Houston City Council to consider $3.2M stadium deal with SaberCats rugby team
6 February 2018
Houston could be home to a new rugby stadium if City Council signs off on a proposed deal with the Houston SaberCats this week.
The city owns 120 acres at the Houston Amateur Sports Park, along TX-288 south of Mowery Road, which it has leased to an independent board since 2011. The Houston Dynamo practice there, and manage the facilities for the city at no charge.
Council on Wednesday will be asked to let the sports park board lease 41 acres of the site to the rugby team – formerly known as the Strikers -- to build and operate a 3,500-seat, $5.25 million stadium there, along with two new practice fields.
Houston would pay the team up to $3.2 million to reimburse its investors for the cost of installing a new, 760-space parking lot, which city officials say is needed to serve the existing seven sports fields, plus the three new ones the SaberCats would build.
"We're going to need to spend this much for parking anyway. We have a parking problem down there today," said Houston's Chief Development Officer Andy Icken. "The very fact that we can add three fields to the soccer complex and get a stadium -- and allow them to do that -- is a real plus for the city."
The city would use funds set aside for capital parks projects which, in this case, Icken said were earmarked in the city's 2012 bond package specifically to upgrade the sports park facility. The city would retain ownership of the stadium site and fields throughout the agreement.
The stadium and practice fields are intended to be used by several sports other than rugby, Icken said. An estimated 250,000 kids use the sports park annually, he said, but the city long has intended to expand the complex to better compete for weekend tournaments; the Houston Parks Board is fundraising to add six fields to the complex now.
Councilman Larry Green said he plans to delay the item for a week to learn more about what access the public will have to the new facilities.
"I have questions with regard to, is this really a public opportunity, or is this a private assistance?" he said. "I'd hope if we're giving some sort of assistance that there's some public benefit."
The SaberCats, one of seven new Major League Rugby franchises launching an inaugural season this April, have begun exhibition contests at Constellation Field in Sugar Land while awaiting a permanent home.
"We are one of the biggest rugby hotspots in the country," team president Jeremy Turner told the Chronicle last summer, noting that Houston's status as an city of transplants from rugby-friendly nations helps support the sport here. Team representatives could not be reached for comment Monday.
Houston-based matches featuring the U.S. national team, the Eagles, have drawn tens of thousands of fans in recent years. Local officials negotiated the BBVA stadium lease partly with rugby in mind, and say the Italy match played two weeks after the stadium's opening broke national rugby attendance records.
David Selby, a Zimbabwe native who coaches the rugby team at St. Pius X High School, has seen the sport's popularity explode locally in the eight years since he reconnected with it as a father and coach.
Back then, he said, his son's teams in The Woodlands struggled to find enough players to compete. Now, 180 boys play there, other suburbs boast similar numbers, and numerous local high schools are fielding teams.
"It's just been phenomenal, the growth rate, because it's an alternative to American football," Selby said. "Even though it's a physical game, which Americans love, it's safer in the sense that we don't have the head injuries that football players do. Once you take the helmet off, guys are a little more cautious in how they tackle, and they do it properly."