The biggest sporting event of the year in the United States will take place Sunday in Houston, Texas, when the Carolina Panthers and the New England Patriots American football teams face each other in the Super Bowl. But there is more to the big event than a football game, there is also a week of parties and a lot of money for the host city.
Football fan or not, it is hard to avoid Super Bowl fever in Houston. Several blocks in the downtown area have been cordoned off for festivities, including free concerts by 38 bands. There are also a number of private parties and events for football fans and some corporations have flown in top executives to see the game as a bonus for their work over the past year.
This means big business for Houston. Hotels in the downtown area and for some distance around are full. Restaurants and bars are also doing a brisk business. Jamie, who works behind the bar at Shay McElroy's Irish pub near one of the main street party sites, says things are looking good.
Jamie: It is coming up in business. Happy Hour is turning out a lot better than I expected. Now, I am a little concerned about after the Super Bowl. Then all the visitors leave and everybody goes back to work and they do not come downtown anymore.
Flakus: What about the people from Houston, people who normally do not come downtown much and now they come and get to know this place?
Jamie: That is one big draw about the Super Bowl. People are going to come downtown for the parties and they will say, "this is really nice" and they will come down more often.
Houston officials worked hard to get the Super Bowl to come here because of the money it would bring in and also for the spotlight it would put on the city. The city had to spend millions of dollars sprucing up the downtown and preparing Reliant stadium, where the game will be held, and the convention center, where the National Football League is holding a number of events. Some economists question whether it will be worth it in the end, but there is no doubt that the Super Bowl does generate money for at least some sectors of the local economy.
Texas state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn estimates Houston will take in $166 million from the game and all the events surrounding it. She says hotels will make about $69 million over the course of a week and that the more than 100,000 visitors to the city will also spend around $15 million on entertainment and $41 million on merchandise.
But the dollar figures tell only part of the story. This is only the second time Houston has hosted the Super Bowl. The last time was 30 years ago. The game tends to rotate among cities like Miami, New Orleans and San Diego. If things go well here, Houston could have a chance to do it all again.
The value of the Super Bowl spotlight is partly figured in emotions, like pride.
Jim Nantz is a Houston native who has gained fame nationwide as a sports announcer on the CBS television network. He helped organize an entertainment event at the beginning of the week to officially kick off Super Bowl week. He says he wants the world to see what the nation's fourth-largest city has to offer.
"I live up in New York and Connecticut and I want people to know that Houston is special. We have great people here. We have kind-hearted people here," he said.
The showcase aspect of the big game is also important to city officials. Mayor Bill White has devoted a lot of attention to the transportation problem in a downtown area that rarely sees this many people and this many vehicles on the streets all at once.
"Obviously, traffic will be a little worse, but we have a traffic plan. We will have uniformed folks on the major intersections around downtown," the mayor said.
Another big concern and expense is security. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there has been tighter security at all big public events and the Super Bowl is one of the biggest. Reliant Stadium spokesman Shea Guinn says football fans will have to endure some delays entering the site.
Security is going to be tight," he said, "but at the same time it is not too terribly intrusive on the fan. I think, for these big events, the fans, since 9-11, have become used to it."
Houston police are also on the alert for another type of security problem -- petty theft. They expect a large number of pickpockets to be in town for the festivities and they are warning people to be vigilant, especially when they are in large crowds.
Houston appears to be a football-crazy city at the moment, but this may just be a passing phase. Nineteen-year-old college student Mindy is spending these days dressed in a Super Bowl hat and sweat shirt handing out event schedules to visitors downtown.
Mindy: There seems to be a lot of people coming into town.
Flakus: Do you sense a lot of excitement and interest?
Mindy: I think everybody is really excited and interested. People cannot wait.
Flakus: How about you? Are you going to watch the Super Bowl?
Flakus: You are not that interested?
Mindy: No, I am not.
Flakus: You are all decked out in Super Bowl stuff, but you are not interested?
Mindy: That is right. It is just my job. I will be selling off all these items on Super Bowl day.
So, while some people here cannot wait for the game to take place, others cannot wait for the whole thing to be over. Next week, after the game has entered football history, Houstonians will be getting back to normal routines and, if all goes well, assessing how much good the Super Bowl did for local business and the image of the city.