Texas knows how to throw a party, and for the Super Bowl in Houston, a new 29-story luxury hotel with a rooftop pool shaped like a meandering "lazy river" is the kind of glitzy welcome mat that keeps big events coming back. But that status may soon be put to the test.
Undaunted by the NCAA and NBA punishing North Carolina over bathroom laws that target transgender persons, powerful Texas Republican lawmakers are pushing to pass similar measures by June, and in doing so are daring leagues to boycott some of the biggest cities and stadiums in the U.S.
The stakes are bigger than Texas: other GOP-controlled states that watched the economic fallout in North Carolina could grow newly emboldened if sports executives decide that Texas is essentially too big to bail on. Conservatives lawmakers have filed measures in almost a dozen states that would require people to use bathrooms or facilities that correspond to the sex on their birth certificate. LGBT advocates condemn the measures as discriminatory.
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As the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons settled in Houston this week, the NFL issued a statement embracing "tolerance and inclusiveness" without comment on Texas' bill or whether it could jeopardize future Super Bowls in Texas. The NCAA, which has 14 championship events booked in the state between now and 2019, declined comment.
"Texas wins an outsize number of these events. These really are good facilities. It's a location that's fairly centralized," said Daniel Rascher, president of California-based SportsEconomics, which performs impact studies and financial analyses surrounding major sporting events. "If a determined organization wanted to go elsewhere they would do it, but it is the state that would be the most difficult to avoid."
Since 2004, Texas has hosted more combined Super Bowls (three), NBA All-Star Games (three) and NCAA men's Final Fours (five) than any other state. San Antonio is scheduled to host another Final Four in 2018, and Dallas is hosting the women's NCAA Final Four in April. The Dallas Cowboys' $1.2 billion, 100,000-seat stadium will also host one of college football's playoff games in 2018.
The lack of public comment so far from the NFL and others may be rooted in hopes of the bill fizzling out before reaching Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's desk. Abbott has taken a neutral stance and made no mention of bathrooms while laying out his legislative agenda this week. GOP House Speaker Joe Straus has been more forceful, condemning the proposal as an economic backlash waiting to happen.
But the bill has a powerful backer in Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate and is popular with social conservatives who drive Texas politics. He called warnings from the Texas Association of Business, the state's dominant business lobby, "fear-mongering" and has pointed to the Super Bowl kicking off in Houston as proof that sports will stick around.
Houston passed an ordinance expanding gay and transgender rights, but voters in 2015 repealed it after Patrick rallied conservatives in the nation's fourth-largest city behind a "No men in women's bathroom" campaign. The NFL made clear at the time the repeal wouldn't affect its Houston Super Bowl plans that were two years away, and the NCAA still held the Final Four in Houston last year.
"It's much harder for the NBA or NFL or anyone else to walk away from the great state of Texas. No doubt about it," said Republican state Sen. Don Huffines, a wealthy Dallas developer. "They're going to be missing something if they don't do business in the state of Texas. They are politicizing this issue. Not the legislature."
Landing big games isn't just a point of pride for Texas but a legislative priority. Texas has doled out more than $235 million in state dollars over the past decade through a major events fund that helps cities attract marquee events. Rascher said Arizona is the only other state with a similar piggybank dedicated to wooing selection committees and sports league executives.
The NCAA last year made special note of ways North Carolina's law differed from other states in deciding to relocate seven championships elsewhere. The Texas bill excludes some of those factors, including invalidating local equal-rights ordinances, although there is separate legislation that could have similar effects.
North Carolina's new Democratic governor is pushing his Republican-controlled Legislature on a vote to repeal its law.
"They felt like, `We're in North Carolina, we're the basketball capital of America, the NCAA wouldn't dare pull basketball events from our state.' But they did," said Phillip Jones, president of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We're being disingenuous in thinking that because we're Texas they would not pull the events from Texas. They will."