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What's Burgundy and Gold and Read All Over?

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Washington Redskins kick off their regular season Sunday afternoon with an away game against the New York Giants. But many readers already think The Post deserves a penalty for providing too much coverage.

A caller from Gainesville, Va., recently played a recording of "Hail to the Redskins" at the ear-splitting level of a rock concert. "That's how it seems to me in the paper," she complained. "Enough, already!"

Frank J. Adrian of Olney e-mailed several weeks ago, wondering how the money-losing Post could defend having a small army of writers covering a "meaningless" exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. "Tell us, please, how these expenditures of resources jibe with the economic difficulties cited by The Post in justifying its recent drastic cuts" in content and staffing, he wrote.

Since training camp opened in late July, The Post has published about as many stories on the team as it has on health-care reform. More than 3,500 column inches have been devoted to the Redskins. That's roughly equivalent to a 100,000-word novel.

Excessive? Not to Post editors, who cite reader demand.

"There are some readers who will say that we're giving them too much Redskins coverage, and I appreciate that," said Sports editor Matt Vita. But interest in the Redskins is "huge."

In recent years, reader surveys have gauged those "extremely interested" in 15 local professional and college teams. The Redskins consistently rank far ahead of the others.

More recently, a Post survey assessed interest in more than 20 professional, college and recreational sports. Among Sports section readers, NFL football was alone at the top by a wide margin.

The Redskins also dominate page views for The Post's online Sports section. From last September through May, traffic to the Redskins page on the Web site was three times greater than for the Capitals hockey team and six times as heavy as traffic for the Washington Wizards basketball team. Among sports blogs, the Redskins Insider is the most popular.

And during last year's NFL preseason and regular season, overall sports traffic to the Web site rose 8 percent. If the Redskins make the playoffs or if there's big news involving the team, traffic goes "off the chart," said Jon DeNunzio, a Post online sports editor.

High reader interest does not necessarily boost circulation. It's "difficult to attribute any consistent sales lift to Redskins games or coverage," said Post circulation vice president David C. Dadisman. The most recent figures put circulation at 622,700 daily and 858,100 on Sundays.

But broad interest in football helps ad revenue. "The affiliation to the NFL and football is very strong," said Post advertising vice president Kenneth R. Babby. Advertisers view it as "incredibly compelling content."

It can even generate negative advertising. Last Wednesday's 14-page special section on the Redskins and the NFL included a display ad tied to Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, recently released from prison for involvement in a dogfighting ring. Placed by an animal rescue group, the ad promises five bags of dog food will be donated to a local animal shelter every time Vick is tackled by the Redskins when they play at FedEx Field on Oct. 26.

Why are the Redskins so much more popular than other area teams? Perhaps it's the absence of a strong local competitor. The nation's capital was without a Major League Baseball team for 33 years until the Nationals started playing in 2005. The Wizards haven't claimed an NBA championship since they won as the Washington Bullets in 1978. The recently rejuvenated Washington Capitals have never captured the Stanley Cup.

By contrast, the Redskins have won three Super Bowl championships. For years, there were no NFL teams farther south, and the Redskins built a huge following in the region.

"Generations of fans have passed their loyalty to their kids, and they've passed it to their kids," said Redskins Senior Vice President Karl Swanson. "We have a loyal fan base. The stadium has been sold out for almost 70 years."

The NFL brand is powerful throughout the nation, and The Post isn't alone in providing wall-to-wall coverage of the hometown pro football team. Among teams in sports-crazed Dallas, "nobody is close" to matching fan interest in the Cowboys, said Dallas Morning News Sports editor Garry Leavell.

Vita said high reader interest "should not be the sole determinant of how we cover things." He noted a "responsibility" to cover all sports, despite limited space and staff.

It's a balancing act. But during the NFL season, the Redskins tip the scale.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.

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