I fancy myself the kind of football fan who is a student of the game; one who appreciates the combination of strategy, talent, strength, will to win, situational awareness, external influences (like weather), and luck that make up the game of football. The big thing that separates football from basketball, soccer, baseball, and hockey is that in football, the best games are between the best teams. On the other hand, in soccer, for example, the scores in the games between the top teams are typically something like 1-0 with the game decided on a penalty kick. Sure, I get that serious soccer fans appreciate all of the wonderful moves made during the endless running around without a score, but, to me at least, it makes for a dull and boring game. In baseball, if the starting pitcher has his best stuff and is hitting the strike zone, then who the hitters are is pretty much irrelevant. The night before those hitters might have blasted 5 homeruns and won the game 13-2, but against a great pitcher they are pretty much powerless. I do like the strategy part of baseball a lot—it is much more interesting than soccer, hockey, or basketball, but the mix of strategy, talent, and the will to win does not come close to football. Basketball at the highest levels, the NBA and big-time college, seems too small of a game for the skill of the players. Fouls and time management often are the difference. And what exactly is a foul any more? The officiating often seems closer to the way a high dive is scored than it does to some totally objective standard. At least basketball allows a fast break—unlike soccer and hockey.
I do watch all of these sports at least a little, but I especially follow college and NFL football—mostly in the comfort of our living room. We do enjoy going to a college game now and then—the atmosphere in Kyle Field or the Big House is amazing, but I have only been to two pro-football games in my life. One of them was last night: the Cowboys versus the Texans in NRG Stadium.
First some positives, the fans of both teams were well behaved, entering and exiting NRG stadium was easy, the stadium seating is fairly comfortable (unless you are as big as I am), drink holders are provided, the bathrooms were adequately sized and clean, and the air conditioning is excellent. Some negatives: the sound quality is terrible, there is a lot of expensive beer, the ads on the big screens are easier to read than the down and distance, and, more troubling to me, I felt distant from the game itself. As a “serious” football fan, I get more out of watching the game at home than I did in the stadium last night. The first problem is the terrible audio quality. If the announcer was doing some sort of play-by-play announcements or injury updates, I did not hear them; all I heard was an occasional word mixed in with loud and distorted noise. The big screen ads were very readable, but unfortunately, the game stat fonts were just a bit to small for me to read easily. The next problem for me was the stadium’s efforts to excite the crowd. Flames shot up in the air, the music between plays was too loud, videos on the big screens were a bit over the top, and various between play activities on the field were more of a distraction than they were aids to enjoying the game. Another problem for me was that the stadium seemed to miss an opportunity to reach out to the many Cowboy fans in attendance. This game was between Cowboys and Texans. Well, in Houston and Dallas, everyone is a Texan, and I imagine most people in both cities also like and identify with cowboys. (The Houston Rodeo, the biggest in the country, is held annually in NRG Stadium.) I get that the cities of Houston and Dallas compete with each other, but it is more of a sibling rivalry—the glitz of Dallas vs the energy of Houston. On the other hand, neither Texas city has much in common with New York or San Francisco. There has to be a way to differentiate this game, a game between siblings, from, say, a game with the New York Jets. With so many Cowboy fans in the Houston area, it seems like the stadium should be encouraging them to come back to NRG for a non-Cowboy game instead of emphasizing the Texan/Cowboy rivalry. The goal for Texas should be an all-Texas Super Bowl (in Texas).
To be fair, the stadium was sold out and most people stayed to the end. They obviously enjoyed the game. But I do suspect that there were two kinds of fans at the game. The fan seeking a night of entertainment, and the fan who is a student of the game. I think more can and should be done for the latter. To me, it is not just about who wins and loses one game. It is about the players, coaches, the season, and the game itself. Is the game being played with good sportsmanship including respect for the opponent? How does winning or losing help or hurt the season? How does this one game fit into the history, traditions, and future of football?
One of my sons said that many fans bring a radio to a NFL game so they can keep up with the game stats, injuries, and announcer observations. That seems old school. I do not even own a small portable radio. Do any teams have a smart phone app or call-in number so fans could listen to a customized stadium play-by-play on their phones? I feel no urge to attend another Texan game in person. But if the stadium took some steps to make the game in the stadium more interesting than the way I interface with games at home, then I’d consider it more seriously.
As for the game itself: I thought Dallas was very well coached and prepared. They went into the stadium of a more talented team and nearly won. The player with the biggest impact was Mr. Hopkins, the totally amazing Texan wide receiver. I do not know what kind of a person he is, but I hope he has the perspective to see that he is on top of the world right now. It will not last forever, but those of us who have seen him play will never forget him.