For Richmond, it was hailed as a business-development coup — one that would lure thousands of tourists weekly, pump up the local economy and generate more than enough money from sponsorships and rental fees to pay for the $10 million practice facility the city would build for the team. And for the Redskins, the deal promised to extend the team’s brand and strengthen ties with its fan base to the south.
But five years into the deal, the revenue Richmond expected hasn’t materialized, which means the city has had to cover the shortfall in the $500,000 they agreed to pay the team annually to defray its costs of holding camp out of town. Moreover, progress has been slow in repaying the $10 million loan to construct the facility. To date, just $1 million of the debt has been retired.
The Redskins have compiled figures showing that the training camp deal has benefited the city once revenue from taxes and charitable contributions are factored in, but the economics have angered taxpayers and last year were a hot-button issue in the city’s mayoral campaign, in which all 12 candidates at one point criticized them.
On Tuesday, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a scathing editorial about the deal with the headline, “Richmond School Kids Come before Millionaire Athletes” and a photograph of a decrepit boys’ bathroom at the city’s George Mason Elementary school, last renovated 37 years ago, showing two of four urinals in working order and only one operational sink.
It read in part: “Whatever publicity Richmond might be getting out of the deal can’t begin to stack up against the need to improve Richmond’s schools. Fixing them would do more for the city than any sports or entertainment offering possibly could. . . . Nobody from outside the area is ever going to look at the city and say: ‘I’m going to move to Richmond. My kid will have to sweep rat droppings off his desk at school and his teachers will have to wear surgical masks because the air is so bad, but at least I won’t have to drive far to watch Kirk Cousins run drills.’ ”
In a telephone interview last week, the city’s new mayor, Levar Stoney, who is on record as saying he never would have signed the training camp agreement, acknowledged the city has benefited from the programs, playgrounds and equipment donated by the Redskins Charitable Foundation in recent years. He also characterized Richmond’s relationship with the team as “good.” Nonetheless, he said he was in the process of renegotiating the contract in the city’s favor and was optimistic about a solution.
“It can be a better deal for Redskins and for the city,” Stoney said. “For me, it’s about the fact that we write a Redskins check every year, and they are a very, very profitable business enterprise. I do believe a city as cash-strapped as we are should not be in the business of writing a check to a multibillion-dollar franchise.”
Forbes magazine in July ranked the Redskins as the fifth-most valuable NFL team, worth $2.95 billion.
Redskins President Bruce Allen didn’t respond to a question about whether the team was in talks to renegotiate the contract. In an interview last week, Allen characterized it as a win for multiple parties.
“I think the benefits have been for our Redskins fans in southern Virginia and eastern Virginia and southwest Virginia and a lot of our fans from North Carolina,” said Allen, a University of Richmond graduate who took the lead in negotiating the training camp deal for the Redskins in 2012. “And the kids of this community have been able to touch and feel professional athletes like they never will be able to do if they weren’t here. I think that’s the benefit.”
If training camp is any gauge, enthusiasm for the Redskins has waned in recent years.
The food vendors that once lined West Leigh Street outside the wrought-iron fence surrounding the facility have disappeared, unable to earn enough to justify the $2,500 license fee to set up shop for the three weeks of camp. Crowds for afternoon practices are less vocal than in past years, when chants of “RG3! RG3!” rang out the moment former quarterback Robert Griffin III set a foot outside. Compared to past years, there are also fewer fans, although Allen disputed that observation.
The Redskins, who no longer release attendance figures, did make public their own accounting of the financials of the training camp deal.
It shows, on one hand, that Richmond has paid $784,751 to the Redskins to date (not counting construction of the $10 million facility). That reflects the portion of the city’s annual $500,000 obligation that wasn’t covered by the credits that were supposed to make it a break-even proposition: training camp sponsorships, rent payments (from a corporate tenant that was never found for the second floor of the training-camp building that houses the team’s locker rooms and offices) and “in-kind” services of volunteers, for example.
Last year’s shortfall of $138,519 was the smallest to date, which was encouraging for the city. It previously paid the Redskins $285,538 in 2014 and $360,694 in 2015.
The Redskins’ accounting also includes other sources of revenue that turn the $784,751 deficit into a $294,518 net gain for the city. That $1.08 million swing is reached by adding direct tax revenue (from the team’s hotel and catering bills; the Redskins souvenir store, for example); revenue that Richmond’s Economic Development Authority generates from camp-related events such as an annual golf tournament and banquet; and donations from the Redskins Charitable Foundation.
According to Jane Rodgers, executive director of the foundation, its contribution to Richmond since the deal was brokered approaches $750,000, which includes last week’s gift of $60,000 worth of sporting equipment to Richmond’s John Marshall High. The foundation’s work focuses on the city’s schoolchildren and includes the construction of two NFL “Play 60” playgrounds (one behind the end zone of the practice fields at camp; another at an elementary school in Richmond’s East End), financial support for academic-athletic advisers in the schools and tutoring programs for at-risk children.
“We want to be a year-round community partner,” Rodgers said.
Julious P. Smith Jr., chairman of the Richmond Economic Development Authority, which manages the camp, confirmed that his organization was working with city and Redskins officials to restructure the deal. But Smith stressed that the Redskins have been generous benefactors to the city in other respects.
“The team has generated business for the city and its residents,” Smith wrote in an email exchange. “They have also invested time and money in the city schools and their students.”
Regardless of how the contract is reworked, another cost associated with the Richmond training camp deal won’t show up on a ledger. It’s borne by the Redskins, rather than the city. It’s the “lost opportunity cost” of not scrimmaging against a rival NFL team during the three weeks of camp.
Under the terms of the contract, the Redskins must hold all of their practices at the $10 million training camp the city built for them. But many NFL teams that scrimmage with another team during camp prefer to do so on a “home-and-home” basis, taking turns hosting the joint practice at their facility. For decades, the Redskins did just that with the Pittsburgh Steelers, visiting Steelers camp in Latrobe, Pa., for a joint practice one year, then hosting the Steelers at Redskins camp the next year in Carlisle, Pa., or Frostburg, Md.
While the Redskins can host a visiting team for a joint practice in Richmond — as they did the New England Patriots in 2014 and the Houston Texans in 2015 — they’re precluded from reciprocating with a trip the next season.
As a result, they’ve been unable to find a team willing to travel to Richmond the past two years.
According to Coach Jay Gruden, quarterback Kirk Cousins and other Redskins, practicing against another team during camp offers significant benefits. It not only breaks up the monotony by giving players someone other than teammates to hit, it also provides an honest gauge of their readiness.
“I wish that was all of training camp: just practicing against other teams,” Cousins said last week. “The value lies in the fact that it’s different schemes. You get very comfortable and accustomed to the other side of the ball when you’re going against them day in and day out. They know our hand signals, our code words, what we like to do better than any defense that we’re going to play during the season and vice-versa.
“Those are the things that you don’t want to have the answers to the test before you take the test; you want to play it true and honest. When you have a brand new team come in here with brand new players, it really helps you get a better test of where you are as an offense and as a group.
For the Redskins, that test didn’t come until Thursday’s preseason opener at Baltimore. The result was uglier than the 23-3 loss indicated, sending the Redskins back to Richmond for the final two days of camp with a long to-do list.