- The Washington Times - Monday, December 23, 2019

LANDOVERHowie Berger stands in a cold FedEx Field parking lot next to his RV, which is bedecked in Washington Redskins decorations. A lifelong Redskins fan with eight season tickets, he’s tailgated with friends and family since 2002.

Ahead of the Redskins’ home finale against the New York Giants, at the end of a disastrous season, Mr. Berger remains a diehard. But he worries the dwindling attendance at games is a sign of a permanent dent in the fan base.

“It’s about winning. If you win, more Redskin fans will go, but I think we’ve lost a whole generation of fans because we’ve been losing for 20 years,” Mr. Berger said. “When I first came to this stadium, it was 92,000 strong. Many Redskin fans. Now I think it’s a transient area, so I think we’re losing a lot of fans of the younger generation.”

At the end of the 2010s and the dawn of a new decade, a former NFL crown jewel now may have to face a stunning new question: Is the franchise in long-term trouble?

With the announced paid attendance of 66,083 Sunday, the last Redskins’ home game of the year, the team finishes 2019 with an average attendance of 65,488 fans per home game — up from last year’s average of 61,028, according to data from ESPN.



But 12 of the 14 least-attended games in FedEx Field history happened in 2018 and 2019. This year’s low was 56,426 showing up to see Washington face the New York Jets. And in keeping with a theme that permeated the entire season, there was more Giants blue than burgundy and gold in the lower bowl Sunday.

Public relations executive Dan Drummond, a lifelong Redskins fan, said decades of losing have damaged the relationship between the team and fans of all ages.

“I just don’t think it’s because of fantasy football, I don’t think it’s because of ‘Madden.’ I think it’s because you don’t have parents or grandparents who are as invested,” Mr. Drummond said. “And because of that, you’re going to lose a generation.”

The former Fairfax City Council member said the Redskins will always be his team — but that didn’t stop him from a road trip to Baltimore earlier this season with one of his boys to see the Ravens and Lamar Jackson, the NFL’s likely 2019 MVP.

He called the atmosphere at M&T Bank Stadium electric.

“This (FedEx Field) has probably got to be the worst stadium in the NFL,” Mr. Drummond said. “It doesn’t have any sort of ambiance at all. Somebody described it to me as, basically, it’s a parking lot with a stadium in the middle of it.”

How they got here

Not counting the Chargers — who currently play in a soccer stadium as they await the opening of their new Los Angeles home — only one team, the Bengals, experienced a more staggering decline in attendance from 2010 to 2019 than Washington’s 21.3% drop. That’s partly because, at the outset of the decade, the Redskins drew the NFL’s second-highest average audience, a reported 83,172 in a stadium with a listed capacity of 82,000.

Most of the decline has come in just the last two seasons alone. In 2018 the Redskins only filled 74.4% of their seats over eight home games, the worst mark in the NFL, and this year they filled 79.9% of capacity, according to ESPN’s data.

Many teams’ attendance figures are incomplete heading into Week 17. But for now, Washington ranks 20th in the NFL in average attendance. All 13 other teams to have played eight home games by this point recorded average capacities of at least 91% — well above Washington’s mark.

Before the 2018 season, owner Dan Snyder hired marketing guru Brian Lafemina from NFL headquarters to help solve some of the team’s problems. Advocating for new, more open dealings with fans and the media, Mr. Lafermina admitted the Redskins no longer had a waiting list for season tickets.

Mr. Lafemina was fired after less than eight months on the job.

There have been other controversies since. Earlier this season, Redskins president Bruce Allen, the owner’s right-hand man who rarely speaks with the press, broke his silence to tell reporters the team’s culture is “actually damn good.”

That comment came after an 0-5 start and the firing of coach Jay Gruden.

Mr. Allen, a longtime NFL executive and the son of legendary Redskins coach George Allen, has become the focal point of much of the criticism directed at the team in his 10 years with the franchise, including his offseason handling of holdout Trent Williams.

Mr. Allen publicly downplayed Williams’ grievance with the team, predicting the All-Pro left tackle would eventually be back on the field as a Redskin.

Instead, Williams skipped training camp and games until the team placed him on the nonfootball injury list.

Marty Conway, an adjunct professor of sports and business at Georgetown University, doesn’t see it as a question of whether the Redskins have lost a generation of fans. But he characterized their problems as “poison in the marketplace.”

