Daniel Snyder was regarded as a business savant when he bought the Washington Redskins in 1999 at age 34. A self-made millionaire, he promised to restore the storied National Football League franchise to greatness, driven by his childhood passion for the team and fueled by free-spending zeal in pursuit of a Super Bowl championship,
Yet in two decades as an NFL owner, Snyder has achieved something more difficult — driving away one of the more loyal fan bases in professional sports.
The moment time expires on Sunday’s season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles at FedEx Field, where the Redskins can finish with no more than eight wins for a 15th time in his 20 seasons, Snyder faces a rebuilding challenge that transcends the customary offseason to-do lists of struggling NFL teams.
The decisions Snyder makes in three key areas will determine the future stability and relevance of the Redskins — a $3.1 billion business that is showing troubling foundational cracks. In the past year alone, regular season attendance is down nearly 24 percent at FedEx Field and game-day revenue, by conservative calculations, has plunged $18 million.
One: Should Snyder bring back Jay Gruden, his amiable yet consistently mediocre head coach, and Bruce Allen, his increasingly reviled team president, for a sixth and 10th full season, respectively? Gruden’s record is 35-43-1; Allen’s is worse: 59-83-1.
Two: Can Snyder reverse a plunge in game-day attendance and declining local TV ratings in a market that for decades revolved around Redskins Sundays?
Three: Can Snyder find a home, and a funding plan, for the 60,000-seat, roughly $1 billion new stadium he hopes to open in 2027? He is off to a poor start, having waited in vain for a bidding war to erupt among officials in Maryland, Virginia and the District while underestimating the political challenges of acquiring development rights to the former RFK Stadium site, his top choice.
Some close to Snyder say privately that he doesn’t fully grasp the extent of fans’ enmity. Like a quarterback who can’t read the whole field or spot open receivers, he fails to connect his squad’s poor performance, both on the field and at the turnstile, to the frequently tone-deaf moves of his unpopular front office.
Nor does he necessarily see his own hand in the mess, opting to find and fire scapegoats, as he did again this past week, ousting his handpicked chief operating officer, Brian Lafemina, less than eight months into the job. Snyder was said to be stunned by backlash among fans who railed on social media and besieged Redskins Park with angry phone calls. The team’s young marketing staff was bewildered, according to two people with knowledge of the in-house briefing on the purge of Lafemina and his top lieutenants.
In his penchant for blaming the Redskins’ woes on others, Snyder risks missing an essential point that was glaring this season: The team’s fan base is eroding, and he has few allies at a time when he sorely needs both.
“The Redskins need a jolt to re-energize their marketing and their fan base,” said Marc Ganis of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports business advisory firm. “The jolt comes from one of three things in sports: A new stadium; a championship; or a great single player. The Redskins will continue to try to field a championship team, but that doesn’t appear to be in the cards in the immediate future. They don’t have a star player to build around. Therefore, you’re left with a stadium.”
Snyder declared that he’d hired a “proven winner” in introducing Allen as his general manager in December 2009. The record proves otherwise. The Redskins have posted a .413 winning percentage in nine full seasons on Allen’s watch and have lost off the field as well.
Rather than proving the asset Snyder envisioned, Allen — son of former Redskins coach George Allen, brother of a former Virginia governor and a self-styled football-talent evaluator — has become a liability.
Allen has presided over a series of decisions and developments this season that have made it difficult for politicians and many fans to proudly declare allegiance to the team — adding linebacker Reuben Foster within 48 hours of his arrest for a second incident of domestic violence; the arrest of safety Montae Nicholson after a drunken brawl in an Ashburn parking lot; and the revelations that Redskins cheerleaders were exploited for the entertainment of premium-seat holders.
They also revived the social media hashtag, #FireBruce. A #FireBruceAllen petition on change.org has 10,100 signatures affixed to the statement: “We Redskins fans had enough of Bruce Allen and are hoping that he is A.) Fired B.) reduced to a lesser role. We believe that it would be in the best interest of the team to find football minded people not just business people.”
