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The ageless Tom Brady was in town on Sunday, and it was a nice day to watch football even at a dull stadium stuck in the suburbs. The Washington Football Team were 9.5-point underdogs against Tampa Bay, but, still, only 52,128 of 82,000 tickets were sold for a game between Brady’s Bucs and the WFT, the lowest paid NFL attendance over the weekend.
Brady had a bad day, and the Football Team somehow put together a 19-play, 10½-minute touchdown drive to seal a shock 29-19 victory, but the lousy turnout was not a surprise. Washington are dead last in the NFL in average home attendance this season, selling an average of 51,291 tickets to their five home games. So Sunday was actually an improvement at the gate.
They have somehow managed to draw fewer fans than the winless Detroit Lions, who are averaging 52,016 per home game. Washington, fourth in average attendance in 2011 and 20th in 2019, are the only team in the NFL selling fewer than 80% of their tickets (Washington home games average 62.6% capacity, the next lowest rate in the league is the Lions’ 80.7%). To make matters worse, many of the fans who do buy tickets come to root for the other team.
There are lots of reasons as to why this is, only a few of which have to do with football. Washington are 3-6, tied for last with the New York Giants for last place in the NFC East, with virtually no chance to win a division title. The quarterback, Taylor Heinicke, replaced injured veteran, Ryan Fitzpatrick, who’d been signed as a free agent to bide a year.
Even the victory over Tampa Bay was smudged with the news that defensive end Chase Young, the NFL defensive rookie of the year last season, tore his right anterior cruciate ligament against the Bucs and will miss the rest of the season. “You have to rally the troops, basically,” head coach Ron Rivera said at a news conference. “That’s just the way it is.”
Maybe Rivera will be able to rally his troops, but resuscitating interest in the team is proving to be a bigger challenge. The Dallas Cowboys may still be the most hated team in the NFL, but Washington, beset by one controversy after another, have to be the hardest team in the NFL for their own fans to like. Many have tuned out.
The latest mess only happened in October, when the House Oversight and Reform Commission asked the NFL to provide information collected in an investigation into the WFT’s toxic workplace culture. The NFL answered Congress’s questions but did not submit documents requested. The NFL had fined the WFT $10m in July for “bullying and intimidation.”
Along with accepting the fine, the franchise said Dan Snyder, the owner of the team for more than two decades, would take a lesser role in the organization. His wife, Tanya, would take over running the franchise, but many fans were disappointed that Dan Snyder, a widely disliked character, had not been kicked out for good – so the franchise, established in 1932, could launch another restart.
“The last really great season they had was in 1991,” Andy Pollin, a longtime Washington sports-radio talk-show host, tells the Guardian. “Mostly since 1999 when Dan Snyder bought the team, they’ve been a disaster. His mismanagement of the team has just been a head-scratcher.”
Washington are even entwined in other team’s problems. Las Vegas coach Jon Gruden resigned last month after an investigation found that he had made racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments in emails, some to Bruce Allen, Washington’s much-reviled former general manager. (Gruden has sued the NFL, claiming the league forced him out of his job.)
The Fox affiliate in Washington carried a story last week in which it quoted a former fan, Shaun Taylor, as saying, “This has been happening for a long time. So yeah, I’m done. I just don’t watch the games anymore.” Fans are gravitating to the exciting Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens, a playoff contender who play only 32 miles up the road.
“If you’re new to the area, which team are you going to gravitate to?” Pollin says.
The Football Team can’t even get the easy stuff right. Last month the team announced there would be a ceremony during a home game to retire the No 21 jersey worn by Sean Taylor, the Washington defensive back who was murdered in November 2007 by home intruders. The announcement was made just days before the game against the Chiefs, and the lack of notice for the ceremony was blamed for another disappointing crowd – this time just 51,322.
“We thought that saving the news for a game-week reveal was the best way to focus the message on Sean and his legacy,” Jason Wright, the team president, wrote in a letter to fans. “We didn’t realize that so many of you wanted to make a trip to FedEx Field to be present for this moment – a true lack of understanding of what you, the lifeblood of this franchise, needed to mourn our collective loss and celebrate Sean’s legacy.”
Being that this was Dan Snyder’s team, Washington were ripped not just for appearing to have scheduled the Taylor event to distract from the off-field strife, but also for renaming a road for Taylor at the stadium … that was lined with Porta-Potties. On and on it goes. The team is in Year 2 of finding a nickname that will replace its old racist one.
“Riverboat Ron” Rivera provided a touching storyline last season, his first with Washington, by leading the team to the NFC East title as he battled squamous cell carcinoma. The Football Team topped a woeful division by winning seven of 16 games, but Washington tested Tampa Bay in a playoff game, trailing by just five points late in the fourth quarter.
Pollin is a third-generation Washingtonian who grew up rooting for the team partly because they were the only pro franchise in town for years when he was a kid. The NHL’s Washington Capitals, MLB’s Nationals and WNBA’s Mystics have each won championships in the last three years.
Pollin describes the abandonment of the football team as a “slow drip.” There are many long-time Dallas Cowboys fans among Black DC residents because Washington were the last NFL team to integrate, in 1962. Later came the Snyder era, which only seems to have gotten worse. “Now, a 10-win season would be cause for a parade,” he says.
As a result, he says of the chaos, “The shock factor is just not there with anything that happens with this team.”