- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 18, 2009

FedEx Field once was home to 10 football games and not much more. But that’s changing.

The Washington Redskins have bolstered their efforts to bring activity to the 91,000-seat stadium, luring several major college football games and eyeing other big events, including soccer’s World Cup and the NCAA men’s lacrosse championship.

The Redskins announced this week that Cincinnati has moved its home game against Virginia Tech in 2012 to FedEx Field. The news comes after Virginia Tech said it will host Boise State at FedEx Field in 2010 and after Indiana revealed it will host Penn State there next season. FedEx Field also this summer won the rights to the 2011 Army-Navy Game.

“We’ve put a renewed focus and effort to secure some of these events,” said Mitch Gersh man, chief marketing officer for the Redskins. “We think it’s good for the community, good for Prince George’s County and the Redskins’ fan base to bring high-profile, quality events to the region.”

Big events this year included D.C. United’s match against Spanish soccer power Real Madrid and rock concerts featuring U2 and Paul McCartney. Financial arrangements for these events vary depending on who is involved. In the case of the college football games, the Redskins usually offer a flat guaranteed payment - Cincinnati is being paid $3.8 million - while keeping money from the sale of tickets and concessions. In other cases, such as the United-Real Madrid game, the Redskins charge rent and share the game’s proceeds.

While these games can be a boost to the Redskins’ top line, Gershman said the primary motivation is to bring extra benefits to season-ticket holders, who are usually offered the first opportunity to buy tickets.

“Sometimes we’re more interested in the benefits for our [fans] than the economic model,” he said.

The push for more events comes partly because of a restructuring of the Redskins’ front office that saw Gershman moving from chief operating officer to being in charge of marketing and events at the stadium. That has led to an improved working relationship with sports marketing groups in the region.

“The willingness of the Redskins to open up the field to more than football now has been a great new thing for us,” said Bob Sweeney, president of the Greater Washington Sports Alliance. “They are much more open for business than they ever have before.”

The GWSA and the Redskins collaborated on a bid to host as many as seven Olympic soccer matches at FedEx Field in 2016 but lost out when Chicago was not awarded the Summer Games. The stadium could, however, land the most prestigious soccer match of all - the World Cup final - as part of the United States’ bid to host the global soccer tournament in 2018 or 2022.

“When you talk about the World Cup final game, 91,000 seats is a nice thing,” Sweeney said. “That makes everybody win because you know that’s going to be a sold-out event. The financial models work at FedEx Field, especially when you get crowds over 70,000, and [the Redskins] willingness to do business has really helped.”

FedEx has held major college football games before, including when Virginia Tech played Southern Cal in 2004. In most cases, schools are willing to move home games to the stadium because the financial guarantee is larger than what can be earned at their own facilities.

“I think it’s absolutely a financial benefit, and that’s a significant part of why we’re doing this,” Cincinnati athletic director Mark Thomas said. “To play these kinds of games, the visibility piece is important and that’s a good thing. But the financial part of it was significant.”

Gershman said the team has been active in reaching out to schools, knowing they may be looking for ways to boost revenue.

“The economics have changed, and universities need to raise money for all of their athletic programs,” he said. “By being able to move the game to a larger venue with a bigger guarantee, that’s gone into their thinking.”

The ability to broaden a school’s recruiting base also plays a role.

“Clearly, there’s some recruiting advantages, and playing in that kind of metropolitan area, that’s a pretty rich recruiting area,” Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said. “I think it’s pretty, pretty important for us to go in that direction.”

While there are few stadiums as large as FedEx Field, the facility does have some competition. Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium, with a capacity of more than 71,000, has lured the Army-Navy game and lacrosse championships. The new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, with a capacity of over 100,000, is expected to lure major events, and the new stadium for the NFL’s Jets and Giants in East Rutherford, N.J., also will have a capacity above 100,000 when it opens next year.

• Tim Lemke can be reached at tlemke@washingtontimes.com.

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