Snyder and Allen declined to be interviewed for this story.
Unlike Allen, Gruden readily acknowledges that his results haven’t been good enough.
“Nobody likes to lose around here. Everybody demands greatness around here, and that’s the way it should be. This is the Washington Redskins,” Gruden said in an interview. “I have not done a good enough job to get us over the hump. I have not won a playoff game since I’ve been here, and if you had told me five years ago I would have laughed at you.”
Whether Snyder has the stomach to fire Gruden, pay the two years remaining on his contract and hire his ninth coach in 20 years remains to be seen. Moreover, the market for potential NFL head coaches is thin, according to well-placed NFL executives and agents. Gruden could argue that he has earned a sixth year by keeping the Redskins in playoff contention until the second-to-last week of the season despite going through four starting quarterbacks, an injury-ravaged offensive line and ending the year with 24 players on injured reserve.
Allen could be kept, fired or reassigned. Some in the NFL with insight into the Redskins’ workings anticipate the latter, predicting Snyder will move Allen to the business side of the team and name someone else to oversee football operations. One agent who deals with the Redskins believes that Eric Schaffer, the team’s longtime salary cap expert and chief contract negotiator, could be put in charge of football operations.
If Snyder pursued an outside candidate, he would likely have a tough time wooing a top personnel executive. The Redskins’ reputation in NFL circles has deteriorated during Snyder’s tenure and is at a particularly low ebb now, following his ouster of Lafemina this month and former general manager Scot McCloughan, who has strong allies in front offices around the league, in March 2017 less than two years into his tenure.
Other NFL teams are upset with the Redskins’ haste in claiming Foster, which deepened a perception that Snyder and Allen often operate as a maverick team, apart from the NFL’s league-first ethos.
“Snyder has positioned himself as the junior [Dallas Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones,” said a former high-ranking NFL executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “While a lot of owners don’t like Jerry and resent Jerry because he operates by his own rules, they respect him. They know he runs a franchise that makes a bazillion dollars and makes everybody money. I don’t think anybody thinks Daniel Snyder puts money in their pocket. He’s met with a smirk.”
When Snyder bought the Redskins for $800 million in 1999, he not only took possession of Redskins Park in Ashburn, FedEx Field in Landover and the team’s three Super Bowl championship trophies; he also inherited a corporate titan’s dream — more demand for his product than supply.
The Redskins set single-season NFL attendance records at FedEx Field, peaking with an average crowd of 89,625 in 2005.
Attendance has plummeted since. This season saw a seismic drop. In 2017, the Redskins ranked sixth in NFL home-game attendance, drawing 75,175 fans per game. Heading into Sunday’s season finale, their average game-day crowd of 60,719 ranks 29th in the 32-team league.
Moreover, the Redskins rank dead last in percentage of stadium capacity filled (74 percent). Visually, the team tried to minimize the fact that more than 25 percent of tickets were unsold by covering large sections of the upper deck with advertising banners. But the empty seats, prevalence of fans wearing opponents’ jerseys and sporadic boos were jarring to Snyder.
For Snyder, each unsold seat represents lost income — in ticket revenue and spending on food, drinks, souvenirs and parking fees.
This season, the loss from those sources alone tallied $18.01 million over the previous year — with ticket revenue off by at least $13.53 million (based on an average ticket price of $117) and per capita spending down $4.48 million (based on $38.75 average per person).
That $18.01 million drop is only part of the picture. It doesn’t reflect declining receipts from suites or premium seats, local sponsorship revenue or heavily discounted tickets (considerable in 2018, as Lafemina sought to coax fans back to FedEx).
While neither Snyder nor Allen was made available to comment, the team authorized its public relations consultant, Maury Lane, to speak on its behalf. Asked about this season’s precipitous drop in revenue, Lane said: “The organization had a very aggressive marketing plan, and unfortunately it didn’t work out as well as we would have liked. We’re looking forward to restructuring that plan and believe it will have much different results in the coming season.”
