.

Janis Burke, Harris County-Houston Sports Authority CEO, discussed with TheStadiumBusiness.com how the organisation has evolved since 1997, along with the challenges and opportunities that await ahead of the arrival of the football showpiece in 2026.

TheStadiumBusiness.com: What would you pick out as the key reasons why the four stadia developed by the Authority since 1997 have stood the test of time?

Janis Burke: “The way our organisation is structured and the legal element to each one of the stadium agreements is solid. I wasn’t living in Houston, Texas when the organisational structure happened, so cannot take credit for it, but the plan was a good one in my opinion. 

“Through state legislation our organisation has the ability to collect visitor taxes (hotel and car rental) within Harris County and Houston borders, so in theory the venues were built without being a burden to the local taxpayer.

Minute Maid Park

“Although we are a stand-alone government agency that owns the debt service, which insulates the City and County if the bonds were ever in trouble, the governance of the Sports Authority still happens at a local level and no public financing for the issuance of bonds could have taken place without local voter approval. 

“The mayor appoints (with City Council approval) half of the Sports Authority’s board of directors, the County Commissioners Court appoint the other half, and together both City and County appoint the chairman of the board. 

“The Sports Authority continues to oversee debt service and approves any material changes to the downtown buildings (MLB Minute Maid Park, NBA Toyota Center, and MLS/NWSL PNC Stadium), but the tenants are responsible for the upkeep of those stadiums. The tenants must also put monies into a capital repair fund annually that our organisation oversees. 

“If there are ever any challenges to stadium upkeep, those funds can be used to fix the issues. However, the professional sports teams have done a wonderful job of keeping the buildings state-of-the-art and annually put more dollars into the buildings than the legal agreements require. 

PNC Stadium

“The teams can control their own calendars and charge whatever rental fees they wish, so they get the upside of revenues as well as the downside of keeping the buildings in good shape. The Sports Authority ensures that all bondholders are paid on time and in full, that the teams are abiding by all aspects of the lease agreements, and that the assets are being kept in good condition.

“NRG Stadium is a little bit different.  The venue sits on property owned by Harris County along with other buildings that they oversee, so the only involvement we have with that stadium is overseeing the bond payments. The County looks after the upkeep of the entire park, which includes the stadium.   

“The financing and organisational structure has worked as designed and we are proud to have built three first-class stadiums in a period of just a few years while adding a soccer stadium to the mix about 10 years later through a public-private partnership.  In recent years Houston has also added a professional rugby stadium to the sports landscape through another public-private partnership and is currently looking into a possible cricket stadium site. 

“It’s amazing when you consider that some cities are tearing their stadiums down or building new ones after only 20-something years, whereas we just extended the Houston Astros lease a few years ago which means they will be in that building as tenants for at least 50 years.”

TSB: Looking forward to the next 25 years, what kind of upgrades/redevelopment work will be needed to ensure the venues keep pace with new stadium/arena developments across the US?

JB: “Each of the stadiums have done studies on various aspects of the buildings and continue to look at ways to keep up with new trends or enhanced fan experiences. In fact, the Houston Rockets have hired a third-party agency who are currently in the process of evaluating what type of upgrades will need to be made in the next decade to keep pace with other, newer stadiums across the country. 

“We know that the trend is to have more club and specialty spaces versus standard corporate suites. Safety needs have changed since we built the stadiums, so building modifications have been made, or are in the works. Technology continually changes, and in some cases, we are on the third iteration of upgrades to the venues.”

Toyota Center

TSB: Beyond these four venues, does the Authority have plans for any other projects? Is there a gap in Houston’s venue infrastructure that potentially needs addressing?

JB: “We constantly have our ear to the ground and try to stay up to speed with sports trends, best practices, and popular spectator sports. North Houston has a wonderful skate park and adjacent to which built the world’s largest bike park to include a BMX track where several National Championships have been held and a future World Championships will take place. 

“We are looking to expand soccer fields and a possible indoor complex as we prepare for 2026 World Cup needs and legacy items that we’d like to see happen as a result of hosting the world’s largest sporting event.” 

TSB: Houston was confirmed as a 2026 FIFA World Cup host city in June. What work will be needed for NRG Stadium to successfully host games?

JB: “Like most cities in the USA that were built for American football and have different side line requirements than football, there will have to be some modifications to the stadium. We’ll also have to grow grass in an indoor stadium with an opening roof and it will need to be in pristine shape for several months. 

“That requires some engineering on the floor of the stadium for the grass to take root as needed. We are also looking at enhancements that will be done to any of the proposed training sites. 

“The work has already begun as we prepare… and it’s a great way to end a year in which the Sports Authority is celebrating its 25-year anniversary. It’s been a wonderful journey and I can’t wait to see what the next 25 years have in store.”