If you're a football fan, this COVID-19 roller coaster has been a pretty mentally draining, with constant concern over whether we will even get games this fall, let alone be allowed back into stadiums to watch. Getting the game onto the field appears to be happening, at least for the first week of the season (when we will find out exactly what snorting, slobbering, and sweating on other individuals for 150 snaps of a football game means in the COVID Era).
Getting back into the stadium to watch, though? That appears to be a more daunting task, and the Houston Texans made it official on Friday afternoon, with this announcement from team president Jamey Rootes:
So chalk another piece of infuriating history up to the coronavirus, as the Texans will play their first NFL game (regular, preseason, to postseason) in front of an empty stadium. There are a few angles with this bit of unprecedented news that we need to touch upon. Here we go....
There will be no fans at the Texans toughest home game of the season
From purely a football standpoint, this decision makes winning this game, in its own vacuum, a more difficult task. Let's face it, the Ravens are one of the two best teams in the AFC (along with defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City), and they were easily the team that gave the Texans the most trouble in the 2019 regular season, a 41-7 shellacking in Week 11 in Baltimore. Fans would have helped. However, one way to look at this, if places like Kansas City (Texans road opponent, Week 1) and Pittsburgh (Texans road opponent, Week 3) are equally conservative in bringing fans back to the stadium, then maybe it's a decent trade off. Yeah, the Ravens game will be a quiet one, but the two toughest road venues the Texans travel to in 2020 might be empty (or certainly not even close to 100 percent capacity) in Weeks 1 and 3.
This decision is "on brand" with the Texans' approach to overall COVID safety
When it comes to safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Houston Texans have been one of the exemplary franchises in the NFL. As of this week, they are one of six teams to yield exactly zero positive COVID tests among players and staff (and the media, of which I am one of ten covering the team, PERFECT, too!), and the McNair family has invested millions into making the stadium ultra-sanitized and safe for everybody. So erring to the side of caution is in line with the meticulous way the team has handled the pandemic. (Conversely, Jerry Jones in Dallas is already putting plans to bring back a portion of Cowboy fans as soon as possible, for what it's worth.)
This does buy the Texans time to make sure protocols are nailed down for eventual fans
I'm assuming, though, that the McNairs are fond of making a profit (for which I do not begrudge them), and they are also very vocal about wanting to create "memorable experiences" (part of their mission statement). In short, they are fan friendly, so they will want people in the building as soon as they see it as feasible. With no preseason games this year, holding off on fans at games in September does give the team time to ensure that they have a routine down on game day that is reasonable and safe. I do wonder if just one preseason home game would have given them a good enough look at a typical game day operation to feel safe opening the doors to, say, 10,000 fans in Week 2. That'd be a good question for Texans' management.
College football actually factors into this storyline
How, you may ask? Well, consider this — each NFL team stands to lose literally BILLIONS of dollars if the season rolls along without fans in the stadium for any substantial length of time. One way, though, for the NFL to recoup some of those lost billions (or at least hundreds of MILLIONS) would be for all of college football to out and out cancel the entire 2020 season, and then the NFL could come swoop in and take over those Saturday broadcast windows. That would provide some bump in revenue that would make empty stadiums a little less painful. I believe the Texans' main motivator is fan safety and logistics in Friday's decision, but perhaps the possibility (likelihood?) of an eventual cancellation of college football allows them to be more conservative in making this decision.