- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 11, 2002

Sports Biz

For the Washington Redskins, the South is rising again.
As recently as 1959, the Washington Redskins were the southern-most team in the NFL. Their devoted fan base extended deep into the Carolinas, Georgia and even Florida. Even after Dallas joined the league in 1960, it would be another six years before Atlanta, Miami in the old AFL and then New Orleans challenged the Redskins' southern dominance.
Thanks to the arrival of coach Steve Spurrier, Washington's Dixie fan base is quickly being rekindled. Spurrier's passionate following from the University of Florida is following "the ballcoach" not only to Redskins away games against Jacksonville and Tennessee, but is planning pilgrimages to FedEx Field and signing up for the NFL Sunday Ticket package on satellite TV. Some Gators fans have made it each day to Redskins training camp in Carlisle, Pa. Preseason road trips to Carolina and Tampa Bay are also drawing out Spurrier disciples en masse.
In short, Spurrier's move north further extends the NFL's geographically far-flung fan base in which an estimated 70 percent of fans nationwide root for a team other than the one closest to their homes.
"This is about undying Gator devotion," said Ali Liles of Atlanta. The Florida graduate plans to catch the Redskins in both Nashville and Jacksonville, drives of 250 and 350 miles, respectively. "My husband [Lance, another Florida graduate] is even worse. He'd follow Steve around like the [Grateful] Dead if he could. He's just now recovering from him leaving Florida to begin with."
The Redskins still have plenty of high-end seats available at FedEx Field, but few of Spurrier's faithful have been willing to make the hefty, multi-year requirement for those tickets. That has in turn fueled a healthy spike in single-game sales among area ticket brokers and other secondary market outlets.
"Yeah, there's no doubt we're doing a nice Redskins business so far this season and have had a number of calls from Florida and other points south," said Karl Roes, president of Stagefront Tickets.com, a Laurel-based brokerage. "Even the preseason is doing well, and in other years, we couldn't give those games away. And it's really still early in our football selling cycle."
The Jacksonville Jaguars, whose flagging fan support left the team 22nd in attendance among NFL teams in 2001, similarly expect a big boost from Spurrier's Florida homecoming Nov.10. Single-game tickets for the team only went on sale Aug.1, and already the Jaguars are expecting both a sellout and their highest game attendance of the season from the Redskins contest.
"People around here circled that one right away when the schedule came out. It's absolutely, without question, a big deal," said Dan Edwards, Jaguars spokesman. "We often do well anyway when northern teams come in here that have big fan bases in Florida. The Redskins were among those teams, but it's obviously much more the case now because of Spurrier."
The Redskins, however, remain powerless to capitalize fully on the new, Spurrier-driven fan interest in the South. Letters, calls and assorted requests regarding Spurrier arrive by the hundreds to team offices from Florida Gators fans. But a long-standing gentleman's agreement among NFL owners prevents clubs from invading other markets, and Miami, Jacksonville and Tampa have the state of Florida completely covered.
"We haven't done any marketing in Florida. We simply can't," said Karl Swanson, Redskins senior vice president. The team's radio network, however, continues to operate extensively in North Carolina and close to Charlotte, home of the Panthers. "There is obviously a great deal of new interest from [University of] Florida fans, but any marketing we would do in Florida would jeopardize one of the three teams down there."
What the Redskins have been doing is encouraging Florida-based fans to buy the NFL Sunday Ticket service on DirecTV, the league's key outreach to geographically displaced fans. Sunday Ticket's U.S. subscriber base, now eclipsing 1.2million, already has grown by nearly 60 percent since 1998, and DirecTV is now in the midst of a heavy preseason marketing push for 2002.
"Florida continues to be a very big and important market for us, both in terms of the overall service and Sunday Ticket," said Robert Mercer, DirecTV spokesman. "There's no reason to think that will tail off anytime soon."

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