Supporting Sport and Community
“Every event that we undertake we make part of our mission to connect with our community.” Janis Burke, CEO of Harris County Houston Sports Authority, tells us about the organization’s efforts to facilitate sporting events across the city and county
Writer: Marcus Kääpä | Project Manager: Tom Cullum
Sporting events around the globe have been shaken up over the past 18 months.
From the inception of the COVID-19 pandemic and its international hold, the lengthy periods of continued social restrictions and government-imposed lockdowns across various parts of the world has made it truly difficult to keep sport alive within this time. From soccer and swimming to athletics and archery, both participants and followers have been hit hard by the limited action on the pitch, track and pool.
However, despite events being pushed back, such as the Tokyo Olympics held this summer; a year after its intended date, sport is regaining its footing. Mass vaccinations and greater awareness of COVID-19 has allowed sport to revive - albeit cautiously – and pave the way for the upcoming generations of athletes to develop, participate, and make their mark.
In major cities across the U.S. various established sports commissions act as the organization that maintains, promotes, and leads such sporting events for the wider community. Notable organizations such as the LA Sports Council and the Chicago Sports Commission are two that jump to mind.
Based in Texas, another of these is the Harris County - Houston Sports Authority (HCHSA) which provides oversight to world-class, professional sports venues and promotes the region for sports-related events, aiming to enhance economic development and bring better quality of life to residents in the community.
“We’re a little bit different than other sports commissions,” begins Janis Burke, CEO of HCHSA. “Many others are focused solely on the marketing arm of sports, and yet our agency oversees roughly 1.2 billion dollars of bond debt service for the stadiums in Houston. This involves facilitating and renting out the sports stadiums across the region to the professional sports teams.
“We have the MLB Houston Astros, the NBA Houston Rockets, NFL Houston Texans, MLS Houston Dynamo and NWSL Houston Dash, as well as hosting the largest rodeo in the world each year in the stadiums our organization financed. We are in a landlord role to the professional teams that use the city’s venues, and alongside this we undertake the traditional marketing role of a sports commission to bid for and host sporting events.”
Operating with people at heart
Sporting events are part of the culture and identity of those who live in Houston. Operating to the best ends of the community and the people therein, the HCHSA is made and bound by its employees and the sports enthusiasts that make up this community.
“Really without the staff, it doesn’t happen,” Burke tells us. “They are one of the best teams in the country, if not the world.”
“At an executive level, both Chris Massey, Vice President, and Holly Kesterson, Vice President of Events, have received the Sports ETA Game Changer of the Year Award, and our organization has gained recognition along the way including being named one of the Best Employers in Sports by New York’s Front Office Sports Media. That’s because of the whole team from top to bottom - they make it happen.”
A large portion of the HCHSA team is made up of its dedicated workforce of approximately 30,000 volunteers. These members of the extended staff often maintain full-time jobs on top of their sports commission volunteer duties and even go as far as to book vacation days to help the organization host various sporting events around the region.
“Recently, with the city’s AAU Junior Olympic Games, we had around 40 interns from all over the country to help us carryout the Games, many of whom flew in from other cities to help out,” Burke explains. “And with larger events such as when Houston hosted the Super Bowl in 2017, there were over 10,000 volunteers helping out. These incredible people are ambassadors during mega events and act as an extension of the destination.”
And giving back to Houston is as important to the organization as the sports events that it facilitates. A part of the HCHSA’s purpose is the focus of building positive impact for the community through various sports projects.
“Every event that we undertake we make part of our mission to connect with our community in some way,” Burke elaborates. “Whether that is rebuilding a floor for a boys or girls sports club that desperately needs it or helping install a green space within the city that is safe place for kids in the area to play in, the HCHSA cares about giving back.”
A prime example of these efforts was the investment into a $400,000 soccer field that was provided through the organization’s soccer initiatives linked to the city’s desire to host major soccer events to include the possibility of being part of the 2026 World Cup. The HCHSA has also ventured into helping facilitate the construction of a pro rugby stadium through land donation by the City of Houston, and on top of this, has aided in the promotion of “up and coming” sports to accommodate and diversify sports options in the city.
“Two years ago, we helped get the world’s largest bike park and BMX track built through a partnership with the North Houston Development Corporation,” Burke tells us proudly. “The bike park totals over 22 acres with a BMX track at the one end and has already hosted numerous races to include national championships.”
“It is a fantastic project, and we’ve also supported the creation of many other facilities to include a skateboarding park as this discipline has recently moved forward as a more popular and recognized sport.”
Building Future Potential
The HCHSA continually looks ahead towards the hosting of future major sporting events. At present, the organization is planning for 2023 and beyond, including the NCAA Division One Men’s Basketball Championships, the 2024 College Football Playoffs, the next Junior Olympic Games in 2025, with hopes of also hosting the World Cup in 2026.
Between these major events, the HCHSA aims to keep its efforts people-centric while hosting and facilitating smaller seasonal and annual sporting events for participants and followers alike, bringing the community together throughout the year through the love of sport.