Sallie Sargent, president and chief executive officer of the Houston Super Bowl host committee, sat down with Texas Medical Center Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy and Operating Officer William F. McKeon to reflect on what she has accomplished in her short time here, and what is still to come as her team prepares for the single day when millions of sports fans around the country will be looking at Houston.
Q | Tell us about the early days—where you were raised, what your parents did and a little bit about your family.
A | I was born in Sacramento, California, but it was just a stop along the way. My father was in mining equipment sales. My parents are both natives of Tucson, Arizona, and they are now in Scottsdale. My dad was in the mines in Ray, Arizona, and he realized that he didn’t want to be underground, so he figured out how to get on the right side of the mine. So mining equipment sales. We traveled around quite a bit when I was young, but we settled in Scottsdale and I grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona. We went from California to Chicago to Florida and then back to Arizona, and then dad started traveling internationally from that point in time. I am one of six children, number four—five girls and one boy. I grew up there and went on to University of Arizona and then got my start in all of this crazy sports stuff with the Fiesta Bowl, so college football, and that was a fluke of a connection. There was a gentleman who was a high school friend of ours, and he was the number two guy, he had been the SID (sports information director) at Arizona State University and he was at the Fiesta Bowl. They had this crazy idea of having a corporate sponsor for a bowl game, so they needed someone to act as a host or an interface liaison. It was just a very short-term job. Fiesta Bowl used to have theirs on Christmas Day. But then I stayed on at Fiesta Bowl. Everyone thought we had ruined college sports forever. It was the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl and from there I went on to do 14 Fiesta Bowls. It just grew and developed.
Q | What was the impetus that started the first Industry Sponsored Bowl Game?
A | I can remember the founders of the Fiesta Bowl really believed that if you did bring the corporate side of the equation into it, all of those things—the money, the advertising, the notoriety—the competition back then was the Rose Bowl, so how do you become the Rose Bowl? This was one of the ways they thought to go about it. The Sunkist growers were a terrific group because they were a co-op and still are a co-op of orange growers and so it was just a really special time and for me, I felt like I really started to learn the art of sponsorship of sports from the ground up. We learned a lot in those days about how to do things and then what you get them.
Q | Do cities consider you a ‘hired gun’ when they are awarded a major event like the Super Bowl?
A | A hired gun, absolutely, that’s how I term myself. I am a hired gun. I am also a gypsy because I have moved around a lot. However, my move to Houston was a unique one, as I have never started from the bid process and then carried it all the way through. In my mind, when I came to Houston, I was here for six months to do the bid, win the award and then I am on to the next thing.
Q | You moved from the Fiesta Bowl to the Super Bowl. When did the transition happen? Do you focus solely on the Super Bowl or do you still handle other major events?
A | What’s interesting is that I did my Fiesta Bowl, and then in 1990, I started my own business called Spectacular Productions. My business partner was substantially older than I was and had a lot of experience in large-scale events. My first Super Bowl experience was 1991, when we worked on the pre-game show, and that was the famous Whitney Houston National Anthem. I can remember doing rehearsal with her in her white track suit and I was really exposed to this piece of the Super Bowl back then. Arizona was awarded the game for Super Bowl XXX and of course, because the Fiesta Bowl was and still is a very large presence in the Phoenix community—huge band of volunteers, very well organized sports, all of that—there was a lot of interest in taking some of the folks from the Fiesta Bowl and then moving them to the Super Bowl. My first true post-committee experience was 1996, Super Bowl XXX, but we played the game at Arizona State University, so the Cardinal stadium hadn’t even been built yet. It was a very unique kind of experience for me, but what is fascinating is some of the people that worked for the NFL then in 1996, I am still working with today. Because of my business, I was doing a lot of other things, worked on other large-scale events that were not necessarily sporting events. Really getting a knowledge and understanding of the technical side of the equation, the operation side of the equation. I can remember shot sheeting back in the day when you used to have to go through film to put video together and all of that. Great, great, great opportunities for me to kind of learn the big picture.
Q | Most people think of the Super Bowl as a global event that happens on a Sunday. Help us understand what is involved in staging a Super Bowl and the impact it will have on our city.
A | The first thing is, the bid process is a very unique process. I have worked on four bids now for the Super Bowl and I liken it to the worst school project you would ever want to do in your life. I say that because you are chasing things, because you can’t even be considered as a host city until you have fulfilled all of the requirements of a 153-page document that includes hotel contracts for over 19,000 hotel rooms, all of the venues that seat at least 1,000 people. It is so voluminous, but you have to have all of that stuff in place, because once you are awarded the game, you lose leverage. You have to have those things in place first.
Q | Who decides to initiate a bid on a Super Bowl?
A | First and foremost, it is the NFL owners, so for Houston it was Mr. McNair and the Texans. The owners are the ones who vote and determine where the Super Bowl is held. You certainly have to have the support and the desire from the owner in the city. From there, the actual RFP landed on Greg Ortel’s desk who, at the time, was the president of the convention and visitors bureau. Now the relationship between them and Houston has kind of morphed together. Because it is like booking the biggest convention you can in your city, that is where it typically lands, at the convention and visitors bureau, but then you need the support of the city, county and other municipalities that have to come together and work together. There are lots of components to getting everyone together in short order to deliver.
