In what is arguably the pinnacle of team sports, one of the NFL’s ironies is the need for at least one “Face of the Franchise” player, if not more. In the history of the Houston Texans, players like David Carr, Andre Johnson, Arian Foster, Brian Cushing, Mario Williams, Matt Schaub, J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins, Jadeveon Clowney, Deshaun Watson, and others have carried that torch.
In 2021, the most recognizable name attached to the Houston Texans is Jack Easterby. That’s not a good thing on any level. Easterby’s public persona isn’t a famous player, a hero kids want to be when they grow up. No, he’s an infamous front office nightmare, widely known as the straw that broke the franchise’s back.
In the modern NFL, where free agency means players move around like gypsies with unlimited frequent flyer miles, organizations need to hang their hats on a player or two that fans can relate to. These sorts of players sell tickets, stoke the passions of fanbases, inspire people to buy team merchandise, and humanize the franchise. If we were to do ‘Man on the Street’ interviews in H-Town right now, asking passers-by who their favorite current Houston Texan was, odds are the majority of those polled wouldn’t have a valid answer.
This role often falls to the quarterback. But Tyrod Taylor and Davis Mills have both recently arrived and neither has shown they will be “that guy”.
How about a star running back, like Arian Foster? Nope... Houston has the worst run game in the NFL. Nowhere in Texas will you find kids dreaming of not playing in the super Bowl because they continually get tackled for a loss.
Wide receiver? The next Andre Johnson? Well, Brandin Cooks is pretty darn good, but he’s not set to put a franchise on his back for years on end.
How about a star defensive lineman? Does anyone know who the starters are on any given week?
Linebacker? Zach Cunningham should be a star in the league, but he’s not, ‘cause, Texans.
That leaves Justin Reid, another young should-be-star toiling away in frustrating obscurity.
We see the effects of this problem on the daily.
Plenty of good seats available in Houston today pic.twitter.com/93pJeC1lyv— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) October 10, 2021
.@HoustonTexans #Texans LOTS of Patriots fans..well, of the 25K or so, so far…cheering when told to “boo”…that’s where we are Texans fans…that’s where we are. pic.twitter.com/75iGO6rRv9— Chuck’s Sports Bar (@chuckssportsbar) October 10, 2021
Unfortunately, this major disconnect with the fanbase will largely go unnoticed by the team’s ownership, as the overall value of the franchise continues to rise (along with the entirety of the NFL brand).
Texans Ownership Makes Money For Nothing
The Green Bay Packers are a publicly owned franchise, sort of. Without getting into all that, for purposes of this discussion, it does allow transparency into what each of the 32 NFL teams get just for sitting at the table.
The NFL shared $8.78 billion in national revenue with its 32 teams this past season.
That number became clear on Friday when the Green Bay Packers, the league’s only public team, reported that its cut of the national revenue was $274.3 million. Each of 32 teams split that amount equally.
The national revenue has increased 33 percent since 2013, factoring for inflation, considering that each team received $187.7 million that year.
The value of the league’s investments stand out in the Green Bay Packers’ financial statements. For the 2020 season, the team reported an operating loss (including depreciation) of $38.8 million but net income of $60.7 million thanks to $120 million in mostly unrealized investment gains.
Forbes goes on to rank the overall value of each team, with your Houston Texans landing at the #11 spot.
Value: $3.7 billion
One-Year Change: 12%
Owner: Janice McNair
Operating Income: –$20.2 million
With a 12% year-over-year increase in value, this just looks like smart business to a rich person who cares not if the kids in the neighborhood have a star player to look up to when they dream of NFL glory. By ridding the team of expensive player and coaching contracts, the sort that come with having Faces of the Franchise, that bottom line value only increases. Why bother trying to actually win games when you can simply sink $4 million into a fund that gives you back $100 million in seven years?
Then there’s the NFL’s venture capital arm, 32 Equity, which has also been scoring. Each NFL team kicked in $1 million to launch 32 Equity in 2013 and has since put in another $3 million or so. Profits from 32 Equity have been reinvested rather than distributed to the teams, but the portfolio has generated average annual returns in excess of 30% and is now worth well over $100 million per team, according to team executives who requested anonymity. Among 32 Equity’s investments: Fanatics (sports merchandise), Skillz (mobile gaming), Genius Sports (sports data and technology), Clear (biometric identity verification), Hyperice (athlete recovery devices), Sportradar (sports data and technology), On Location (luxury event hospitality) and Mythical Games (gaming technology studio).
Having a guy like J.J. Watt in his prime sells tickets, gameday food and drink, parking passes, jerseys, bobbleheads, stickers, etc. But it’s doubtful the McNairs saw the same return on investment from Watt’s contract they’re seeing from 32 Equity. Sure, Watt’s impact went into the local economy as gameday vendors, local restaurants, stores, etc. all got to see the positive financial impact of a packed NFL stadium and a passionate fanbase. But why would Houston ownership care about that? They’re getting what they want. It’s no skin off Jack Easterby’s nose if the pizza place across from NRG Stadium goes out of business.
In the end, Cal McNair doesn’t care about the fans, or about the City of Houston, or about the kids growing up dreaming of NFL glory. He cares about watching his bank account grow, just like all the other greedy billionaires. If economics is the only motivator, then what’s a fan to do? Buy a Lonnie Johnson Jr. jersey and suck it up?
Choke back the bitter taste of powerlessness and find something else to do on Sunday afternoons, as evidenced by the empty parking lots and stadium seats at NRG Stadium, lack of merchandise sales at Academy and the team stores, and historically low overall interest from anyone outside the organization.
If every franchise were to operate this way, the NFL would crash and burn. However, there will always be enough teams like the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and others who win year after year to offset the Detroit Lions and Houston Texans of the pro football world. Just like David Culley has found the perfect, low effort, high paycheck job in Houston, the McNairs have done that in the business world.
This means Cal McEasterby will always have a free ride on the coat tails of the Jerry Joneses, Robert Krafts, and Art Rooneys of the world. Much to our chagrin.