Stadium Cheat Sheet

The Houston stadium tour cheat sheet Part 2: Toyota Center

Toyota Center is still state of the art. Houston Toyota Center/Facebook

This is part two of the Houston stadium series. You can find part one — Minute Maid Park — here. This story was originally posted before basketball season started. 

We’re peeling back the layers of Toyota Center, home of the only team in Houston that refuses to accept mediocrity — the Houston Rockets.

Seriously, look at the team. In the past 30 years, the Rockets have had three losing seasons. Three. It’s the only team that Houstonians sound pretentious being mad at. I’ll admit, I was disgusted at last season’s 41-41 record, despite the fact that they still made the playoffs. That’s essentially equivalent to that one insufferably good-looking friend we all have complaining about only getting hit on twice at the bar instead of four times. You still got hit on, bro. You’ll be fine.

Make no mistake; the Rockets will be insufferably good-looking this year, too. They are ridiculously fun to watch with all the three pointers they drain, not to mention they added Chris Paul. Oh, and then there’s James Harden. Let’s talk about James Harden. He’s playing out of his mind and is worth the price of admission.

 You should be going out with the insufferably good-looking Rockets. Hang out with them. I guarantee you’ll have a great time.

Where to get tickets

Absolute no-brainer here. Flashseats is the way to go. You can find seats as low as $15, and you can also bid a lower price if you’re so inclined. If you pay face value you’re looking at $50 aticket at least. It’s definitely supply and demand-driven so don’t expect anything cheap when the Cavs or Warriors head into town.

Where to park

Once again, park south of Highway 59. Polk Street is mainly free to park on, as well as Hutchins Street. Parking here will set you up in great position for the most important step.

Where to pregame

If you want to show out, you can always just pull up a seat at the bar at Pappasito’s across the street from the arena. Don’t do that. There’s a Pappasito’s near home, guaranteed. Just go to that one. Instead, go see the neighborhood.

If you parked where I suggested, guess what? You’re right in front of 8th Wonder Brewery. It doesn’t get more Houston than pregaming at a brewery whose entire image is predicated off of Houston sports. Toss back a Rocket Fuel coffee porter or a seasonal Dream Shake stout while lounging in seats pulled straight from the Astrodome itself and grab some Slab fries from the Eatsie Boys food truck parked out back.

If beer just isn’t your thing, then head northwest one block to The Secret Group. Most Rockets games start by 7 pm, and The Secret Group has a happy hour from 5-7 pm. Three dollar wells, people. You do the math.

Where to get beer

From either of these pregaming spots, head up Polk Street and enter at the corner of Polk and Jackson Street. There’s a full-service bar behind sections 112 and 101. There aren’t any hidden gems like Minute Maid, so it’s usually Bud Light or Zeigenbock. Upstairs there’s a Tito’s bar behind section 411 and another full bar behind section 424. If possible, avoid sitting in sections 416 to 420. There’s a children’s play area over there and you have to walk at least a quarter of the way around the arena to get anything.

Where to eat

HTX Brew and Grub in section 108 is the Toyota Center equivalent of Minute Maid Park’s Street Eats stand. Good grub, start there. Sections 125 and 403 will satisfy your barbecue cravings fairly well with HOU BBQ, but other than that, pickings are slim at Toyota Center outside of the standard fare.

For those of you with a sweet tooth, be sure to go to Clutch the mascot’s annual birthday celebration. They give out free cake to everyone in attendance. 

Where it gets rowdy

The entire upper bowl, honestly. They’ve priced out the diehard fans from downstairs, so it’s not uncommon to see a sparsely seated lower arena contrasted by a packed upper concourse. The only real exception to the lower concourse is section 114, home of the Rockets’ diehard fan group, the Red Rowdies. The Red Rowdies were the creation of then head coach Jeff Van Gundy. He held tryouts for the craziest fans and gave the best ones season tickets. They’ve been going nuts ever since, despite their hilariously outdated page on the Rockets official site (I never knew Chase Budinger had his own chant. That’s on me).

Toyota Center is a great venue, but it certainly lacks the Easter eggs that Minute Maid Park has stashed across the place. It doesn’t need them though, because you should honestly just be watching those insufferably good-looking Rockets wreck shop.

 

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Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March. Photo via: NRG Park/Facebook

Football players, coaches and general managers have come and gone, but only one person has been running the business side of the Texans, well, even before they were the Texans. Jamey Rootes has been President of the Houston Texans since 1999, when an NFL team in Houston was still just a gleam in owner Bob McNair's eyes. That's before the team adopted the name "Texans" in 2000, before there was NRG Stadium, which opened as Reliant Stadium in 2000, and before they became serial champs of the AFC South, six titles between 2011-2019.

