LANDOVER, Maryland — Words flashed across the video screens late in the fourth quarter Sunday at FedEx Field, urging the crowd to get loud. With the game on the line in the final minutes, the Redskins needed a pivotal stop.
The request went unanswered. Maybe too many fans were still in shock after Alex Smith’s season-ending broken leg earlier in the game. Maybe they were discouraged with the Texans already in field goal territory.
Maybe there were just too many empty seats.
After Sunday’s 23-21 loss against Houston, Washington’s average paid attendance this season is just 61,267 — the worst since the Landover stadium opened in 1997. Compared to last season’s figure of 75,175, the Redskins’ attendance is down 18.5 percent. The number is even farther removed from 2005 — when the franchise reported a team-record average of 89,625 fans per game for the regular season.
Reported NFL attendance figures vary from one outlet to another, but the Redskins entered Sunday ranked 26th in the league in attendance, according to ESPN — despite having one of the largest NFL stadiums.
This is FedEx Field in 2018. The 21-year-old stadium has become a central character in the story of the Redskins season, as players criticize the fans for a supposed lack of support at home games, fans diss the experience of attending a game there and rumors swirl about where and when the team could move to a new home turf.
‘Years of distrust’
Matthew Razak took his 3-year-old son Asher to his first football game Sept. 23 when Washington hosted Razak’s wife’s favorite team, the Green Bay Packers. Compared with the family’s prior experiences catching a game at places like Nationals Park, FedEx Field — and the empty surrounding neighborhood — did not hold up.
“It’s just a big road with nothing to do,” said Mr. Razak, a District native who lives in Petworth. “Tailgating’s fun, but if a game gets out around 4, 4:30, that’s still plenty of time to go do something. And if you’ve got a family, you’re not gonna stand in a parking lot for another 2 hours drinking.”
Inside, the burgundy and gold faithful often share the stands with a throng of opposing fans decked out in their colors, making them too big to ignore.
“It’s not that great when the ‘Go Pack Go’ cheers are just as loud as the Redskins fans’ cheering,” Mr. Razak said.
“If you’ve got to go to the bathroom and hear the roar of the crowd, you don’t know if they did good or [the other team] did good,” said Jim Molle, a 65-year-old fan who has been a season-ticket holder for 36 years.
Mr. Razak acknowledged that Packers fans are known to travel well. But it was a similar scene Oct. 14, when Panthers fans wearing Carolina blue descended on the lower bowl of FedEx Field.
The Whites, a family of five from Prince George’s County, Maryland, took in that day’s game from the 400 level. They also went to the Redskins’ home opener against the Colts, which brought in a paltry 57,013 and ended their self-proclaimed 50-year “sellout streak.”
“It’s hard to see them not do well, especially when you remember the glory years,” family patriarch Colby White said. “When we were walking in, I was just like, ‘We’ve got the tickets. We’re gonna go and support them.’ But it’s hard to come in and see empty seats.”
Mr. White said his daughters, ages 15, 14 and 11, enjoyed the cheerleaders and “seeing everybody coming together” to cheer on the Redskins. He chose the Colts and Panthers games figuring that visiting fans would be more respectful than, say, Philadelphia Eagles fans.
Redskins games have a reputation for being a pricey ticket — CBS News reported in 2016 that FedEx Field was the most expensive stadium to watch an NFL game. To fans like Mike Lewis, who went to Sunday’s game, that falls on team owner Dan Snyder “(ruining) the fan experience by jacking all the prices up.”
Mr. Lewis said most people he used to go to games with have stopped.
“Everyone except for me,” Mr. Lewis said. “My friends have stopped going. I gave up my season tickets.”
Blame the game
Fans who defend FedEx Field say that the primary complaints — the price tag, the traffic getting to and from the area — can be lodged against most NFL stadiums. Redskins fan and tailgater Chris Handon rattled off other NFL cities he’s visited: New Orleans, Dallas, Kansas City, Seattle, San Francisco, Tampa Bay.
