Culture / Sporting Life

Houston Builds On Its Big Events City Rep With a College Football National Championship Moment Where Real People Win — This World Cup Prequel Has Heart

Tickets For the Title Game Between Michigan and Washington Are Setting Records, But the Largely Free Buildup Means Plenty

BY // 01.08.24

You can feel the excitement almost anywhere you go around town, the sense that something interesting is happening. Houston, one of the best Big Event cities in America, is doing its thing. This time, it’s the College Football Playoff National Championship Game (a rare new first for Houston, a city that seems to have hosted everything by now, and a swan song for the four team playoff format itself). Whether you care if undefeated Michigan (the favorite) or undefeated Washington win the national title at NRG Stadium Monday night or not, the real winner is Houston’s ability to make a big event seem even bigger.

And also somehow much more approachable. For when Houston hosts the CFP or anything else, that mega event becomes more Houston too. More friendly. More inviting to all. More grand. More eccentric.

“Houston is such a unique and diverse city with so much going on, but when we have these mega events that bring the eyes of the country, and sometimes the world, to our city, it’s a really unique opportunity to showcase how diverse, how inclusive and how supportive we are as a community,” College Football Playoff Houston host committee president Chris Massey tells PaperCity. “So really it’s a great opportunity for us to showcase everything that’s true to us as Houstonians.”

One thing Houston does is draw a lot of people in. More people are moving to Houston these days than any other city in America (besides Dallas). This is a place that knows how to get newcomers involved (whether they’re just visiting or making one of those always-being-constructed townhouses their new permanent home.) And the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in Houston certainly comes through on this count too.

The completely free Playoff Fan Central draws thousands of fans for football fun, puppy fun, truck fun — really any kind of wholesome, sponsorable fun possible — and turns the George R. Brown Convention Center into something of a giant playground. The completely free major act concerts fill the Dynamo’s 22,000-seat Shell Energy Stadium. And all of downtown seems to be aglow. The Galleria becomes another hub, with enough Michigan and Washington-clad folks walking around the mall to hold an unofficial giant pep rally every day.

Then there are the parties, seemingly popping up everywhere. ESPN takes over the POST on Saturday night and turns the non-food hall side of the sprawling former post office into a sweeping party scene. The Revaire becomes the site of a Cole Swindell concert turned dance party for premium ticket buyers.

“This is the one week of the year when it seems like the whole college football world comes together,” ESPN analyst Booger McFarland says.

This is big as the steel-looking giant football figures that became Instagram post must-gets at the College Fan Experience.

When Houston hosts the CFP or anything else, that mega event becomes more Houston too. More friendly. More inviting to all. More grand. More eccentric.

Fan Fest at the George R. Brown Convention Center as the City of Houston hosts the NCAA College Football Championship game with the University of Washington facing off against the University of Michigan at NRG Stadium
The College Football Fan Experience at George R. Brown included some hulking figures. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

It is drawing the non-football people in where Houston shows its difference-making ability though. Two thousand kids from Houston neighborhoods that don’t usually get to experience these kind of events are bused in to George R. Brown so they can have fun at the Playoff Fan Central fest, get a free lunch and spend the night at Shell Energy Stadium watching the kids concert. And all the proceeds from the Trophy Trot 5K and 10K races go to the Houston Loves Teachers campaign, continuing a College Football Playoff tradition of boosting educators.

“We’ve never touched teachers in this big of a way,” Houston Sports Authority CEO Janis Burke tells PaperCity. “We’ve done vets. We’ve done homeless initiatives. We’ve done all kinds of different things. But this is the first time really touching teachers.

“And to really be able to communicate with 20,000 of our teachers in the area, that’s been super fun and exciting. And rewarding. A lot of times these teachers don’t get that kind of love. And they don’t get that type of appreciation. For us to be able to do that through an event, that’s been really fun.”

Executive director Bill Hancock and the rest of the College Football Playoff leadership team deserve credit for keeping these national championship games closer to the feel of a real college football game rather than the corporate junket bonanza of a Super Bowl. Setting aside 20,000 seats for the fans of each school before the rest of the tickets are opened up to anyone else — and long before anyone knows it’s going to be Michigan vs. Washington — goes a long way towards preserving that real game feel.

Michigan Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy signs autographs during Media Day at the George R. Brown Convention Center as the City of Houston hosts the NCAA College Football Championship game with the University of Washington facing off against the University of Michigan at NRG Stadium
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy signs for his fans in Houston. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

“A lot of times these teachers don’t get that kind of love. And they don’t get that type of appreciation. For us to be able to do that through an event, that’s been really fun.” — Houston Sports Authority CEO Janis Burke

In a way, you’d hope this national championship game lead-up, with so many in Houston drawn in, serves as something of a mini model for the world’s mega event of all mega events that is coming to Houston in 2026. OK, the overlords at FIFA in control of the World Cup are not to going to ever look to college football for an example. But the Houston Sports Authority and the local organizing committee can take some lessons.

“Every time we host one of these big events and we do it well, not only the organizers and the teams and the fans feel that and go back talking about what a great job Houston’s done, but it also helps us when we’re bidding for that next big event,” Burke says. “There are things we learn every time we do one of these.

And we’re getting ready for World Cup in a couple of years and you take all those experiences and just keep building on it.”

From National Championship Game to The World

In some ways, that 2017 Super Bowl, the three Final Fours Houston hosted in a just-completed 12 year span and Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game are just the buildup to when the world truly arrives on the Bayou City’s front door in 2026. There is nothing like a World Cup.

Of course, this national championship game mini week has been something very different for Houston too, something refreshing, largely free (with the big exception of the game itself of course, where the get-in ticket price is still hovering around what would be a record $900 on the secondary market for the farthest away seats at NRG Stadium) and surprisingly real people based.

“Our end goal is that well after the dust settles — when everybody leaves town — you can ask a random Houstonian a week from now, a month from now, a year from now and they can say, ‘I remember when the CFP was in town because,’ ” Massey says. ” ‘Because I got a great business deal. Because I got to volunteer. Because I got to see a great concert. Because I had a really good time. Because I eat some really great food.’

“Whatever their because is, that’s what we want to be able to create.”

Houston, Big Events City, only continues to grow. College football’s ultimate game has settled right into a worthy stage.

What’s next? The World.

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