At the 2004 Super Bowl in Houston, the stadium grass was real, the roof was closed, the light rail was new, and Main Street was party central. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no smartphones, no Uber, no CultureMap.
As the 2017 Super Bowl approaches, a lot has changed. But at least one thing remains the same: Super Bowl activities remain a lot more comfortable in comfortable shoes.
During a walk-through of NRG Stadium last week, I walked what seemed like several miles from my car, which was in the relatively close-in Purple Lot. Just like it's been since the terrorist attacks of 2001, Super Bowls are now fortresses behind fences and security checkpoints and take a lot of walking to get to, even if you are dropped off by Uber or a taxi.
The same goes for Super Bowl LIVE, the free fan fest at Discovery Green, although the check-in is more benign. On a glorious Sunday afternoon, lines were long to get through metal detectors into the downtown attraction, but I discovered a quicker way to get in. While lines stretched quite a distance near the new Marriott Marquis Hotel, if you walk a few blocks to the Super Bowl LIVE entrance at Caroline and Bell streets, walking in is a breeze.
Or you may have just as much fun in the lobby of the new Marriott, which is a theme park of its own, with photo-ready opportunities featuring cut-outs of NFL stars and the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
The Super Bowl has grown up since the last time it was in Houston. More corporate sponsorships. More hoopla. More big parties. A temporary building to hold 9,000 for concerts that will be start being taken down the day of the Super Bowl (it's so massive, it will take 30 days to remove the structure). Thank you for thinking big, Jack Murphy of Club Nomadic.
But if the Super Bowl has matured, so has its host. Houston has long had an inferiority complex; constantly touting that we're a "world class city." Now we don't have to. We're more diverse (witness the passionate protests against President Trump's refugee policy outside the entry gates on Sunday), more diversified, and more confident.
With the new Marriott Marquis and Hilton-Americas as bookends to a glorious Discovery Green, which was a series of unsightly parking lots at Houston's last Super Bowl, there's finally an attractive downtown hub that's sure to draw tourists and conventioneers long after the Super Bowl is gone. There's a sophistication to the city that wasn't here 13 years ago, with an abundance of restaurants and cultural attractions. Houston feels a lot more grown up.
The rise of social media
Sure, traffic and parking are expected to be a major problem, but Ric Campo, the chairman of the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee, expects a secret weapon to help out this time that wasn't available 13 years ago: Social media.
"The biggest thing is to download the Super Bowl LI app. All the parking information, the transportation information is there," he tells CultureMap. "If there's a problem, we'll get it out there on social media, so you'll know, 'don't go this way, go that way.' As long as people understand and get online and see what's going on, there shouldn't be any trouble."
"We want to make sure people really have a great time and we don't want people to get upset about high parking prices. So we have price points from $30 to $5 (downtown). We have great shuttles that can bring people in and around. METRO is a great alternative as well. We have lots of park and rides, Galleria shuttles. So it shouldn't be a big problem 'if you know before you go.' That's our saying. Park on the west side (of downtown). Use the shuttles to come over, the train. So it should be good."
In 2004, Campo recalls, the northern part of Main Street, which was the hub of pre-Super Bowl activities, didn't have nearly the access that the Super Bowl LIVE event at Discovery Green has now, even with 150,000 visitors expected daily, and many more than that on the days just before the Super Bowl, with free concerts featuring ZZ Top and Solange Knowles.
"The challenge back then was that everything was on surface streets. Here you have a really good transportation system, because you can enter from the west side, you can enter from the south side, even on the north side," Campo says. "We have a lot of connectors which will bring people to the area. And if it's nice weather as it should be, you can just walk three blocks. This is a free event for fans. This is all about creating value for Houstonians who don't have a ticket to the game, to have them be able to experience the Super Bowl without having to pay a big price."
Preparations at NRG
AT NRG Stadium, the site of Super Bowl LI, NFL director of events Eric Finkelstein notes the field is the same one used by the Texans (it's artificial turf instead of the grass field at Super Bowl XXXVIII), but a lot of cosmetic changes will take place. "We just prep it and get it ready," he says, with benches painted the colors of each team and the Super Bowl logo on each side of the 50-yard line and each team's logo in a separate end zone. The NFL hopes to have the roof open, but will check weather reports before making a final decision.
Also, NFL officials have to find a lot more places for media, constructing 30 broadcast booths around NRG Stadium, as well as boost Wifi capabilities, put up thousands of feet of fencing around the site, and prepare more event and party spaces, like the Premium Pre-game Party at the NRG Center, with performances by Lady Antebellum & O.A.R, for those paying upwards of $8,000 each for an NFL Gameday Package.
"Here the space is very flexible. It gives us the opportunity to do a lot of different things. There's a lot of room. There's a lot of parking. There's a lot of different areas to build things. It's just a great opportunity," Finkelstein says.
What has changed from the last Houston Super Bowl? "It's just gotten so much bigger on every level. So many different things are happening. So many different pieces. It's amazing how much it's evolved," Finkelstein says. " I was here for Super Bowl XXXVIII. The amount and volume of things, the amount of attention it gets" has grown exponentially.
While light rail continues to be a source of controversy in Houston, one gets the idea it was one of the deciding factors in the NFL's decision to select the city for Super Bowl LI because it provides easy access to NRG Stadium from downtown Houston, where so many Super Bowl activities are taking place. "The light rail is definitely something that more people are using than ever before," Finkelstein says. "The great thing about this campus is there's a lot of parking, a lot of space a lot of ways to get here. If you're driving or taking public transportation that really makes for a great experience for anything that happens here, but especially the Super Bowl."
Expect the Unexpected?
Finkelstein's tips for first time Super Bowl attendees? Check out Superbowl.com, which offers information on how to get to the game, where to park, and how to enter the stadium. "It's not like a regular season game. There are a lot of things that are different that you need to prepare for in advance," he says. "And also get here early. There's so much to see and so much to do."
The gates at NRG open at 1 pm on Sunday with kickoff at 5:30 pm, so "anywhere in that range, the earlier the better," he says.
No matter how much planning has gone into Super Bowl LI, officials can't control the unexpected. The most memorable moment of Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston remains Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction." Only those with the longest and strongest memories recall that the New England Patriots won the game.
What lasting memory will Super Bowl LI bring?