There's no way around it, overcoming this obstacle is still a big concern for Houston​

There's no way around it, overcoming this obstacle is still a big concern for Houston​
Joining the Big 12 doesn't guarantee a spike in ticket sales. Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Last week Texas Monthly ran an interesting and perplexing article: Can (University of) Houston Football Figure Out a Way to Fill Seats?

The article was written by my friend and former radio partner Richard Justice. But let’s not hold that against the article. Richie did a terrific job here.

Justice offers many reasons why the Cougars, despite recent on-field success, well paid and respected coaching staff, generous funding, excellent facilities, Top 25 ranking, and bowl game appearances, have trouble packing their comparatively small 40,000-capacity TDECU Stadium.

Most times, UH crowds are around 25,000. The last time they drew 30,000 fans was in 2018. Last time UH played in front of 40,000 fans at home was in 2016.

Meanwhile, the University of Texas and Texas A&M routinely draw crowds in excess of 100,000 fans. Of course, the main reason for UH’s drawing woes is because the Coogs play in the American Athletic Conference, a non-Power 5 conference. So big name, ticket-selling opponents, whose fan base travels to road games, rarely visit TDECU Stadium. UH’s football schedule is dominated by conference rivals like East Carolina, Memphis, South Florida, Temple, Tulane, Tulsa and others.

UT will host No. 1 Alabama this Saturday. Good luck finding a ticket for 100,000 capacity-plus Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Other teams on UT’s schedule include No. 9 Oklahoma, No. 8 Oklahoma State, and No. 9 Baylor.

No. 6 Texas A&M will play No. 16 Miami, No. 15 Florida, No. 18 Arkansas, No. 1 Alabama, No. 22 Mississippi, plus traditional bowl-bound LSU and Auburn.

There isn’t a single Top 25 team on UH’s remaining schedule.

Next year, UH is moving to the Big 12 Conference which should boost interest and attendance for the Cougars. However, the Big 12’s most glamorous members, UT and Oklahoma, are following Texas A&M’s exodus to the mighty Southeastern Conference.

Justice points out that UH is largely a commuter school. Only 8,000 students of its 40,000 enrollment live on campus.

I’d like to add two more reasons why UH football doesn’t draw huge crowds that its players and coaches deserve. And there’s nothing that UH can do to fix these reasons.

UH plays in a city where there’s an NFL team. And UH plays in a city where fall is the prettiest season of the year.

College teams that play in NFL cities typically have trouble drawing fans. It’s just the way it is. Here’s a headline from last week’s college football roundup: “USC Embarrassingly Couldn’t Fill Stadium During Debut of Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams.”

If USC, playing in a Power 5 conference, in America’s second-largest city, with a new celebrity head coach and Heisman candidate quarterback, had huge sections empty at its first game this season, what hope does UH have selling out its home opener against Kansas on Sept. 17?

While there are a few college teams that thrive in NFL cities, the majority of powerhouse college teams play in non-major markets, where the colleges have their city and local headlines to themselves.

This was the preseason college Top 10 for 2022: Alabama (Tuscaloosa), Ohio State (Columbus), Georgia (Athens), Clemson (Clemson), Notre Dame (South Bend), Texas A&M (College Station), Utah (Salt Lake City), Michigan (Ann Arbor), Oklahoma (Norman) and Baylor (Waco).

Let’s look at the biggest college football stadiums: Michigan Stadium (Ann Arbor, capacity 107,601), Beaver Stadium (State College, 106,572), Ohio Stadium (Columbus, 104,944), Kyle Field (College Station, 102,733), Neyland Stadium (Knoxville, 102,455), Tiger Stadium (Baton Rouge, 102,421), Bryant-Denny Stadium (Tuscaloosa, 101,821), Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium (Austin, 100,119), Sanford Stadium (Athens, 92,746), Rose Bowl (Pasadena, 90,888).

They’re all miles and worlds apart from the big city lights of the NFL.

Let’s not forget that Houston (the city) has a lot more to offer than football on Saturdays. Fall is perhaps the nicest, most outdoorsy season in Houston. We have 57 golf courses, boating, swimming, tennis, outdoor dining, Washington Avenue and festivals.

Or you can buy a ticket to watch Temple, a commuter college in downtown Philadelphia, where the NFL Eagles own the city, play UH at TDECU Stadium on Nov. 12.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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