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 that resulted 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 for purchase to four per season-ticket account per game, must be purchased prior to game day.

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, "and you won't see this many people there again for another eight years."

But Jamey Rootes, the Texans' president, made it clear that in a case where customers are pitted against non-customers, money talks. "It got bigger than is sustainable," Rootes told the paper, "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."