The Washington Redskins couldn’t deliver a victory in their home opener at FedEx Field on Sunday. They couldn’t even manage a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts, hardly a defensive force, scoring all their points in a 21-9 defeat on the right leg of place kicker Dustin Hopkins.
And the biggest cheers came before kickoff — showered not on a Redskin but on Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who sported a customized No. 8 Redskins jersey for his role in the coin-toss ceremony.
It hardly took the chants of “Ovi! Ovi!” to illustrate what has become increasingly apparent over the 19 years of Daniel Snyder’s ownership: The Redskins’ hegemony in the Washington sports market is a shadow of what it once was.
The Redskins, who have made the playoffs just twice in the past decade, must now compete for fans’ dollars, time and loyalty with the Capitals, Nationals, Wizards and D.C. United, which this season opened a new stadium near Nationals Park. And on Sunday, many simply stayed away.
The announced attendance of 57,013 was the lowest for a Redskins home opener in the 21-year history of FedEx Field — down more than 21,000 from the 78,658 who attended the Redskins’ 2017 home opener against the NFC East rival Philadelphia Eagles.
It also broke what the Redskins have claimed is a 50-year streak of home-game sellouts.
Swaths of empty seats attested to the story, along with the large section of 300-level end zone seats that was covered with advertising signage and, at the opposite end zone, the removal of seats to create an open-air plaza for fans to mingle, order drinks and keep tabs on other NFL games via 30 HD TV screens.
“A lot of fans have lost that ‘hope springs eternal,’ ” said Dave Kerrigan, a Redskins fan for nearly 30 years who had seats in the front row, musing about the sparse turnout. “The hurricane might’ve had a little bit to do with it; people were on the fence because it looked like it was going to be a big washout weekend a week ago. I’d like to think it was more that — than a loss of support for the team.”
Support was in short supply, however, among many who showed up for the 1 p.m. kickoff. Fans booed after the Redskins were forced to punt on four of their first five possessions. They booed with more vigor as players trudged to the locker room at halftime, trailing 14-3. And they streamed for the exits with five minutes remaining in the game — plenty of time for a high-functioning offense to erase a two-score deficit.
The jeering from the team’s own fans in the home opener caught the attention of Redskins running back Adrian Peterson, 33, who spent the bulk of his 12-year NFL career in Minneapolis.
“It was a new one for me,” Peterson said in the locker room afterward. “It was different.”
For Dan Flynn and Carl Noble, buddies from Columbia, Md., who said they’ve been Redskins fans their whole lives, the steady erosion of the team’s core fan base has worked in their favor. Flynn gave up his season tickets in 2012, he said, because he can find cheaper tickets in the FedEx Field parking lot.
On Sunday, he and Noble watched from the open-air fan plaza in the west end zone — a new feature this season to which both gave a hearty thumbs-up.
Said Noble: “You can buy the cheapest ticket you can get now and watch it from here. So why would we pay anything else? Why would we pay season tickets if we could watch the game from right here?”
Sunday’s patchy crowd continued a decade-long slide.
Average attendance for Redskins games at FedEx Field has dropped 15 percent since 2007 — from 88,090, when the Redskins led the NFL in attendance, to an average of 75,175 last season, which ranked sixth among the league’s 32 teams.
To convey the impression of demand, the team removed thousands of seats at least three times from 2010 to 2015 — the vast majority in the upper deck — scaling down what once was the NFL’s largest stadium, at nearly 92,000, to roughly 82,000.
On Sunday, capacity was smaller still, though team officials declined to provide an updated figure.
In an effort to improve fans’ game-day experience, the Redskins, under new President of Business Operations Brian Lafemina, stopped selling seats with obstructed views, created the fan plaza and upgraded the pregame and in-game video entertainment.
After acknowledging in June that a waiting list the team had claimed once numbered 200,000 no longer existed, the Redskins launched a multimedia marketing campaign to promote sales of season tickets as well as tickets to individual games. The team also is offering group-ticket discounts and set up an information booth Sunday, which they had designated Maryland State Employees Appreciation Day.
Jason Christenson, 50, a Virginia Beach native who has loved the Redskins since childhood, as his father and grandfather did before him, said he considered dropping his four season tickets after the 2017 season, offended by the actions of NFL players who knelt during the national anthem.
“But I thought about it, and nobody on the Redskins kneels. And every year they have a salute to the military,” noted Christenson, who sported a burgundy T-shirt with an “R” set against a stylized background of stars and stripes on the front. On the back, it read, “I Stand For Our national anthem.” An employee at a Virginia Beach flooring company, he designed the shirt himself and said he has sold about 200.
Even though Christenson kept his four season tickets in Section 106, he spent much of Sunday’s game standing in the fan plaza, enjoying the chance to get a drink, stretch his legs, talk to other fans and not miss a key play.
In many respects, the NFL is grappling with the same issues the Redskins are in shoring up their fan base.
Professional football may still be the country’s most popular sport, but declining TV ratings suggest that significant numbers of fans are turning away. Whether they object to players protesting during the national anthem — a gesture intended to call attention to social and racial injustice that has been politically recast as a lack of patriotism — or are troubled by evidence linking repetitive head trauma to irreversible cognitive damage is difficult to quantify.
But it’s undeniable that even ardent fans have decided they don’t need to buy season tickets — or tune in on Sundays — to follow football. They can buy tickets on a whim via an app on their phone. They can stream game-day action on mobile devices. They can cherry-pick highlights on the NFL Network’s Red Zone channel.
For all those reasons, it’s possible NFL TV ratings will never be what they once were. It’s also possible that the Redskins’ game-day attendance won’t either.