The empty seats — rows and blocks and chunks and sections of them, striking even on a telecast that focused on the field — aren’t some sort of sudden development at FedEx Field. This is two decades of erosion of a once-proud franchise. Once-proud. It’s almost a mandatory modifier now, bludgeoned into us because it describes the then and the now. Trite, for sure, but let’s roll it out again, because clinging to the pride generated by those Super Bowl trophies from a generation ago feels better than dealing with the present.
The once-proud Washington Redskins lost to the Indianapolis Colts in their home opener Sunday at FedEx Field. This time, though, the no-shows weren’t just the players and coaches. The no-shows are now the fans.
And we know now, for sure, that the seats were empty not because ticket holders — paying customers — decided it was too difficult to get to the game, or that a hurricane was forecast, or that they had to file their nails. No, the seats were empty because there weren’t customers who would pay.
So the story line of Washington’s Week 2 wasn’t the home debut of the new quarterback, or the addition of the Hall of Fame-bound running back, or anything even remotely about what happened on the field. The most significant takeaway from a listless 21-9 loss was an off-the-field issue. Funny how that works out, because I’d argue a factor in the development of that off-the-field issue — lousy attendance — is this franchise’s penchant for off-the-field nonsense, a tendency that stretches out over two decades now.
Add up the reasons — the losing and the junk stadium and the maddening traffic and the long walk from the Metro and the relative comfort of the couch and the frustration, years of frustration, with owner Daniel Snyder. They’re all factors in this truth: This has been coming.
The team had to know this was coming, too, because it had begun a new approach to, well, basically everything on the non-football side of things with the arrival of a new executive, Brian Lafemina. Under Lafemina, whose title is chief business officer, Washington mailed free preseason tickets — and a parking pass — to some former season ticket holders who had not renewed. It admitted the absence of a waiting list. It began marketing single-game tickets. It removed seats from bloated FedEx Field. It overhauled its in-game entertainment. It created new eat-and-drink areas.
A team just doesn’t take those sweeping steps if fans are happy with the product. It just doesn’t.
“If you have something to sell,” Lafemina told The Washington Post’s Liz Clarke and me in an interview last week, “I think the best way to sell it is to tell them it’s for sale.”
Huh. It’s not to hide behind fictitious story lines that prop up the idea that Washington’s appetite for the team is insatiable? How novel.
It’s important to remember where Lafemina came from. As an executive with the NFL, he was privy to data and fan surveys at all 32 clubs. Why leave a top job at the league to run the business operation of just one of its clubs? If I didn’t know any better, I’d think the league said: “Look, Brian, Washington’s a shell of what it once was. Go fix it, and we’ll make sure it’s worth your while.”
The problem: Those fans this team lost, they can turn their attention to products that are more consistently pleasing, are not owned by Daniel Snyder, or both. Winning them over as kids with a championship-caliber product? That was easier than Riggo, on fourth and one, behind the Hogs. Winning them back after years of neglect? Oof, man. That’s John Beck looking for Jabar Gaffney in triple coverage.
About Sunday’s crowd: The number of fans Washington said it drew was 57,013. We say “said” here because the team also “said” it had a streak of 50 years in which it sold out every game, a streak that “ended” Sunday. You’re welcome to believe that. You’re also welcome to believe the 2018 Washington Redskins will finish the season 15-1 and that Alex Smith will have to decline his Pro Bowl invitation because he will be preparing for the Super Bowl. Go ahead. Knock yourself out. Just make sure you’re not prepaying for that hotel reservation in early February in Atlanta.
Anyway, of the 31 other regular season games played through two weeks, just four drew fewer fans than Washington’s home opener: Kansas City at the Los Angeles Chargers (25,351), and the Los Angeles Rams at Oakland (53,857) in Week 1; and Baltimore at Cincinnati (50,018), and Philadelphia at Tampa Bay (56,552) in Week 2. (We know the Chargers have no foothold in their new market, and we know the Raiders are bolting Oakland for Las Vegas. Who knows what’s up in Cincinnati and Tampa?)
At the core of this is, of course, losing. Repeated losing. Just six sorry franchises have a worse cumulative record than Washington since 1997, when FedEx Field opened. The only teams that have appeared in fewer playoff games than Washington in that time are Detroit, Buffalo and Cleveland. That’s the company the Redskins keep on the field — the worst the NFL has to offer. That has to matter in the stands. Washington’s record at FedEx Field, after Sunday’s loss to the Colts: 84-84-1, the 28th-best home mark in the league over that span.
Add it up, and you get a sunny September Sunday with plenty of room to stretch your legs. The good part: There is no longer pretense around the Redskins. Now that the myths have been stripped away — the waiting list that has been fiction for who-knows-how-long, the sellout streak that no one with the team can chart — the extent of the damage is clear. It looks like empty seats on game day.
The short-term task is beating Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay this weekend. The long-term task is far more daunting: winning back a fan base that has felt as if it has been gradually slipping away for years. We only now have a number — 57,013 — to show it.