Lane noted that the Redskins, according to Forbes’ 2018 valuation of NFL teams, had $491 million in revenue last season, which places it among the league’s top five revenue-generators. That figure has increased each of the past five years, he said. But the bulk of that revenue is the Redskins’ 1 in 32 share of the NFL’s national TV revenue, which is hefty enough to mask a steep drop in local, stadium-related revenue.
Fans’ dissatisfaction with FedEx Field isn’t Snyder’s only problem. Six successive years of a drop in local TV ratings for the Redskins’ broadcasts on Fox — the predominant network for teams playing in the NFC — indicates that more fans are tuning out the team from their own homes. This year’s rating (17.7) was down 10 percent from 2017 (19.7) and off more than 46 percent from the rookie season of quarterback Robert Griffin III in 2012 (25.9).
Ratings reflect the percentage of TVs in the local market that are tuned to the game.
Increasingly, it appears that a large segment of Redskins fans has had enough of a team the city once embraced — fed up with slow starts and late-season collapses; ill-advised trades and high-risk, low-dividend free agent signings; constant churn in the front office and coaching staff; and a shabby game-day experience at FedEx Field.
The sentiments of former third-generation season-ticket-holder Steven Collins reflect that of many alienated fans.
“My emotions during the Snyder era have run from anger to hope and back to anger. Then disbelief. The crazy part now is that I feel indifference. Indifference to the team that was a huge part of my life growing up,” Collins, 55, wrote in an email. Collins, who had kept his Redskins tickets after moving to Florida, continued: “Anger isn’t cutting it because the organization probably believes that no matter how mad they make us today, we will love them tomorrow. Indifference can be powerful and much harder to overcome. I’m there. I’m not hopeful. I’m not mad. It’s easier to stop caring and move on.”
Nearly three years have passed since the Redskins unveiled an architect’s rendering of the new stadium Snyder hopes to build to replace FedEx Field. The buzz of the futuristic venue’s parabolic roof, surrounding moat and climbing walls has long since fizzled from its national rollout during a segment on CBS’s “60 Minutes” in March 2016.
Since then, nearly everything about the Redskins’ stadium effort has been puzzling. Yet the billion-dollar project is critical to the team’s long-term success.
While Snyder hired Lafemina with an eye toward this project, given his eight years of experience as the NFL’s liaison with its franchises on stadium issues, Allen appears to have convinced Snyder that he can deliver the new stadium largely on his own.
Having failed to work with the District to secure the RFK site under the Republican-led Congress, the Redskins must now persuade House Democrats and, in turn, the D.C. Council and taxpayers, that Snyder should be allowed to build the stadium on a coveted plot of federal land.
As opponents of the project line up against it, Snyder and Allen have remained silent, operating through back channels and behind closed doors.
A “HailNoRFK” online petition, hosted by D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D), who represents Ward 6, has more than 3,500 signatures. Groups with long-standing opposition to the team’s name are newly energized. Local politicians and taxpayers in Maryland and the District are voicing alarm about the prospect of the team seeking public financing. Others worry about the environmental implications of a 60,000-seat stadium on the RFK site on the Anacostia riverfront or on National Park Service land overlooking the Potomac in Prince George’s County, as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has proposed.
Winning, of course, has a way of solving many problems in sports. But with an Allen-crafted roster that’s more reclamation project than foundation for success — with glaring needs at quarterback, wide receiver, offensive line and in the defensive backfield — winning doesn’t appear on the horizon.
That, for now, leaves the team’s remaining fans, many of whom still sport jerseys of former Redskins greats rather than current players, treasuring fading memories of better teams and better times.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said the Redskins’ proposed new stadium on the existing RFK stadium site in the District was on the Potomac River. RFK is located on the Anacostia River. A new stadium for the team in Maryland proposed by Gov. Larry Hogan would be on federal land overlooking the Potomac.
Ben Strauss, Dan Steinberg and Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.