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Optimism Growing for Full NFL Stadium Crowds By Fall 2021

The NFL is hopeful that they can have full stadiums come this fall.
The NFL is hopeful that they can have full stadiums come this fall.
Photo by Jack Gorman
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The sports year of 2021 has not been much better for Houston, if it's even been better at all, than things were in 2020, and make no mistake — things were BAD in town for sports in 2020. So as we sit and wait on what the Texans decide to do about the Deshaun Watson situation, let's sprinkle in a helping of positivity as we look toward this fall and the next football season.

According to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, there is optimism that we might be back to full NFL stadiums by this fall:

As the nation begins to make real progress when it comes to beating back the pandemic, the National Football League has a growing sense of optimism that stadiums will be full during the 2021 season.

From the availability of vaccines to signs of potential herd immunity, some believe that, by Memorial Day, the tide will have turned dramatically. Then, by Labor Day, the question becomes whether pro football will be able to pack its venues.

Now, to be clear, there are no Fauci-style doctors reports in Florio's post, or any NFL luminaries directly quoted. It's mostly Florio saying there is "growing optimism," listing the reasons why, and then listing all the things that could swing the needle the other way. However, Florio, who is also part of NBC's Sunday night in-season broadcasts of the NFL, is pretty well plugged into league circles, so this type of speculation is not baseless.

Let's look at some of what this news might mean, if true, and the league does get back to allowing for full stadiums. We will look at what it means, in general, and what it means locally for the Texans. Here we go:

Will people want to come back?
This is the million dollar question, isn't it? Just because the league (and the government) are saying it's okay to fill stadiums again, that doesn't mean that season ticket holders will want back in automatically. Perhaps, many of them are still paranoid about the virus. Perhaps, the football team's product isn't worth making the trek out to the stadium (a legit concern in Houston, more on that in a moment). The fact of the matter is, long before COVID-19 even existed, filling stadiums had been an issue for a majority of professional sports teams and major colleges. The in-home viewing experience, with HD television and surround sound, is so immersive, and the food and drink at home is so much cheaper, it's caused a reevaluation of the game day experience at the stadium by many former game-goers.

Salary cap ramifications
Getting back to full stadiums sooner rather than later would be very beneficial to future free agents over the next couple years. The salary cap in the NFL for 2020 was just under $200 million, but when empty stadiums became a likelihood for the 2020 season, the owners and players immediately pivoted on the cap for 2021, establishing a floor of $175 million for the 2021 salary cap. (NOTE: The cap for a given season is always based on the previous year's revenues. Hence, the 2021 cap has empty stadiums factored in.) Within the last week, the league has adjusted that floor upward to $180 million, and it's expected to settle in just above that when free agency begins in a few weeks:

Per a league source with knowledge of the situation, it’s possible that the number will be more than $180 million — but the number most likely won’t reach $185 million.

The final number for the salary cap, per the source, could land in the range of $182 million to $183 million.

The league is spreading the massive financial shortfall for 2020 over several seasons, so full stadiums would be nice, but they won't, all of a sudden, shoot the salary cap way, way up.

What if there had been full crowds at NRG Stadium in 2020?
OK, back to the full stadium thing. Here in Houston, aside from the first home game which was played in an empty stadium, the Texans were allowing around 13,000 fans into each game. Now, keep in mind that the Texans were coming off an offseason with an unpopular head coach, who also doubled as the general manager, who had tried one of the most popular players in team history, DeAndre Hopkins, for a second round pick and a washed up running back.

Had there been a full stadium allowed, it would have been interesting to not only hear the crowd's feedback on O'Brien, but see just how badly O'Brien damaged the ticket holders' "want to" to make the effort to show up on game day. Crowds of 13,000 gave Cal McNair no gauge for that. A potentially full NRG Stadium, that suddenly was way less than "full," may have made McNair think twice about some of the subsequent decisions that have led us to Deshaun Watson's wanting to be traded.

Texans fans opting out of 2021 season tickets is stickier than you might think.
Speaking of the Watson drama, the public is nearly unanimously on Watson's side in his standoff with the team, which is telling, because more often than not, fans side against players on stuff like this. The Texans have been so inept in their decision making that fans are universally against the owner and front office. Many people have screamed "I will not renew my season tickets!" or they've encouraged boycotts.

One thing people should know about season tickets in 2021 is that the Texans offered season ticket holders the chance to defer their 2020 season ticket payments into 2021, if they chose to back out of the COVID season this year. many people did that. (NOTE: My wife is one of them.) This was a decision that season ticket holders had to make long before Bill O'Brien started the season 0-4 and the team pissed off its best player. So for many season ticket holders, the Texans actually hold most (in my wife's case, 75 percent) of their money for 2021's season tickets. So just merely saying "I'm out for 2021!" isn't as easy as it sounds for many seasons ticket holders, and that doesn't even factor in the emotional element of cancelling season tickets you've held for nearly two decades. It's complicated, for sure.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.

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