“I think there’s a certain dormancy right now and there’s only a core group of people — PG County, surrounding areas — that continue to come out and support them,” Mr. Conway said. “That’s troubling. That really is troubling, because it hurts local revenues and some other things like that.”

Better options in town

A Washington Post poll conducted weeks after the Washington Nationals won this year’s World Series set out to test the current sentiment among 905 Washington sports fans. It found 28% of respondents named the Nationals as their favorite team in the District, while 13% named the Redskins — a huge drop-off from the 34% who responded with the Redskins in 2010.

The Capitals were right on the Redskins’ tail with 10% of the vote, threatening to turn what used to be one of the NFL’s most popular clubs into the third-place team in its own city.

Mr. Conway sees the “universe of competition” for the Redskins in two parts. One is the other teams in town — like the Nationals and Capitals — while the other half is everything else locals can spend their entertainment budget on, like eating out and going to the movie theater.

“You can’t allow that to ride too long because that discretionary dollar might turn into more of a permanent expenditure because habits build,” Mr. Conway said.

The Nationals’ and Capitals’ titles have had another effect: Fans have seen those teams succeed, so they think their owners could replicate that success in the NFL.

At the premiere of the Nationals’ World Series documentary this month, NBC News anchor Craig Melvin asked Nationals owner Mark Lerner if he’s thought about making a bid to buy the Redskins. The crowd erupted into applause.

Ted Leonsis, Monumental CEO and owner of the Capitals, Wizards and Mystics, has been asked the same question, though more indirectly. After the Capitals won the Stanley Cup, one company started selling burgundy and gold T-shirts with the phrase, “Dear Ted, please buy the football team.” But in an interview with The Washington Times earlier this year, Mr. Leonsis did not express interest in such a transaction, saying his focus was on Monumental.

Despite scores of fans giving up on the team, Mr. Conway doesn’t think the NFL would choose to intervene in Washington’s operations, especially because the Redskins are still one of the more profitable teams in the league.

“I think there was some suggestion that the last group that came in and left, Brian Lafemina and his team, that that might have been endorsed by the NFL to come in and help (the Redskins) through this process,” Mr. Conway said. “But ultimately it didn’t work and it’s the ownership’s prerogative to make change.”

Now what?

If Mr. Conway were consulting Washington’s front office, he would give executives two key pieces of advice. For one, he said fans these days expect transparency from their owners or senior executive teams.

Mr. Snyder has stepped back from public view over the years and rarely conducts press conferences. For a contrast, Mr. Conway pointed to Mr. Leonsis — someone visible in the community, at charitable foundation events and on social media.

Mr. Conway also brought up the 22-year-old stadium in Landover, Maryland, which is one of the 10 oldest stadiums in the NFL and offers little in the surrounding area to do before or after games.

“Clearly the current FedEx Field experience in Landover has run its course,” Mr. Conway said. “It’s not that interesting to people anymore. Short of you being a committed Redskins fan or fan of a visiting team, there’s not a tremendous amount of intrigue or interest in you (going to FedEx Field).”

Modern stadiums, like the Atlanta Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Los Angeles’ soon-to-be-opened SoFi Stadium for the Rams and Chargers, are designed to be not just destinations for games but also “complete immersion experiences,” Mr. Conway said, with other dining and entertainment options in the vicinity.

The Redskins, whose lease at FedEx Field expires in 2027, are determined to strike a deal on a new facility — in either the District, Maryland or Virginia — but negotiations on building a new stadium for the team have gone nowhere.

With one game to go in 2019, the Redskins’ record of 62-96-1 this decade is the fourth-worst in the NFL, better than only the Browns, Jaguars and Buccaneers. The best Washington fans can look forward to now is a new head coach and probably the No. 2 or 3 overall draft pick, and both decisions could go any number of ways.

Diehard fans like Mr. Berger continue to turn out in Landover, even if the numbers around them are thinning out.

“We’re always excited thinking it could be the first of many wins to come,” Mr. Berger said. “And when we lose, we’re kind of used to that. But we still don’t stop and we still pray for wins. We hope that somewhere down the road, it’ll come together and manifest a bunch of wins and championships.

“I’ve seen the good, because I was young enough for that. And I’ve seen the bad.”

 

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