Following their breakthrough into the playoffs, the Houston Texans face some big questions.
Foremost among them are the contracts of outside linebacker Mario Williams and running back Arian Foster. Williams can become an unrestricted free agent and potentially command the richest contract for a defensive player in league history. Foster will be a restricted free agent who could be pursued by another club.
While general manager Rick Smith and coach Gary Kubiak worry about roster construction, and while many analysts like this one predict continued big things for the franchise, team president Jamey Rootes is looking at growing the team’s loyal following.
He’s already using a theme Kubiak is sure to hit with his players when they reassemble:
“You start back at zero. Nobody gives you anything. You’ve got to go out and earn it again.”
As with any team, a playoff breakthrough marked a significant increase in interest in the Texans.
But because theirs was the first time in the postseason, a lot of people were being exposed for the first time. Rootes wants to ensure the big moments of last season -- an AFC South clinching win in Cincinnati, a home playoff win against the Bengals, and a tough divisional-round loss in Baltimore -- are sticky.
“I thought it would be kind of a slow build, kind of a slow climb,” he said. “But from the time we got on the plane to go to Cincinnati to the time we came home as division champs, the world was completely different ...
“While we’ve had this great base of fans, that being recognized as a winner brought a whole new group of people into our family. Now it’s our job to hold them.”
Rootes cited three great indicators:
TV ratings for the two playoff games in Houston shot up to a 36 from an average of 24. That’s an estimate of the percentage of the market watching. The playoff game in Baltimore had a 68 share in Houston, meaning 68 percent of the households with TVs on were watching at that given time.
Texans gear was under Christmas trees all over Houston. The team sold more than $1 million worth of merchandise in just December, and Rootes said the Texans are up 200 percent, year over year.
National attention was up, as Rootes noticed the Texans being featured in ESPN’s weekly “NFL Matchup” show.
Said defensive end Antonio Smith: “It’s way more intense. The fans have done, I don’t want to say a 180, but the city blew up. The difference is noticeable. I think it’s very important we hold onto those new people, that’s big for any organization, starting to secure a legacy…
“There are still people in their hearts who are Houston Oilers fans, they’re torn in between the Titans and us. We won a lot over. We have to continue to do so, and have the city 100 percent behind us.”
Rootes will latch on to that, campaigning to win over anybody and everybody who’s hasn’t connected or committed to wearing Texans colors.
“Now these new people are exposed to us, which is good,” Rootes said. “We weren’t on their radar before. I think it comes back to the fundamentals. The people that loved us, we were on their radar, they saw what we do: ‘These guys are working hard, they're trying to build a champion, they create memorable experiences for us every time I’m involved with them.’
“We talk about 'create raving fans'; that’s our goal. Do whatever it takes to delight people, and that’s how you conduct yourself, and how you serve people and the experiences you provide. Do great things for Houston.”
It’s marketing spin language, for sure. But it’s an important time for the franchise to make it work, no matter how it’s framed or executed.
While the football side plans how to field the best team possible for an encore performance, the administrative side needs to do the same. To grow the team’s footprint, to ensure that deep roots take hold, Rootes and his staff need to seize on the good feelings that linger and make people feel invested.
The Texans didn’t play a prime-time game last season, so as good as they were they had no national game until Cincinnati visited for the playoff opener.
Houston is sure to be a regular presence in prime time in 2012, when an expanded Thursday night package will expand the opportunity. Rootes said he campaigns with the league and with network executives for the publicity, the best advertising he can get.
“There is such energy in the stadium that the world doesn’t know about, it’s like a local phenomenon,” he said. “We want to expose it to the world, and national television is the way to do that.”
I suspect the Texans will go from invisible on the national slate to regularly featured. The hope is that they can play even better than they did while going 10-6 in 2011.
And, that as they do, an additional layer of fans in southeastern Texas and beyond will be invested in it all.