The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Commanders’ potential sale comes amid plummeting popularity, poll finds

A Commanders fan holds a sign aloft during the game between Washington and the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field on Jan. 8. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
5 min

When and if a new ownership group formally takes over the Washington Commanders, it will inherit a team that has hemorrhaged supporters across the Washington area, a fan base that wants a new stadium built in the District and a region that cites team owner Daniel Snyder as the biggest reason for the sharp decline in interest in the franchise.

Fandom for Washington’s NFL team, the centerpiece of the sports conversation in the nation’s capital for decades, has plummeted across the region; 15 percent of Washington-area residents now call the Commanders their favorite professional sports team, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll. In 2010, 31 percent of people across the region said the team, then known as the Redskins, was their favorite, far more than any other local pro team.

The Nationals are about even — 16 percent choose them as their favorite — in the new poll, up from 8 percent in 2010, their popularity buoyed by the 2019 World Series title. The Commanders are followed by the Capitals at 11 percent, D.C. United and the Wizards at 7 percent apiece, the Mystics at 2 percent and the Spirit at 1 percent.

The poll surveyed a random sample of more than 1,600 D.C., suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia residents and finds that 31 percent of people in the Washington area consider themselves fans of the Commanders, while another 16 percent say they used to be fans of the team but are no longer. Put another way, 1 in 3 residents who have ever supported the team no longer do so.

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While many metrics illustrate the Commanders’ steep drop in support and popularity — they posted the lowest average attendance of the NFL’s 32 teams last season — the Post-Schar School poll finds interest has especially plunged in the past decade, as the team has struggled for relevance on the field and the franchise has been consumed by off-field controversies, largely involving Snyder, who is the subject of multiple investigations stemming from charges of sexual harassment and financial improprieties.

Among current and former fans, nearly half (48 percent) say they have become less interested in the team in the past 10 years, and 42 percent say their interest is unchanged. Another 10 percent have grown more interested in a franchise that managed two playoff appearances in the past decade, changed its controversial name and overhauled its front office.

Facing parallel investigations by the NFL, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and the attorneys general of D.C. and Virginia, Snyder announced in November he would consider bids to purchase all or part of the storied franchise. Among the prospective buyers: Josh Harris, a Washington native who owns the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils; Tilman Fertitta, owner of the NBA’s Houston Rockets; Steve Apostolopoulos, a Toronto-based private equity executive; and Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and owner of The Washington Post.

An ownership change could have a profound effect on fandom across the region; 56 percent of those who have become less interested in the Commanders say Snyder is the biggest reason. Another 20 percent blame the team’s on-field performance, and 14 percent cite the team’s name changes. Few point to ticket costs (3 percent) or FedEx Field (1 percent).

Addressing the team’s aging stadium will be a top priority for any new owner. Snyder has struggled for years to curry support for a new stadium and has attempted to pit government leaders in Maryland, Virginia and the District against one another as he has explored potential sites for a new stadium.

In the Post-Schar School poll, a clear plurality of area residents say they want the team to return to the District, where the franchise played during its glory days, winning three Super Bowl titles back when it called RFK Stadium home. Forty-four percent say they want the team to build a new stadium in the District, while 23 percent would rather it be built in suburban Maryland and 20 percent in Northern Virginia. Those preferences are strikingly similar to a Post poll 31 years ago, when 41 percent wanted the team’s new stadium to be built in the District — before the franchise opted for suburban Maryland, constructing FedEx Field in Landover.

Recent success can often sway the hierarchy of local teams. In a 2019 Washington Post poll, conducted two weeks after the Nationals claimed their first World Series title, 28 percent of D.C. residents said the Nationals were their favorite team. That poll was limited to Washington residents and did not include anyone in Maryland or Virginia. In the new poll, 18 percent of Washingtonians cite the Commanders as their favorite team, up from 13 percent in 2019 but down from 34 percent in 2010. The Nationals, which 20 percent of Washingtonians call their favorite team, are roughly tied with the Commanders as the District’s favorite.

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The Post and George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government conducted the poll between Feb. 17 and 27 among a random sample of 1,668 Washington-area residents reached on cellphones and landlines. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Editor’s note: The Schar School of Policy and Government received funding from Dwight Schar, who was a part-owner of Washington’s NFL franchise and has had legal disputes with Snyder. Washington Post-Schar School polls are overseen by The Post and Schar School faculty. Dwight Schar has no involvement.

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.