Facility leaders share their thoughts on what to expect this year and beyond
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NFL stadiums are among the most high-profile commercial buildings in the United States. From September to February, millions of fans go through the turnstiles at stadiums to watch their favorite teams play every Sunday while millions more watch on their televisions.
While the NFL schedule is limited to six months of games on weekends, these stadiums hardly sit empty the rest of the year. Most of them are year-round money makers that host additional events such political conventions, concerts, other sporting events and in the case of NRG Stadium – a livestock show and rodeo.
NRG Park in Houston, a 350-acre complex which includes 72,000-seat NRG Stadium that is home to the NFL’s Texans, a convention center and a 5,500-seat arena, hosts more than 500 events and draws 5.5 million people annually and is one of the busier NFL complexes in the country.
People who attend the events and see them unfold on their television are probably not giving much thought to what takes place beyond the playing field or the concert they’re attending. But inside the bowels of the stadiums are expensive and extensive mechanical systems designed to keep the building’s water running, lights on, and heating and cooling regulated.
Through a recently agreed upon historic energy savings performance contract, NRG Stadium is positioned to run more efficiently than at any time in the facility’s 22-year history, while setting up the facility to remain an attractive site to host NFL games and other events into the future.
As home to an NFL team, NRG Stadium can host up to a dozen or so Texans games a season, leaving plenty of open dates on the schedule the rest of the season. During its more than 20 years of existence, NRG has certainly hosted its share of other notable events.
NRG has hosted two Super Bowls, NCAA Final Fours and last month the college football national championship game. It also hosts the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo every spring and is a regular tour stop for high-profile concerts such as Taylor Swift last year.
NRG was also selected as one of the stadiums for the 2026 World Cup as the United States shares hosting duties with Canada and Mexico. While infrastructure issues such as facility condition, parking, hotel room availability and traffic control all play roles in organizations choosing where they will host events, building operations also factor into decisions.
“We’re looking at events nationally and internationally,” says Ryan Walsh, CEO and executive director of Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation and NRG Park. “When FIFA comes to us and says, ‘We’d love to have the World Cup at your facility, tell us about it. We want to put you in the running.’ If you don’t lead with some of these sustainability efforts, you’re going to be at the bottom of the list.
“Keeping our facilities marketable and in a first-class condition, world-class condition, if you will, that attracts some of these big names is critical.”
Bringing such world-class level events to a city includes promoting more than the host stadium. The stadium's leaders are typically part of the destination marketing organization, or a convention and visitors bureau, that brings many organizations together from the host area to lure major events to cities.
Houston is one of many big cities across the country that compete for convention and big-event dollars. Some of the others include Las Vegas, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Phoenix, New Orleans, Dallas and Minneapolis. All have big, luxurious indoor stadiums that can accommodate huge events regardless of weather conditions and check all the boxes in terms of the parking, hotels, airport access and building infrastructure organizations covet to bring their major events to town.
Walsh’s facilities employees are in many ways the public face of those business pitches. As the host stadium, NRG Stadium’s facade is often the establishing image that is relayed to millions of television screens across the country and the world. When the lights are the brightest, it’s Walsh’s team that has prepared the stadium for its time in the spotlight.
“A big part of what these groups look for, whether it is a political convention or a major sporting event, are the facilities,” he says. “What do they like? Are they updated when (attendees) walk in? Do you feel modern? Being able to have some of these seamless systems in a 22-year-old building is very helpful to us when we have some of these site visits and people come in and look at stadiums or facilities.”
Continual upgrades to athletic facilities such as NRG Stadium are required to keep the buildings up to building codes and league standards, as well as to ensure the safety of the millions of people who attend events there yearly.
As a stadium ages, and the need for funding for upgrades plays out, the battles can often get contentious. For example, in Milwaukee, the Brewers’ American Family Field recently required $500 million in upgrades to help keep the Major League Baseball team in the city for the foreseeable future. The funding was provided, and the team’s lease was extended through a combination of the team as well as city, county and state government entities, but not without much debate and back-and-forth.
During its 22 years of operations, NRG Stadium has undergone the kinds of repairs and upgrades required for such massive structures.
