- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 9, 2021

ASHBURN — When the pandemic prevented people from packing stadiums last year, there was an over-used joke about the Washington Football Team that made the rounds. It went something like this: “No fans? Shouldn’t be any different from normal.” Har. Har. Har. 

After all, the crowds at FedEx Field had dwindled in recent years, the sign of a disillusioned fanbase for what was once a premier NFL franchise. Coach Ron Rivera even talked about needing to win back the fans in his opening press conference in January 2020. 

But a funny thing happened last season for the Burgundy and Gold: Washington actually made the playoffs. And a genuine sense of optimism about the franchise’s fortunes — on the field at least — emerged among coaches, players and anyone following the team. 

So, ahead of a new season, with crowds welcomed back to the stands and an NFC East title to defend, an intriguing question arises for this oft-troubled franchise: Has one unexpected, improbable playoff run under Ron Rivera restored the faith of the throngs who once made playing in the nation’s capital a miserable experience for visitors?

“They’re curious,” Rivera said last month. “We’ve piqued their curiosity from last season, and we’ve got to get a hold of them.”

That curious itch will be scratched, for some, as soon as Week 1, when Washington opens at home with the Los Angeles Chargers. The Chargers, in a way, are the perfect opponent to test whether people have truly bought in. Unlike the Green Bay Packers or the Dallas Cowboys, the Chargers fans don’t travel. 

For once, FedEx Field is unlikely to be overpopulated with jerseys from the opposing team, an all-too-common sight in recent years.

If Ticketmaster is any indication, Washington’s stadium could be packed Sunday. As of Thursday afternoon, only 1,069 tickets were listed as “available” on the ticketing website. A caveat: That number excludes people looking to resell their tickets. But Ticketmaster is the NFL’s official ticket partner, meaning the number of unsold tickets listed is just more than 1,000. 

Washington’s home openers have disappointed in previous years. In 2019, the last year fans could fully fill the stadium, the team’s announced attendance was a solid 75,128 — but that figure was propped up by the influx of Cowboys fans who made the trip to Landover. The year before that, Washington’s crowd of 57,013 against the Indianapolis Colts was the lowest in the team’s history at FedEx Field. 

The Burgundy and Gold’s glory days, of course, grow more distant with each year. Attendance ranked 20th in 2019 with an average of 65,488 and 27th in 2018 (61,028). The factors that have contributed to the problem — the poor gameday experience in a hulking, unappealing suburban stadium, the terrible won-loss records and the constant front-office meddling and mismanagement — have been well documented. 

But winning, as the cliche goes, is the ultimate cure. And Washington coaches and players know that.

“That’s up to us now,” Rivera said. “I mean, we’ve got to keep up our part of the bargain. They come out and cheer for us and support us and we’ve got to go out and produce. That’s the only way you get the fan base back.”

Wide receiver Terry McLaurin said the team is taking the right approach. If a stranger were to walk in the team’s building, he says, they wouldn’t be able to tell Washington won the division last year. “We’re a team that’s hungry and understanding we can’t hang our hat on what we did last year,” he says. 

But the on-field product can only go so far. There are others who have avoided going to games for a variety of reasons, including that FedEx Field can be a major hassle to get in and out of on game days. 

Washington’s business side is aware of the poor reputation. Team President Jason Wright has given interviews about wanting to improve the game-day experience — and indeed changes were made. The stadium’s parking lots, for example, were redone and electronic parking passes now contain road information telling fans how to enter their lot (i.e. fans parking in the Green Lot should enter on Garrett A. Morgan Boulevard.) 

Other tweaks include a co-ed cheerleading team, a drumming line and new food options.

Of course, Washington has tried to address those concerns before. Former marketing executive Brian Lafemina, who pledged many of the same types of changes, didn’t even last a full year before owner Dan Snyder fired him in 2018. Wright has been here longer already, but who knows if the changes will actually get fans to consistently show up. 

Still, the team clings on to hope. Rivera knows what the team’s fan base can be. During his playing days, he could feel RFK Stadium shake because of the noise from the seats. 

Growing up in Maryland, defensive Chase Young can even remember how loud and energetic FedEx Field can be.  As a rookie last year, he played in mostly empty stadiums.

“I hope it’s crazy,” Young said. “I hope everybody’s out there, going crazy. Just that football atmosphere that everybody’s missed.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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