“All of them, traffic. You have 60,000-plus people leaving at once,” Mr. Handon said. “I think that’s just something people look for to complain about because (the stadium is) not in D.C. and the Metro is about a mile away.”
These defenders also agree on a solution: the age-old cliche that winning cures everything.
“It is upsetting seeing the lack of fans in that stadium, but frankly, you put a good product on the field, the fans will come and that’s all it comes down to,” tailgater Ted Abela said in October.
Of course, the Redskins have led the NFC East for most of this season, but it’s not the same as long-term success.
“If you’ve been a fan of this team since Dan Snyder took over, it’s incredibly easy to get frustrated and to boo,” Mr. Razak said. “And it’s not this team’s fault that there’s  years of distrust built up.”
The Redskins know they have work to do. That’s why the franchise made a series of changes this season — making new hires on the business side, shifting its ticket-selling philosophy and reworking the game day experience.
Under new president of business operations Brian Lafemina, who was hired in May, the Redskins have declared they want to “grab back” home-field advantage. They cut back on selling tickets to brokers whose intention was to resell on the secondary market, and they ditched their touted “waiting list” to purchase season tickets.
The latter was always seen as more of a marketing gimmick than an actual demand. “You could call those guys up and get tickets,” Mr. Abela said.
At FedEx Field, the Redskins reduced the number of in-game advertisements on the jumbotron, incorporated the use of pyrotechnics and added new food and beverage options. On Sunday, the Redskins made a cognizant effort to have an in-stadium host interview fans on camera and highlight their fandom, something previously not seen this season.
The changes were made in order to entice fans back to the stadium — something chief marketing officer Steve Ziff acknowledged would take time. In September, he told reporters the goal was to become a franchise like the Packers, in which fans would remember attending a game fondly, no matter the outcome.
“Even if they boo the football on the field, (the fans) still go home at night and love the Green Bay Packers,” said Mr. Ziff, who was hired in June. “We want to be thought of in that same variety.”
Booing, though, has been a big problem to the players on the field this season.
“They’re dumb,” safety D.J. Swearinger said.
“I’m tired of it, really,” said cornerback Josh Norman, who has complained that Redskins fans “boo everything.”
Linebacker Mason Foster said a hometown crowd “helps out a lot” when they’re loud, making it difficult for opposing offenses to communicate. When it’s the offense’s turn on the field, quarterback Alex Smith said fewer opposing fans jeering them means less noise and “communication that you can count on.”
There’s also an internal effect, Swearinger said.
“When the crowd gets into it, it gives us a lot of juice,” he said. “We feed off the crowd a lot. If they’re booing, we don’t like that. There’s no respect.”
Norman, who gave out 40 tickets to fans leading up to Sunday’s game, thanked “Redskins Nation” for an atmosphere he considered an improvement.
For the foreseeable future, the Redskins and their fans are stuck at FedEx Field. The team’s lease doesn’t expire until 2027 and plans for a new stadium have yet to be finalized.
Before the season started, District Mayor Muriel Bowser verbally threw her hat back in the ring for the city to land the Redskins’ next stadium. Though she was light on details, she told the team in a passionate speech to “bring it home.” Likewise, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam told reporters at training camp the commonwealth was still very interested in hosting the Redskins — with a site near Dulles International Airport as an option.
But newly re-elected Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has said in 2016 the state would do “whatever it takes” to keep the team.
FedEx is one of the 10 oldest stadiums in the NFL, so a new stadium is an inevitability in the modern world of sports. Whenever and wherever it goes up, taxpayers are likely to be on the hook for some portion of the cost.
But to the most impassioned fans, that might not matter.
“‘I’ve been through highs and lows, but I’m always here,” Molle said. “I’m not going to give up on them ever.”
⦁ Owen Dunn contributed to this report.