FedEx Field: Same stadium, different experience

Dan Steinberg
Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A few hours after the Redskins' first preseason game this summer, a longtime season-ticket holder named Joe Davis from Silver Spring sent me an e-mail.

"Wow," began his note. "I've been to a lot of away games, and up until now FedEx [Field] has been the worst game day experience. But everything tonight was different."

Now, my first thought was the same as yours: The Redskins made this guy e-mail me! Well, claim denied.

Some of the things Davis cited - the big-screens, for example - have been repeatedly publicized throughout the offseason, so they weren't exactly breaking news. But Davis said other things had improved his night, like friendly ushers who told him to have a good night when he left the stadium.

So I went to the next home preseason game, and walked out of a couple different exits, and it was the same. I was bombarded with "Thanks for coming, get home safe," and "Good night sir, good night." I walked past the guest services window and was offered a choice from a bowl of candy; "We've got a new group down here, and this is how we do it," one of the staffers told me. I watched one usher insist on escorting an older woman down to her lower-level seats, calling her "ma'am" the whole way.

And I talked with another usher who showed me the new staff guidebook that all employees are now required to carry. It has, among other things, an A-Z stadium directory, a pictorial guide to different credentials and tickets, and an amazing list of staff behavior guidelines, which include no chewing gum, no toothpicks, no hands in pockets, no leaning on railings, no watching the game, no frosted tips and no excess hair gel or grease, plus restrictions on sideburn and fingernail lengths.

(Also, ushers are not permitted to talk to the media. But this was for a good cause.)

This person was a longtime usher, which makes him something of an exception. Because here's something else that's new: most of the FedEx Field staffers. All of the 800 or so game-day staffers were required to reapply for their jobs, and were asked questions about the stadium and why they wanted to work there. About half did not reapply or were not re-hired, and many others switched positions.

There were other changes, according to the team. Every game-day department has bright new color-coded shirts and hats to distinguish them and help them stand out from fans. There are new companies handling parking and facility cleaning. The concourse floors were power-washed, and the team committed to repainting just about everything, including about 14 miles of railings and much of the inside bowl.

"We knew we had things to improve on, so we did it," Dave Donovan, the team's chief operating officer, told me. "It's not acceptable for anybody to be unhappy with the experience they have at the stadium, and that goes from food to parking to everything else."

Now, it's easier to make things work during a sparsely attended preseason game than during a packed regular season opener. And the team was starting from a big game-day experience hole, with a long way to climb just to get to the NFL average.

Donovan also said that none of these changes were made in response to anything that happened last season, that all of these things were in discussion prior to the fan anger that cropped up last year. Still, whatever the reason, it can't hurt.

"They're trying to make this the best customer-service facility in the league," one usher told me. "And I agree with that."

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