Riding the short distance from downtown to the University of Houston campus, light rail passengers arrive at Athletics District station in the shadow of a towering 40,000-capacity football stadium that opened in 2014 at a cost of about $125m.
An adjacent $20m, 100,000 sq ft indoor football practice centre opened in 2017. The smart facilities give the impression that you’ve stepped into a big-time institution, and the university’s football team will soon have the cachet to match its bricks and mortar.
University leaders were jubilant earlier this month when it was announced that the Cougars will join the Big 12 conference, along with three others, as the prestigious league restocks after two of the biggest college football powers, Oklahoma and Texas, decided to leave for the Southeastern Conference.
“I love big. I love everything big,” the Houston president, Renu Khator, told reporters.
Houston is widely viewed as a poor relation to Texas’ better-known public universities, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M, and is often dismissed as a “commuter school” – of its 47,090 students last year, 80% came from the Houston area. So football and basketball are central to its profile-boosting efforts, or so the theory goes.
Indeed, the university’s new television commercial debuted on ESPN and is based around a football chant. No one would dispute that a thrilling season – like the Cougars’ run to the Final Four of March Madness this year – brings more media attention than, say, a new library. And some studies have found that successful teams can help increase student applications, at least in the short term.