The Big Game

The True Quarterback of Super Bowl LI Isn't Who You Think It Is

Sallie Sargent has spent years — yes, years — planning everything but the game.

By Adam Doster December 30, 2016 Published in the January 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Sallie Sargent

Sallie Sargent's life—until Super Bowl kickoff on February 5, at least—is one relentless, uninterrupted string of meetings. They start early each morning and extend well past sundown: conference calls, board check-ins, one-on-ones, brainstorming sessions. The 57-year-old president and CEO of the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee (HSBHC) tries to sleep between midnight and 6 a.m., but says she’s fallen behind on her “beauty rest.”

Every other week, Sargent’s 39-member team gathers at their offices near Discovery Green to update their boss on the myriad projects the committee oversees, from fundraising and corporate galas to security and volunteer coordination. The detail is granular, near-sociopathic. In one presentation, 102 days before the big game, Sargent’s transportation czar explains that he’s hired 50 standby buses to park in a downtown lot on the off-chance that a Metro train gets derailed, clogging the tracks during the NFL’s 10-day fan festival.

This job is a culmination of sorts for the one-time cheerleader from Arizona, who has worked in major-event production for nearly three decades and moved to Houston four years ago to write the city’s 153-page Super Bowl bid. Afterward, Sargent asked Ric Campo, HSBHC’s chairman, if she could run the whole operation. He told her to secure 11 major sponsors in six months, at which point he’d consider her application. She landed them with time to spare.

Sargent loves Houston, which she calls her “adopted hometown,” and she’s eager to promote its virtues on a global scale. The city has changed dramatically since it last played host, in 2004, and she wants the festivities to reflect its new infectious energy. Her female-heavy staff talks about Super Bowl week as a modified world’s fair, a legacy builder for a city trying to showcase its development and shake tired stereotypes. “Especially with oil and gas hurting,” one consultant tells the group, “what you’re doing here is special.”

It’s also mind-bogglingly complicated. There’s an absolutely rigid deadline. Brand-conscious NFL executives scrutinize every decision. Sargent must think through all potential contingencies, and keep all of Houston moving in the same unified direction. Through it all, she likes to picture herself in the eye of the storm, cool and collected. A six-week deadline? No problem! Creative approval from “the big boys in New York?” Got it covered.

Long past the final February whistle, Sargent says, she intends to stay in Houston, where she’s forged lifetime friendships: “Of course, the day after the game,” she laughs, “they’ll all say, ‘Sallie who?! You can’t do anything for me!’”

But that, of course, is a lifetime away. After today’s committee meeting, what’s in store for Sargent? Ever more meetings, plus an evening cocktail party. She runs a hand through her platinum blonde hair and considers the 102 days ahead of her. “Now I just need to find a little more time,” she says, “and a little more money.”

Excerpted from our January 2017 cover story, The Local’s Guide to Super Bowl Houston. 
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