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The Redskins’ new ticket strategy: Actively courting fans

The Redskins’ new president of business operations says the team is working to improve the fan experience at FedEx Field. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Until the arrival of business executive Brian Lafemina, the Washington Redskins had not publicly acknowledged the need to sell tickets, claiming they had a massive waiting list for season tickets and a home sellout string dating back 50 years. But as the era of the once-dominant Redskins receded, the demand for season tickets waned — and now the team is officially acknowledging it.

It was among Lafemina’s early moves, soon after being installed as president of business operations in May, to advocate announcing that a season ticket waiting list once claimed to number 200,000 was no more.

“I’m a pretty simple person,” Lafemina said during an interview in his office at Redskins Park in Ashburn on Wednesday. “If you have something to sell, I think the best way to sell it is to tell them it’s for sale. To me, it was no more complicated than that.”

With it, the Redskins’ business operation pivoted — from waiting for ticket buyers to come to them to actively courting them with promotions, incentives and a pledge to serve fans better.

The Redskins say they’ve sold out every home game since 1967. The streak may end Sunday.

Lafemina — it’s pronounced Lah-fah-MEE-nah — is well credentialed for the role of remaking the business side of the Redskins and rebuilding the team’s relations with fans.

He spent eight years in the NFL’s office as a liaison to the league’s 32 teams, helping develop and disseminate best business practices. Under his watch, the NFL conducted an annual survey of fans’ game day satisfaction, and he understands the imperative of not taking customers for granted.

“There is a different type of competition now: The competition for people’s time, for their money, for everything,” Lafemina, 51, said. “ We needed to — as an entire league — really market ourselves, sell ourselves and make our fans understand what the benefits are of coming to an NFL game.”

Lafemina would not divulge Redskins-specific data but cited three factors as most important to all NFL fans: team performance; game day entertainment, such as the quality of the scoreboards, music, video and halftime performances; and the ease of getting to and out of the stadium.

Although Lafemina’s large office at Redskins Park has a large window overlooking the team’s practice fields, he has no role in the team’s performance — although he conceded that winning, as the Redskins did Sunday on the road against the Arizona Cardinals, makes his job easier.

His focus is on basically everything else, reporting directly to Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder on the team’s business matters. Bruce Allen, who continues as team president, supervises the football side of the franchise, reporting directly to Snyder, too.

Redskins fans attending Sunday’s home opener against the Indianapolis Colts will notice some of the changes ushered in by Lafemina and his team, which includes new hires Steve Ziff, formerly of the Jacksonville Jaguars, as chief marketing officer, and Todd Kline, formerly of the Miami Dolphins, as chief commercial officer, handling sponsorships, suite sales and special events.

The west end zone of FedEx Field has been turned into an open plaza — a communal square, of sorts, for fans to congregate, with 30 high-definition TVs for keeping tabs on other games around the league. The programming on the giant video boards in the stadium also has been reconceived.

“FedEx Field was built in 1997, and so the way people went to experience and watch games was just fundamentally different,” Lafemina said. “Until we have a new stadium, we’re not going to be able to do everything, but there are places that we can be opportunistic.”

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More changes will follow over the course of the season, Lafemina said, as his department learns more about Redskins fans’ wants. To that end, he has created a department that will use data and analytics to better understand fans preferences, likes and dislikes.

Sunday’s 1 p.m. home opener has yet to sell out. Barring an 11th-hour rush to the box office, that would snap what the Redskins claim is a 50-year streak of consecutive sellouts.

As to the unsold tickets for Sunday’s game, Lafemina offered a partial explanation. Largely on the advice of the NFL, the Redskins, along with other teams in the league, took a close look at the number of season ticket holders who appeared to be ticket brokers and were buying the packages primarily to sell individual games to fans of opposing teams. Starting last season, he said, the Redskins declined to renew season tickets for would-be brokers, taking control of the tickets themselves. That process continues. He declined to say what percentage of season tickets this represented, offering only that it was “a fair amount.”

As an upshot, the Redskins now have a larger inventory of seats, he said. The goals are to create a stronger home-field advantage by getting more tickets in the hands of what he calls “organic” Redskins fans (rather than Eagles or Cowboys fans, for example) and limit resale of tickets below face value, as invariably happens for less compelling matchups, which undercuts the incentive for fans to buy season tickets.

As the 2018 season gets underway, Lafemina pledged continual improvement in the team’s relationship with fans.

“We’re going to get better every single game. We’re going to listen to their feedback, and we’re going to treat them the way they deserve to be treated,” he said.

“By the way, were going to make mistakes,” he added. “We’re going to get some stuff wrong. But it’s not going to be because we’re not trying; it’s not because we’re not thinking about them, and it’s not because were taking anything for granted.”

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