The game-day tradition of tailgating by fans without tickets is a problem for the Houston Texans.

On the one hand, you have your paying customers, to whom you owe - well, everything. On the other is the public at large, made up of people who don't pay your bills. To whom do you owe your allegiance? The answer is not so cut and dried in professional sports, which is what makes the Houston Texans' decision to curtail the activities of Reliant Park tailgaters so perplexing.

Since Houston's return to the NFL nine years ago, the Texans have been the indirect beneficiary of a vigorous game-day tradition of tailgating in the parking lots by ticket holders as well as fans without tickets. The atmosphere around the stadium adds to the fan experience and keeps others - future ticket-holders, quite possibly - involved on Sundays.

Or, perhaps only the latter is true. Team officials say the popularity of tailgating by non-ticket buyers increasingly complicated the lives of ticket buyers by, for example, taking all available parking spaces. From the standpoint of the team, security was stretched thin. For all concerned, the flip side of what The Houston Chronicle called "one of the team's most cherished traditions" was the massive traffic jams in and around the stadium.

And so, a week after more than 20,000 fans without tickets crammed into the Reliant Park grounds during the Sept. 26 in-state rivalry game with the Dallas Cowboys - and the team was bedeviled by a bigger-than-usual number of arrests - the team decided it had had enough. Henceforth, it was announced, tailgating would be limited to ticket holders who bought one of 2,000 tailgating passes for $10 each. The passes, limited to four per season-ticket account per game, must be purchased prior to game day. After several days of heated talk radio talk, team spokesmen said the number of available tailgating passes might be increased.

Houston was thought to be the only NFL city wrangling with tailgaters, but as this issue of AB was going to press, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that city officials were investigating the actions of Network Parking Co., which was charging tailgaters $5 apiece to enter a former city impound lot known as The Pit. Cleveland Councilman Matt Zone and his wife, who were meeting friends at the lot, paid the fee Oct. 3, and the next day lodged a complaint with the department of parks, recreation and properties, saying it was unfair "that they were charging people to walk through what I interpreted as a public space," as he told the paper. The parking lot company responded that the fee merely helped defray the costs related to tailgating cleanup and crowd control.

John Schriever, the Texans' vice president for ticketing and event services, told the local press that the situation was similar in Houston. Schriever estimated that the number of tailgaters had risen from between 4,000 and 5,000 per game halfway through the 2009 season to 8,000 by the end of the year and 10,000 for the team's 2010 preseason tilt with the Cowboys and season opener against the Colts. The increase seemed to coincide with the opening of several thousand parking spaces on the former site of Astroworld, south of the county-owned Reliant Park.

Tailgaters greeted the news with some consternation, even as some told reporters they understood the difficulties posed by crowds as large as the one that was on hand for the Cowboys' visit. That the team wasn't forthcoming about just how many more arrests occurred on Sept. 26 - or about just how many complaints the Texans had received from ticket-holders - added to the public perception that the team was overreacting. "This was a Cowboys game," one tailgater groused to reporters, "and you won't see this many people there again for another eight years."

Season-ticket holders also appear split on the issue; some of them even face the difficulty of actually splitting up their group of game-day buddies. Many people say the policy is long overdue because of the unruly nature of the crowds and the prevalence of alcohol, whereas others point out that alcohol enforcement is the real issue, not the writing of new tailgating rules. Several readers of AB Newswire who responded to an October story had what seems like a good suggestion - the designation of a separate lot (or a field adjacent to the stadium) to be used exclusively by non-ticket-holding tailgaters.

However, remarks by Jamey Rootes, the Texans' president, make it clear that the team is not concerned about bruising the feelings of Houston fans who don't buy Texans tickets. "It got bigger than is sustainable," Rootes told the Chronicle, "and so we need to bring it back to where we began, which was to create a fun, festive and friendly environment for our game attendees."