Q | Do all owners bid every year to host the Super Bowl in their respective cities?
A | It used to be that you could not even bid on a Super Bowl if you did not have a domed stadium. Of course, New York changed all of that. Now, what they do is the league asks all of the ownership their interest. From there, they kind of identify who the shortlist is. In many cases, the owners certainly want to support other owners and the communities that they are in and reward them for bringing in a new stadium or elevating the level of play for the team.
Q | Cities that host the Olympics are often challenged on the return on investment for hosting an Olympics. The Super Bowl, however, has the reputation of making positive contributions. How are they different?
A | The main difference between the Olympics and the Super Bowl is there is no requirement by the NFL to build venues. The reason they come to a market like Houston is because we have a fabulous stadium, and the complex at NRG park, a very robust convention center and the hotels that associate with it. They start with that so there is no requirement for building infrastructure. I also think that the NFL has a very strong position on this legacy. One of the requirements of the bid is that we, as a committee, raise $1 million to go back into the community that the NFL Foundation matches. In our case, Ric Campo and I agreed that $2 million for a city this size just wasn’t enough, so we committed to double that number and give $4 million back to the community through grants and charitable giving.
Q | Is it too early to determine some of those projects that will contribute to the Houston community?
A | What we have now is the umbrella concept of what we are doing. Super Bowl 50 will be played in San Francisco, actually Santa Clara, and this whole season is kind of a retrospective. The last 50 years of Super Bowl, the golden anniversary. So for us, Super Bowl LI is the launch of the next 50 years of Super Bowl, the future of Super Bowl. We certainly know in our community, but want the rest of the world to understand, that Houston is the city of the future. We look like today what the rest of the United States is going to look like over the next couple of decades. We are really using that theme of future for everything that we do. As it pertains to the charitable giving, what makes up the future of Houston? We believe it is education, youth, health and wellness, and beautification or enhancement of our city. Those are the pillars of our charitable giving.
Q | What are some of the key events that we can look forward to for Super Bowl LI in Houston?
A | The day after Super Bowl 50, we are on the clock. We have some pretty exciting things so that certainly the Houston community, but hopefully the surrounding nation as well, will be able to recognize us as the host. Kind of getting that momentum going right then. We will launch a lot of our community projects right then, with the launch of Super Bowl LI. Then with the Final Four, the NCAA and NFL are very mindful and respectful of each other’s large-scale events and we will take our show on the road and let Final Four have their day in the sun. But we really feel strongly about communicating what we are doing to Austin, San Antonio, Beaumont and North Texas, reminding everyone that the Super Bowl is coming. So we will do a road show out in those communities and then really come back in the fall when football season kicks off and start doing some of these in our community. We are such a big geographical region—Katy, Sugar Land, Pearland—all of those folks need to first understand what we are doing as part of Super Bowl, but also ask, ‘How do I get involved?’ We need 10,000-plus volunteers to manage all of this, so we want to be able to draw from all of our communities to be able to participate and shrink down, down, down to a calendar of events. The host committee will sponsor and host a lot of civic events during that time and then our big crescendo is the 10 days prior to Super Bowl and then Super Bowl Central and the fan festival. In my mind there are two ways to produce a Super Bowl in a big city. You can keep your head down and just make sure you get the requirements done that the NFL needs and the community is kind of oblivious to what is going on. To your point, they think, ‘Oh I don’t have a ticket so there is nothing really in it for me.’ A lot of times, it can leave a bad impression or a bad taste in a community’s mouth, because I have extra traffic to deal with or road closures or whatever it is, so what is the benefit to me? We believe that you go about it another way and that is to embrace and really get the community involved and behind it and then offer some of these exciting ways to feel like you have been part of the Super Bowl, even if you are not inside the stadium. So the NFL Experience, which happens inside the George R. Brown, the NFL has created a very robust, interactive trade show, if you will, that has fun stuff for the kids and autographs from players and press conferences and all of that. Our idea of Super Bowl Central is to extend that out in the Downtown area as a free event for our community to then experience a lot of the Super Bowl experience, fun concerts in the evening, food and beverage, really just to get the Super Bowl experience.
Q | How many people do you have in your organization responsible for producing this event?
A | Currently we are at 22. We will pick up another 10 between now and the first quarter of next year, but that is the core group. We also have a community council made up of all the community leaders that help us open doors and do a lot of things for us. You have got that group, the host community at large, you’ve got the volunteer committee, the 10,000 volunteers, so you want to make sure you have the organization in place. It is great to have 10,000 volunteers, but you better know what you are doing with them and make sure they have their marching orders and also have a really great experience.
Q | How many people can be held in NRG stadium?
A | You have to have at least 70,000, that is the requirement. With press, you are somewhere upward of that, probably 75,000, in the stadium.
Q | How many viewers worldwide?
A | 125 million. This is the biggest single-day event in the world. You think about how much notoriety and air time and coverage that the city of Houston is going to get—you can’t buy it, you just can’t.