The precise date was Oct. 6, 1999 when NFL owners voted 29-0 to award the NFL's 32nd and newest franchise to Houston. Not only that, Houston was awarded the 2004 Super Bowl. Rootes, 34 years old with no NFL experience, had his work cut out for him. Before taking the job in Houston, Rootes was team president, general manager and CEO of selling peanuts and popcorn for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer, with all due respect, is not nearly a national obsession like the National Football League.

"I wasn't intimidated," Rootes said. "There's a quote that I love, 'Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.' I've always been a purpose-driven person. As for the step up to the NFL, I went from knowing nothing at the start of my time in Columbus to five years later thinking, OK, I've got this sports thing down. Actually, I had a very significant reduction in my responsibilities in Houston. When I was in Columbus, I ran the stadium, I ran the team's business, I was the general manager so I did the talent side of it, too. When I came to Houston, all I had to do was the business, so that was great."

Rootes has captured his remarkable journey from the soccer team at Clemson to grad school at Indiana University to the business world at IBM and Proctor & Gamble to the Clemson Crew, to ultimately being named President of the Houston Texans in his new book, The Winning Game Plan: A Proven Leadership Playbook for Continuous Business Success, available next week.

I've known Rootes from his day one with the Texans, but I still had to ask: everybody knows what the general manager does, and what the head coach does. What exactly does the President of an NFL team worth $3.3 billion do?

"I like to use the parallel of a pharmaceutical company to describe my job. There are two sides to that company. First you put scientists in one building and you leave them alone. They create products, which is what our football team is. The football side has a coach and general manager and all the people who prepare the team to play on Sunday. But getting that product to market is done by the business side, traditional business disciplines. Those are the things that fall to me. Basically, everything between the white lines is run by the football side. Everything outside of those lines, I do," Rootes said.

Between 1999 and 2002, when the Texans played their first game (let the record show the Texans defeated the Dallas Cowboy, 19-10), the team was essentially a massive start-up project. First orders of business for Rootes involved building a new stadium, developing relationships with suppliers, contractors and government officials, preparing for a Super Bowl and, most important, developing a relationship with fans.

Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March, but it's really an accumulation of lessons learned and behind-the-scenes stories about building the Texans from scratch into one of the most admired and valuable franchises in all of sports.

"I've always been a meticulous note-taker. I've kept every presentation I've ever done. I took all of my notes and concepts and put those down on paper," Rootes said. "To be a good leader, you need a wild imagination. You can show me a blank piece of paper, but I don't see it as blank. To me, it's a finished product that hasn't been created yet," Rootes said.

Rootes lays out his leadership strategy in seven chapters: Are You a Manager or a Leader, Get the Right People on Your Team, Build a Winning Culture, Create Raving Fans, a Winning Playbook for Adversity and Success, Your Leadership Playbook and Play to Win.

He learned lesson No. 1 the hard way. A friend once counseled Rootes, "your staff doesn't like the way you're all up in their business, you need to back off." Rootes took that advice to heart.

"It was an epiphany. I wasn't a leader. That's when I truly began thinking about leadership. I say this all the time, I don't do anything. All I do is create an environment where exceptional people can be their very best self. I know what's going on. I'm fully informed. I leave every game day exhausted. I get there early. I do the things I need to do. I kiss babies. I shake hands. I present checks. I entertain clients. I'm dialed in. It absolutely wears me out because I love this organization so much. I am so proud of what we've been able to do for this great city of Houston."

I asked Rootes, as someone who lives for Game Day and a packed NRG Stadium, are you devastated by 2020, the year of COVID-19 and small crowds limited by Centers for Disease Control guidelines?

"I don't look at it that way. I think there's a song by 10,000 Maniacs that said, these are the days that you'll remember. I told my staff, I know you're all going through hell right now, but later on in life, you'll talk about this year. Things that are important are memorable, for the positive and those things that leave a scar. You learn from adversity and you're a better person for enduring it. Victor Frankl said 'We can discover meaning in life in three different ways, by creating a work or doing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.' Suffering is part of life. He should know, he survived a Nazi concentration camp," Rootes said.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland wrote the forward to The Winning Game Plan. Rootes dedicates the book to late Texans owner Bob McNair. Rootes' book is a fun read. All I kept thinking was, where was this book when I needed it? And before you buy too much into Rootes as a leader, consider that Rootes admits that he had to ask for wife Melissa's permission before he could accept the Texans job.

Personal note: I believe that a big part of leadership is the ability to keep a promise. Several years ago, I was riding my bicycle with my dog Lilly on a leash. It was the only way I could keep up with her. Well, one time Lilly saw a squirrel and pulled me off my bicycle. I tumbled a few times and rolled next to the curb. When I looked up, there was Jamey Rootes. I told him, "There's no need for you to tell anybody about this." He never said a word.

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