By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 26, 2009
Dave Hoskins did something a week ago he had never done in eight years of going to Redskins games: He didn't go to the Redskins game.
A self-proclaimed team "addict" for 30 years and part of a season-ticket group since 2001, the Bethesda contractor woke up Sunday, looked at the likely poor weather and the likely worse game and just bagged it.
"Last weekend was the first weekend I decided to do something else," he said. "I watched most of it on TV, but I wasn't going to sit through that misery."
In most cities, a few thousand fans skipping NFL games during a bad season wouldn't be remarkable. But in Washington, the empty seats reported recently at FedEx Field have raised a question long unthinkable in Redskins Nation: Are significant cracks appearing in one of professional football's most rock-solid fan bases?
Officially, attendance at home games had fallen from 87,780 at the home opener to 79,572 at last week's loss to Kansas City. Unofficially, many fans have reported a no-show rate that would suggest the falloff has been even greater.
There are other signs that as some Washingtonians stand by their floundering team, which is 2-4 in regular-season play, others are standing a little farther downwind. Nielsen ratings show that the average TV viewership of game broadcasts for the first six weeks of this season has dropped by about 120,000 households from the same period last year.
And the national market for burgundy and gold jerseys, banners and hats has plummeted, down 47 percent in the past month compared with the same period last year, according to sales data.
"This is something new," said Matt Powell, chief retail analyst for SportsOne Source, an industry research firm. At least as judged by the merchandise sales index, he said, "nationally, the fan base is clearly abandoning this team."
David Donovan, the Redskins' chief operating officer, disputed Powell's analysis, saying that team records show a 12 percent dip in merchandise sales, which he said was understandable in a down economy.
Donovan also said that the team hasn't detected a significant decline in fan loyalty and that the team's attendance figures are accurately gathered by bar-code scanners at the turnstiles.
"I think the relentless negative coverage in The Washington Post is a real difference from previous years," Donovan said. "But in terms of the way our actual fans are behaving, we don't see any difference."
Game attendance is still far surpassing that at any other stadium in the league, he said, and he attributed the lower TV ratings largely to the unglamorous opponents the Redskins have faced in the first part of the season.
"Last year, we had the Giants, the Cowboys and the Eagles in the first five, and they were all away games," he said. "This year, you had the Giants but then five other teams that were not that compelling."
Redskins broadcasts consistently draw more viewers than any other TV show on at the same time, Donovan said. The team put the NFL's vice president for media operations, Howard Katz, in touch with The Post to say that the league has no worries about the popularity of Redskins television.
"The Redskins are one of those clubs that, win or lose, the ratings aren't impacted over the course of a season," Katz said.Devotion turns to disgust
Measured by sheer intensity, fan interest has probably rarely been higher. Call-in rants shake radio speakers around the clock. Blistering screeds fill blog after blog.
But the overriding emotion is increasingly more disgust than devotion, many fans say. A string of losses to feeble opponents seems to have unleashed a decade's worth of frustration over revolving-door coaches, an owner perceived as a micromanager and game-day indignities such as pricey parking and tailgating restrictions.
"I've never seen anything like this," said WPGC (95.5 FM) morning man Donnie Simpson, who said he has been getting a nearly constant earful from his mostly African American listenership.
"I've been here 32 years now, and I've never witnessed a time when fans are talking about bailing out on the Redskins. I know a lot of people, listeners, Facebook friends, my personal friends, who are saying, 'I'm done.' And they mean it."
For many fans, thoughts of doing something, gulp, else on a Redskins Sunday are the first they've had in decades of die-hard dedication. District filmmaker Adrian Muys, 33, had been a never-miss-a-game viewer since his preteen years. The lengths to which he had gone to stay connected during a stint of living abroad included bribing workers at an Indian restaurant in London to hack each game's satellite feed.
He recently joined a Sunday men's soccer league.
"I've just gotten disenchanted," Muys said. "In the fall, it's a beautiful day, you're sitting inside watching a gut-wrenching game, and eventually you say, 'Man, I wish I'd done something else with my four hours.' "
Victor Del Pino, a lifelong fan whose office is filled with everything Redskins, had tickets to the last three home games. He gave them all away.
"For me, that would have been unthinkable before," said Del Pino, a Montgomery County prosecutor. "You would kill to get into FedEx Field."
Rudy Crutchfield, a salesman at a building materials company in Chevy Chase, still gathers with his buddies around the widescreen for every game. But he recently launched an embargo against the team that he has held dear since his father's weekly game-day banquets of pot roast and mashed potatoes in Silver Spring: "I will not go to a game, and I will not buy any new Redskins paraphernalia," he said. "I don't like [Redskins owner] Dan Snyder, and I don't want to give him any of my money."
Other fans are ready to go further. Samu Qureshi attends every home game and has turned his Bethesda home into a shrine of Redskins artifacts dating back decades. Now he has gone guerrilla, launching a boycott and calling on ticket-holders to skip the last two home games of the season and not re-up for next year.
His demand? That Snyder hire a general manager to run the football side of the business.
"I think we really are at a tipping point," Qureshi said. He said he had just gotten off the phone with the fan activist who runs whodeyrevolution.com, a similar -- and so-far futile -- crusade against the owners of the Cincinnati Bengals. "I've talked to a lot of really hard-core lifelong Skins fans, and they say, 'I'm willing to do it.' "Is breaking up hard to do?
The question for many fans is this: Would a winning streak make it all feel better?
Michael Richman, a sports historian and author of the Redskins Encyclopedia, said that this season of fan discontent was years in the making and is probably the most severe in franchise history. It would require at least a couple of solid winning seasons to lift fans' spirits back to where they'd been for decades, he said.
"If they were to win three or four straight games, it would pick the town up for sure, but I don't think the optimism would return," Richman said. "There is so much uncertainty about the team, fans would find any success to be ephemeral. They would have to be a consistent power in the NFL to really bring back the fan base."
But Cindy Waddell, a sports psychology professor at George Mason University, said that a densely knitted fan base such as Washington's will be quicker to mend itself. When love of team is passed from generation to generation, nostalgia alone will keep even furious fans from drifting too far.
"Making a choice to do something different on a Sunday when my team is losing to the worst teams in the league is easy," Waddell said. "But really giving up on them? That's hard to do when they're your hometown team."
Hoskins, the 30-year Redskins addict who skipped last week's game, said he hadn't given up and will be at FedEx Field on Monday night for the Philadelphia game. But unlike in previous years, he's not ready to endure whatever comes.
"If they're playing like that again," he said, "I'm leaving at halftime."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.