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The same day that the Washington Capitals and hundreds of thousands of their closest friends mobbed D.C. to celebrate an NHL championship, the local NFL team also held a celebration: It belatedly awarded Super Bowl rings to the replacement players who filled in during the 1987 strike.
This was, on the surface, the Most Ashburn Thing. While a young, energized fanbase was celebrating a group that became champions a week ago, the NFL squad was squeezing yet another tiny drop of juice out of a desiccated 30-year-old orange. It was yet another illustration of how a team with no real contemporary success has been forced to rely increasingly on toxic nostalgia to gain any notice, and seemed like an indicator that the elation over the Caps had changed nothing about how the football team was going to do business.
But the next day, they put a bullet in the long-standing myth of the season ticket waitlist, and that potentially indicates a far more seismic shift in the organization’s outlook than any player acquisition or coaching change ever could.
The legend of the waitlist was, arguably, a perfect metaphor for the team’s approach to marketing, operations, and general existence. It was based on a truth: when the team played their games at RFK, it was exceedingly tough to get tickets. (Tough enough that in 1987, Sports Illustrated would dedicate an entire article to the waitlist and “[Pigskins] season tickets” could be the punchline in a list of KGB defector’s demands in a mainstream Hollywood comedy.)
It was tough for the most basic two reasons, though: supply—RFK Stadium was small by NFL standards—and demand, as the team was consistently good back in those days. Both of those reasons vanished when the team moved into a cavernous new stadium and immediately settled into decades of mediocre-at-best performances.
Keeping the season ticket list going had the dual effects of being a theoretically-tangible link to the past (people had actually signed up, or been signed up by their parents, when the team was good) and a constant reminder that this team was a Big Exclusive Deal. Which, coincidentally, are quite possibly the two most important things to team owner Dan Snyder. So the list stuck around long after people believed in it, until it became a punchline, then a farce, then an outright embarrassment.
The executive who made the announcement about the official change to the list’s status was Brian Lafemina, the team’s new president of business operations and chief operating officer, and it certainly seems likely that he was the driving force behind the change.
Lafemina appears to be a pretty sharp guy, hired out of the league office, and is a pretty drastic departure from the usual Ashburnocrat—he’s spoken at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and seems up-to-speed with current trends and technologies. Based on his comments at the press briefing, the reasons for making this change are simple: If the team admits they have tickets to sell, they can incentivize design offers to focus on selling to fans of the home team instead of the visitors. Everyone already knows the tickets are out there, so why not actually try to sell them?
It’s a commonsense reason that only further highlights the idiocy of the decade-plus-long waitlist kabuki play. But the fact that the change is being made means two things: first, that Snyder is listening to Lafemina, as he generally does with a shiny new hire, and second, that Lafemina has the good sense to take bold action before that shiny newness wears off.
This may seem like a minor sidelight in the team’s offseason, but I think it may actually be even more important than finally getting rid of Kirk Cousins. For nearly a decade now, I’ve heard people affiliated with the team make wry half-jokes that the claim of the waitlist was one of the things about the team that would never, ever go away, at least as long as ownership remained unchanged.
And now it has gone away, thoroughly and irrevocably (at least until demand increases and/or supply dwindles again). Much like the Caps finally beating the Penguins, this could be the kind of move that clears the air, lightens the weight, and makes anything possible.
At a minimum, it makes for one less embarrassing ongoing story about a team that tends to have no shortage of embarrassing stories.
Top image by Flickr user Jeff, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.