Sitting outside at the Arizona Biltmore on Wednesday morning, one day after the close of the NFL owners meetings, Cal McNair and Hannah McNair were talking about the Texans’ fans and their efforts to rebuild and strengthen a connection that’s been severely tested during three consecutive losing seasons.
Since hiring former Texans Pro Bowl linebacker DeMeco Ryans as their new head coach, his presence has galvanized optimism and boosted season-ticket sales significantly. How the team performs on the field will be the ultimate determining factor of success, but the Texans’ relevance is definitely on the upswing after finishing with a combined record of 11-38-1 during the past three seasons and moving on from head coaches Lovie Smith, David Culley and Bill O’Brien in that span.
Texans general manager Nick Caserio oversaw an active free agency signing period that included the additions of tight end Dalton Schultz, running back Devin Singletary, wide receiver Robert Woods, linebackers Denzel Perryman and Cory Littleton, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, safety Jimmie Ward and trading for guard Shaq Mason.
And Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil was signed to a three-year, $75 million extension that includes a $30 million signing bonus and $60 million total guaranteed, which makes him the highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL for the second time.
And the Texans hold the second overall and 12th overall picks of the first round and are poised to potentially add a franchise quarterback. They’ve scheduled visits with Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, Kentucky quarterback Will Levis and Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker.
The Texans are working diligently to improve the product on the field and the overall fan experience, including forming a 50-person Fan Council to give input and feedback to the AFC South franchise.
“All of it, what you’re seeing is an attempt to reconnect with the fans,” said Hannah McNair, the Texans’ foundation vice president, during an interview with a small group of Houston reporters. “That’s a two-part (process). We had (the coronavirus pandemic) where there was a total disconnect. You don’t have the camaraderie and family feel that people typically had in the stands. In the highs and lows, you had your crowd with you. Fellow fans, it turns into the family in the areas you’re in with season-ticket holders. COVID removed that.
“Trying to bring that back while you’re rebuilding is challenging. So, what you saw was us trying to reengage and get that back while rebuilding and getting us to a place where we had the table set for DeMeco to come in and taking us to that next level and winning a lot of game, he and Nick and Cal working hard to get us there.”
In unison, Cal McNair, the Texans’ chairman and CEO, and his wife, both emphasized what needs to happen now that there’s increased hope surrounding the franchise.
“We’ve got to win,” Hannah McNair said.
“We know we’ve got to win,” Cal McNair said.
While working toward that goal, the Texans are working to try to fill up NRG Stadium again. There were a lot of empty seats at times in recent years and opposing fans noisily took over the stadium. It was especially notable with the presence of the Philadelphia Eagles’ fans during a nationally televised Thursday night home game and a home game against the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.
The Texans have been making some progress on that front.
Their initial season ticket renewals are at roughly 90 percent, which represents an improvement.
They’ve sold almost 3,000 new season tickets, more than double where the team was at this time last year.
They’ve sold three times as many full-season suites versus this time last year.
And there is more interest in attending a draft party with RSVPs of nearly 6,000, much more than a year ago, and the Texans expect significantly more to attend.
“I think we’re seeing a good response on tickets as far as sales and fan interest on tickets, suite sponsorships, those are all really good,” Cal McNair said. “We really appreciate the fans for sticking with us and coming back and coming back strong. You feel that excitement.
“We are really wanting that alignment with the GM and the coach and that’s what we’re seeing, and I think that’s what the fans are feeling. We’re excited. We’re looking forward to having the fans out at training camp.”
The Texans formed a fan council earlier this week to interact and collaborate with the team.
The intention is to provide fans with a voice to impact the fan experience and other aspects of the AFC South franchise. It’s a volunteer council of 50 fans to participate in regular focus groups and other exclusive opportunities throughout the season. The team is seeking diverse and dynamic fans. The application process runs through April 19 at 5 p.m. Central. For more information or to apply, visit www.HoustonTexans.com/FanCouncil.
“It’s 50 super fans, all through a spectrum of season-ticket holders and new accounts and the people who have been there with us since the beginning,” Cal McNair said. “Trying to get a broad diverse look at our fans to get their input about whatever is on their mind and be responsive and listening to the fans.”
Ryans has emphasized starting with the right attitude, getting and retaining players on the roster who want to be in Houston and be a part of building a foundation.
Identifying those kind of intangibles is a big part of the job for the former NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Changing the culture after years of losing isn’t an overnight process. It’s a major undertaking.
“I think you change the culture with the people,” Ryans said. “It’s bringing in guys who have been part of winning programs. Those guys establishing how do winners practice, how do winners work in the weight room, how do winners handle themselves off the field, and when you add those guys to your team, that’s how the culture continues to change.
“You come in, you add younger college guys, draft guys or undrafted free agents, and they just fall underneath that leadership of the guys that we’ve added, so is there something grand, and it’s about the culture change, it’s about the people. If we bring the right people in who have the right work ethic, the right mindset, that’s how the culture starts to shift, and that’s how we build a winning program.”
How competitive the Texans will be, in the wake of a 3-13-1 season last year during which they had issues at quarterback, with Pro Bowl alternate running back Dameon Pierce not finishing the season due to an ankle injury and the defense being unable to stop the run, remains unclear.
What isn’t unclear is the Texans are encouraged and believe they’re making tangible progress. The AFC South division is one of the weakest in the NFL. Engineering a turnaround is the goal.
“Yeah, it’s early,” Cal McNair said. “Each season is different This one we’re certainly excited about it. the few steps that we’ve taken I think are really good. At the end of the day, we’ve got to win. We know that we’re committed to that and we’re looking forward to getting there.”
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.