“The cost to maintain these facilities gets more and more as the years ago on,” Walsh says. “For us, it’s generally when we go to the board for large capital projects, it’s not a couple-hundred grand here, 100 grand there, it’s millions of dollars we’re looking at.”
NRG Park experienced a game-changer in May of last year when the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation agreed on a 20-year energy savings performance contract that helps upgrade facilities and save on energy costs. The sustainability plan associated with the upgrades aligns with the county’s climate plan, which calls for reducing carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030.
“I would say this is the largest infrastructure project that we’ve had since the stadium opened,” Walsh says.
The upgrades will include building equipment and controls, water conservation and life-safety systems as well as LED lighting retrofits and the installation of new chillers and air handlers. NRG signed an agreement with Johnson Controls to fund the entire cost of the complex’s upgrades. Any surplus savings will be reinvested into Harris County.
The good news for Harris County residents is that no additional tax burden will be placed on them because of these upgrades, which are projected to save the county $54 million in energy expenses.
“Every politician loves that. Every taxpayer loves that,” Walsh says. “For us, it was a no-brainer because we were able to do the things we needed without getting a bond or going to the voters, something that would have been either controversial or politically unsound.”
The stadium is in the early stages of starting the energy upgrades, Walsh says. A significant part of the lighting upgrades is complete, and work has started on air handlers and fan systems. The chillers are expected to be installed early this year on what Walsh estimates will be a two-year project from groundbreaking to substantial completion.
“If somebody comes to us and says, ‘Show me what you’re doing on this front,’ we can physically take them over to an air handler and say these are the new modular fans that would cost half as much to run and allow us to do twice as much cubic feet of air in the same existing system and with a retrofit,” he says.
Managing these kinds of multipurpose stadiums requires more than preparing them for a sustainable future. As schedules fill up at NRG Stadium, facility teams have to be ready to switch over the stadium at a moment’s notice.
“For the Houston Rodeo, on the stadium floor, we’ve got 3 feet of dirt that is used. It’s about 612 dump trucks full of dirt,” Walsh says. “This year we had 24 hours to get all of those dump trucks of dirt out and start building the floor for the Final Four, which was going to happen four days later. Talk about a quick changeover.
“Then Taylor Swift’s concert was immediately following the Final Four. It’s exhausting, it’s back breaking, but it’s fascinating. It’s fun to watch some of these guys and teams do what they do and coordinate getting the turf out, getting the dirt out, getting the stands set for the Final Four and the Taylor Swift stage after that. It’s this chaotic orchestra and ballet of steel and bodies and tools, and somehow it all really works.”
NRG Stadium employs a facility staff of about 300-400 full-time employees that work daily. Employees count can swell to 3,000 or 4,000 employees on the day of an event. With more than 500 events scheduled yearly among the three facilities at NRG Park, the staff is never lacking to find duties.
Since the Texans football team is the primary tenant at NRG Stadium, facility staff members often work around the team’s activities, such as practices or press conferences while preparing for other events like concerts or trade shows.
“When you have three major facilities like this, you’re always making sure that the light bulbs are changed, making sure that concrete’s not cracking so someone doesn’t trip and fall, and making sure we don’t have a Superdome incident like what happened in the Super Bowl and the lights go out in the middle of the game (in 2013, a power outage caused a 34-minute delay during the NFL title game in New Orleans),” Walsh says. “It’s really a laundry list of things that are check listed on a day-to-day basis with what we need to focus on and where the hotspots are to focus our energy.”
Managing high-profile facilities requires the ability to handle multiple issues at one time. While paving the way for a more sustainable future for NRG Park, Walsh continues working on securing events that keep the doors open and entertainment and convention revenue flowing to the Houston area.
“We found a very creative way to solve some of these issues,” Walsh says about the sustainability plan. “My staff will tell you my least favorite phrase, I will end the meeting if you come to me and say, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it.’ It’s about how do we solve the problems that are facing us. I think the most important part is being creative and certainly this team has been instrumental in that.”
Dave Lubach is the executive editor of the facilities market. He has more than eight years of experience writing about facility management and maintenance issues.