- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2022

A new NFL season begins Thursday when the defending-champion Los Angeles Rams take on the Buffalo Bills, two of the league’s top teams from a couple of wildly different markets — a matchup of Hollywood versus blue collar, premier defenses against potent offenses and a gutsy veteran quarterback taking on the MVP front-runner.

It’s a game chock-full of the kinds of storylines the NFL loves. Then, there’s Sunday’s Washington Commanders game against the Jacksonville Jaguars

The Commanders host the Jaguars at FedEx Field in a contest between a couple of last year’s also-rans after an offseason in which Washington picked up more headlines for its scandals — including owner Dan Snyder testifying before Congress on allegations of sexual misconduct — than its football-related moves like trading for quarterback Carson Wentz.

Forbes still lists Washington as the NFL’s sixth-most valuable franchise. But while the rest of the league basks in robust TV ratings, cranks out merchandise and packs ticket-holders into gleaming new stadiums, in Washington, the team’s brass opens the 2022 season asking disillusioned fans to give the club one more shot.

Or, as team President Jason Wright says, the team is trying to move on from the “ghosts of Christmas past.”

Last month, Wright said the Commanders were still “another year or so out” from experiencing a true “resurgence” in the fan base. The executive expressed optimism about the team’s direction, telling reporters that the team had already sold more tickets for this season than they did all of last year. Renewals on season-ticket sales, he said, were up 15% and renewals on suites increased almost 30%. 

“Even this year if we have a great year, 14 wins, you’re really going to see the outcome of that in next year’s season-ticket growth,” said Wright, who declined to share specific figures. “We couldn’t be happier with the progress made. We feel like we’re maxing out with where we’re at. 

“We’re not quite there yet,” he said later. “We’re not going to have a full stadium every game this year.” 

Wright’s blunt — and public — acknowledgment of the franchise’s woes would have been unthinkable a generation ago, when fans hoping to buy season tickets were willing to spend years on the team’s waitlist, when Washington was a perennial contender and the team’s games were a staple on Monday night.    

Washington has just two prime-time games this season — well short of the maximum of five that the NFL handed out to 13 of its 32 teams. One of those games for the Commanders features new quarterback Carson Wentz returning to Philadelphia to face his former team, the Eagles (Nov. 14), while the other is an Amazon Prime video exclusive on “Thursday Night Football” against the Chicago Bears (Oct. 13). 

Since 2019, the Commanders have had 34 games kick off at 1 p.m. — tied for the eighth-most in the league. Twenty of those outings were home games.

Washington home games that were once the hottest ticket in town are a harder sell these days for Wright and his team. A recent USA Today survey of the league’s stadiums ranked FedEx Field dead last, citing the traffic jams getting to and from the facility and incidents like pipes bursting water onto fans. Another survey found the stadium had among the most expensive beer in the NFL — something a team spokesperson disputed to FOX5, taking issue with the methodology.

The coverage, at times, has frustrated team officials. Coach Ron Rivera griped that the team was an “easy target” when asked about a wave of negative headlines in March. Wright said in August that sponsorship revenues were the highest since 2005, despite losing beer sponsor Anheuser-Busch this offseason.

“You would think from the negative public headwinds that we’ve faced that we would be down in sponsorship, but we’re up,” Wright said. 

But there’s no denying Washington has become a bit of an outlier in an ever-glitzier NFL.

Ratings across the league were up last year, and a busy offseason jam-packed with major trades and rumors helped overshadow lingering controversies. And, most important to the NFL and its billionaire owners, team values are soaring like never before.

The average game last season drew 17.1 million viewers between television and digital audiences, according to the league. That figure is the highest since 2015 and is 10% better than the 2020 campaign — an impressive feat in a declining market due to cord-cutting from Gen Z and millennials. 

As live sports remain the cornerstone of the traditional cable bundle, the NFL delivered more than any other brand. Forty-eight of the top 50 telecasts on all of TV during the season were NFL games. 

Even in the offseason, the NFL’s quarterback market dominated the sports media landscape. From Aaron Rodgers’ contract to Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan and Baker Mayfield changing teams to the Deshaun Watson controversy, there was no shortage of NFL-related content for fans to consume. 

It’s no shock, then, that the values of NFL franchises are skyrocketing. According to Forbes, the average NFL team is now worth $4.47 billion — up 28% from last year. 

The main reason for the boon in projected value — on top of the hand-over-fistprofits that NFL teams continued to make last year — was the sale of the Denver Broncos in June. The Broncos were purchased by Rob Walton, the 77-year-old heir of Walmart, for a record $4.65 billion — a price tag so rich that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell likely forgave Walton for mispronouncing his name in the new owner’s opening press conference.  

Forbes’ new valuations have the Cowboys worth a staggering $8 billion. Even the least valuable team in the league, the Super Bowl runner-up Cincinnati Bengals, is still worth $3 billion — more than every NHL team and all but five MLB teams and seven NBA teams. 

The Commanders, despite their problems, are still a top-tier market — the sixth-most valuable team in the NFL at $5.6 billion. That’s up 33% over 2021, according to Forbes — a boost for owner Dan Snyder, who gained full control of the team’s shares last year after buying out his minority partners’ 40% stake for $875 million.

For Washington, Wright said, this season is at least in part about reconnecting the recently rebranded Commanders with the legacy and history of the winning dynasties that came before. 

He said the goal was to intentionally not treat the rebrand as an “expansion team,” noting the club has focused on a heavy dose of alumni appearances to make fans feel connected with the organization’s legacy. 

Wright admits the team’s retirement of its former “Redskins” nickname in the summer of 2020 caused the franchise to lose season-ticket holders. That created additional challenges. 

“Bit by bit, we’re grabbing those folks back, but it’s certainly not because of the new name and identity,” Wright said.

For Sunday’s opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Wright said he anticipates the team to see a 15% bump in attendance. For context, last year’s opener against the Los Angeles Chargers drew 52,753. The team averaged 52,751 for the season — a 19.5% drop from 2019, the last campaign before the pandemic-limited capacity a year later. 

“When you start to win and do the things the way you’re supposed to, that’s when they’ll start paying attention,” Rivera said. “But until then, hey, I get it. The same thing with our fans, I get why a lot of them are staying away. I understand that. 

“And we got to give them a reason to come back and cheer for us.”

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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

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