Photo by Reggie Hildred for The Sports Capitol

Redskins, FedEx Field crowd come up short in home opener

BY BEN STANDIG | SEPT. 16, 2018

FEDEX FIELD — The Washington Redskins assembled a new management team after last season or at least brought in specific people for a particular problem.

This group, led by chief operating officer Brian Lafemina and chief marketing officer Steve Ziff, recognize their task won’t be completed overnight. Anybody who took a glance at the FedEx Field stands Sunday know this reality is all kinds of real.

Swaths of vacant seats in all three levels of the stadium stood out more than the Redskins’ ineffective showing in Sunday’s 21-9 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Washington’s inability to start a season 2-0 for the first time since 2011, while disappointing after last week’s impressive romp at Arizona, isn’t terribly curious. The NFL runs on parity and this team remains uncertain. The franchise’s one lock dating back to 1967, sellouts. That streak ended Sunday with an ignominious display of absenteeism. The official attendance count, 57,013, for a stadium equipped to hold over 80,000.

The gold seats in the middle “club” section often lack fannies in them. Many patrons prefer to spend their game day indoors at the various drinking or social establishments located on that specific concourse. The upper deck and lower bowl were bare in several sections.

Don’t confuse the missing with lack of interest. The Redskins remain the most popular team in town. The “traffic” on The Sports Capitol website reflects this. Local radio hosts note phone lines jam when Burgundy-and-Gold topics arise, yet become sparse when Capitals, Wizards, and Nationals discussions occur. The current issues involve game day experience and lack of enthusiasm. The latter largely involves the current team pegged for a final record somewhere around .500 for a fourth consecutive season. The former is why the organization sought new thinkers within their management ranks.

Ziff met with a small group of reporters this week at Redskins Park for the purpose of explaining the franchise’s sincere desire to alter money-grubbing perceptions and the plans for such page turning.

“That was fans’ internalization of our decision-making tree, was, ‘How do we make money?’” said Ziff in perhaps the most authentic public assessment of perception from a non-player since Jay Gruden chastised Robert Griffin for calling out teammates in 2014. Somewhere between Marty Scottenheimer’s firing after the 2001 season and the Redskins making 2006 free agent safety Adam Archuleta the highest-paid safety in league history, I adopted my “Deep Throat” stance on rationale for any transaction or decision: Follow the money.

“Now it’s, ‘How do we please our fans? How do we be a first-class organization? How do we protect our brand and make it something that means integrity and means class to people?’ All those things are more important than any decision related to revenue generation,” Ziff said.

Among the changes involve a willingness to take a step back in the moment for long-term gain. Lafemina previously acknowledged there is no such thing as a waiting list for season tickets. The intrigue is less about the list and more about the admission. Countless times over the decades this register served as recognition of a passionate fan base.

In the 1980s heyday, landing tickets for a September Redskins game meant Christmas came early. In recent season, the secondary market sold tickets for less than $10. Washington’s new plan involved limiting the number of tickets available in such forums.

“The decision was not to sell as many seats to brokers as we have in the past,” said Ziff, who previously helped change perceptions for the Jacksonville Jaguars. “We’ll sell those more fundamentally to Redskins fans. This is the decision of saying, ‘This is the right way to do business in the NFL.’ Reward (Redskins fans) and treat them well.”

That decision undoubtedly played a factor in Sunday’s emptiness and led to articles like this one noting the missing. Players noticed the empty seats as well.

“For sure,” Pro Bowl lineman Trent Williams said while offering a possible explanation. “From all the reports we heard a week ago, we were going to be basically… raining cats and dogs. Maybe that played a part. Who knows?”

Fair point, but the let’s note the weather forecast turned positive before the weekend. Let’s instead give credit to the organization for its candor.

Upgrading the game day experience won’t mirror Chris Thompson cutting on a dime. Adding pyrotechnics during player introductions, Redskins inspired beer to the menu, and burgundy paint in the upper deck can’t hurt. The #ATTR (Ale to the Redskins) adult beverage limited the on-field sting for some, though those at FedEx Field expressed irritation with loud booing.

“Empty, so what, so be it. You start winning, you start changing those things a lot,” cornerback Josh Norman told The Sports Capitol.

Those who didn’t bother to show articulated their stance with the overall product in another way.

“While it looks like the sellout streak is in jeopardy, and that’s the message out there, for us we’re comfortable with this because we’re comfortable with how we do business on a long-haul basis,” Ziff said.

The Redskins thinking long-haul isn’t something often said during the nearly two decades of ownership under Dan Snyder. Big-picture talk gives Ziff and his colleagues cover, for now.

“I can’t put a timeline on it,” Ziff said. “We’re going to do things right for as long as it takes. Hopefully, over time, win or lose, the fans will buy into it. We want to make sure when people leave, they say, ‘That was better than the last time I went.’”

Even if they don’t immediately buy in, those orange, gold and burgundy seats will be sold next Sunday. They will be filled with gobs of green. Green Bay Packers fans don’t mess around when the chance to see their team in person arises no matter the location or game day experience.

Ben Standig is a host, writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. This D.C. area native grew up rooting for all the local squads and dabbled in the professional media world after college before making a full shift to sports writing in 2005. Since, Ben has covered every team and big event in town for several outlets including the Associated Press, NBCWashington.com and Scout.com.

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