(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s a grim time in Washington, and not just because of the impeachment hearings. The Washington Redskins, for decades the city’s most beloved institution, are simply awful.
So far this season, they’re 1-9, and with six games left, they’ll be lucky to win another. Last Sunday they were thoroughly outplayed by the lowly New York Jets, losing 31-17. That loss prompted the Washington Post’s great sportswriter Thomas Boswell to declare that, with the Washington Nationals winning the World Series this year and the Washington Capitals the Stanley Cup in 2018, Washington no longer lives and dies by the Redskins.
The game photograph that accompanied Boswell’s column showed something that has rarely been seen at Redskins games: lots and lots of empty seats.
Everyone in Washington knows exactly who to blame for this state of affairs: 54-year-old billionaire owner Dan Snyder. After making his fortune with a marketing business (he eventually sold it for $2.1 billion), Snyder bought the Redskins in 1999 for $750 million. In the subsequent 20 years, they’ve had six winning seasons, eight last-place finishes, and exactly two playoff victories — and the last one was in 2005.
Snyder has hired bad coaches and fired good ones. He’s made terrible free-agent signings. He would sometimes dictate to his coaches who to bench and who to play. In early October, when Snyder fired head coach Jay Gruden five games into the season, Mark Cannizzaro, the New York Post’s pro football columnist, wrote, “If the Redskins owner truly wanted what was best for his franchise, he would have fired himself.”
But why would he? Despite Snyder’s 20-year record of football ineptitude, he’s made a boatload of money as the team’s owner. Last year, according to Forbes, which publishes annual rankings of sports franchises, the Redskins had $120 million in operating income(1)on $493 million in revenue. Among the 32 teams in the National Football League, only six teams earned more. Forbes also ranks the Redskins the seventh-most-valuable franchise, with an estimated valuation of $3.2 billion. (The Dallas Cowboys are ranked first with a $5.5 billion valuation.) Last year, despite another losing record, the team still rose 10% in value, according to Forbes.
Which leads to the obvious question: Does it even matter whether Snyder — or any other pro football owner — has a winning team or a losing one? From a financial standpoint, the answer, plainly, is no. As the sports consultant Marc Ganis told me, “NFL teams don’t lose money.”
This is in large part because the NFL has a “share the wealth” philosophy. (Or to put it the way the late Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell once did, the NFL is run “by a bunch of fat-cat Republicans who vote socialist on football.”) The NFL has multiyear, multibillion-dollar contracts with CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN and DirecTV. That money is equally divided among the 32 teams, along with certain marketing and licensing deals negotiated by the NFL. In 2018 that pool of money amounted to $8.1 billion, or $255 million per team.
The biggest expense for any team is player contracts. But don’t forget the salary cap, which places a limit on how much any NFL team can collectively pay all the players on its roster. It is currently $188.2 million. Michael Ozanian, who compiles the sports franchise rankings at Forbes, told me that when you include insurance, pensions and the like, most teams pay well over $200 million in salary-related expenses. Even so, the national TV contract alone more than covers the owners’ biggest expense.
Then there’s gate revenue. In the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball, the home team keeps all the money generated from ticket sales. In the NFL, the visiting team gets 40 percent of the gate. The Redskins, for instance, had $43 million in gross ticket sales last year, and netted $28.5 million after giving the visiting teams their cut.
All told, about 75% of the revenue that a team gets comes via money that is shared among all the teams. That still means that the other 25% has to be self-generated. Here is where you would think the Redskins would have a problem, given the way they’ve alienated their fans.
But you would be wrong. One of the first things Snyder did after buying the team was cut a $205 million, 27-year deal with FedEx Corp. to change the name of the team’s stadium in Landover, Maryland, from Jack Kent Cooke Stadium to FedEx Field. (Cooke owned the team from 1974 until his death in 1997.) Snyder has since plastered FedEx Field with corporate sponsorships. In 2002, he cut a deal with Diageo Plc, the big liquor company, to put billboards in FedEx Field; they were strategically located to make sure that TV cameras would have to show them.
The median ticket price for a Redskins game is $235. By one estimate, when you throw in parking and food, two people will pay $567 to attend a game, the ninth-highest cost for attending a league game. Snyder charges for fans to attend preseason practices (he charges for parking, too). He has come up with all kinds of schemes to extract fees from fans: fees to cut the security line on game day, for instance, or to get season tickets ahead of people who had signed up earlier. Indeed, all those empty seats may be held by season ticket holders who decided not to bother going to the game.
One area where revenue has fallen for the Redskins is their haul from premium seating and luxury suites. In 2016 and 2017, that number was around $70 million, according to league data. More recently, it has dropped to around $65 million. It is hard to know whether that’s a function of the Redskins’ losing ways or the result of the elimination of the 50% tax deduction for client entertainment expenses that was part of the 2018 tax bill (corporations have traditionally liked booking suites to entertain clients).
Of course, what smart team owners understand is that the best way to field a winning team is to hire really good football minds — and get out of their way. Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, was a meddler like Snyder in the early years of his ownership. But once he hired Bill Belichick as his head coach, he stopped getting involved in most football decisions.
Twenty years in, it seems unlikely Snyder will ever learn that lesson. Redskins fans loathe him and most other NFL owners view him as a lightweight. But given the NFL’s business model, none of this matters. Most likely, Snyder will keep wrecking a once-great franchise while he keeps raking in the profits. Why should he change when there’s no consequence?
(1) Forbes defines operating income as earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization.
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Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."
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