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Many years ago, I was part of the management team of a furniture company called Thomasville. We were enjoying a hot streak, as our products were much in demand, we had one of the best-known brands in the industry, and just about everybody wanted to be one of dealers.
This put us in the enviable position of not really having to sell. People came to us, we decided who we wanted to do business with, and we said no about as much as we said yes. If we said yes to you, you loved us. If we said no, people called us arrogant, cocky and many times words much rougher than that.
As the industry consolidated, we ended up being purchased by another comglomerate. The new chairman of the organization came to visit us one day and blistered us. He dealt with many of the dealers we wouldn’t sell, so he gathered us together to tell us we were arrogant, entitled and lucky we were on a hot streak. “This won’t last forever” he told us. “When it stops, people will not forget.”
He, of course, was right. He could have also been talking that day about the Washington Redskins.
If he had, today was the day you really knew the streak was over. And people did indeed not forget.
Don’t get me wrong, the team has been bad for a long time. The fan experience has been bad even longer, lasting a period of time that is coincidentally the same length of time Dan Snyder has owned the team. But during all those previous years, there had been so much momentum in the Redskins brand, you never worried about selling out on opening day. You’d have sparse crowds later in the year when the weather was bad and the team’s record was worse.
But never on the first home football game of the season.
I was shocked to see today's announced crowd of only 57,013. Official crowd counts are usually based on the best and brightest of outlooks too, so if the official count was 57,013, the true count was probably closer to 45,000. Empty seats were very evident during the televised game. It looked like a preseason crowd.
That’s a disaster for the Redskins, I thought.
My relationship with the Redskins goes back to the 60s and the days of Sonny Jurgensen, Charley Taylor and Otto Graham as the coach. They were always a fun team to watch, and getting a ticket back then was considered an act of good fortune. As the team improved and started the Joe Gibbs era, it was more than good luck; it was considered a status symbol that you had season tickets.
One day at work in 1986, a friend of a friend called, said he’d had a family emergency, and that he had two tickets for the Redskins-Giants game. Knowing I’d never been, he said he’d just give them to me since I was such a big fan. My wife and I each asked our respective bosses (we lived in High Point, NC) if we could take that Monday off so we could enjoy everything and not worry about rushing back. Both acted as if it was a moral imperative we stay the extra day, as Redskins tickets didn’t come along very often. This was also in North Carolina, not the DC area. The power of the brand was that strong.
I moved up to Ashburn from North Carolina in 2000, and a year later I got a phone call from the Redskins. I had been on the season ticket waiting list for about 10 years, and I thought I was finally getting close. Turns out the call was for the people I bought the house from, who had been on the season ticket waiting list for even longer. Two tickets were now available on the front row of the upper deck on the 50. Did I want them?
I immediately said yes, but when it came time to give credit card information, it became apparent I didn’t have the same name as the name on the waiting list. It was late in the day, I explained my deal, told her she already had my credit card number and everything, and all she had to do was hit submit. She did. I became a season ticket holder after all those years of waiting.
At the office, people acted like I had won the lottery. Two season tickets! On the 50! What great luck!
I kept them until 2010 and at first enjoyed everything about them. But then each year, the team did something to make it less fun. Parking became overpriced. There were fewer and fewer ushers to deal with drunk fans. They stopped patrolling the parking lots so if you wanted to tail gate, finding a spot got tougher and tougher (despite paying through the nose for parking permits) as fans would get there early and take up multiple spots.
Food and drink choices inside the stadium just kept going up. Unlike in North Carolina (where we moved from) where the Carolina Panthers had a number of amenities at reasonable prices, we started to feel fleeced. One night we walked out of the stadium after a Monday night game, garbage and crushed beer cans were everywhere, nobody was cleaning up, the team had gotten routed, and I told my wife “they’re playing us for suckers.” Seemed to me the owner was squeezing every dime he could out of the deal and not putting any back into the game experience.
We dropped our tickets in 2010. For years, we heard so many other complain, with the complaint usually followed by “and nothing’s going to happen until people stop showing up at games.” But there were so many of us who had been raised on “owning a ticket is a privilege” from the 80s, many were scared the year they cancelled, the team would get good and it would be a hot ticket again.
I mean, no one can screw up a franchise for that long, can they?
Apparently, they could. While games later in the season had smaller and smaller crowds, and the owner removed more and more seats to continue his fairy tale of having a huge season ticket waiting list, one thing still remained sacred: Opening Day. The first home game of the season usually had good weather, high hopes, and was a tradition to be there. Because of that, at least that game was always sold out.
But not today. Even that tradition has now gone. If they hadn’t taken out all those seats over the last 10 years, the crowd would actually have been less than half of the stadium's capacity.
It takes a long time, tremendous talent, and a product that generates a lot of great memories to build a brand so powerful that you don’t have to try to sell your product. Building something so much in demand that you just open the doors and take the customers’ money is probably the second-most difficult thing to do in the world of business.
The most difficult, however, is losing that brand after building one so powerful. If you pay attention to your business and treat people fairly, it’s almost impossible.
Not for the Redskins. Judging from today’s attendance, the team...and its owner...somehow found a way.