Credit: Illustration by Jandos Rothstein

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When the Redskins and Giants meet in the 2011 opener this weekend, FedExField will have significantly fewer seats than it did when the teams met there to close last season.

Redskins spokesman Tony Wyllie didn’t specify how many seats had been yanked. While some reports have said 10,000 seats were pulled, Wyllie says the stadium’s 2011 capacity would be 85,000—or roughly 7,000 less than a year ago.

Wyllie said this spring the seats were removed to make way for “party decks.” But the team does not appear to have started construction or released specific plans for any such decks. No standing room tickets appear to be for sale this season for the end zone areas of the upper deck where the seats were removed. In fact, more than just seats were removed: Cranes also hauled off huge concrete sections from the upper deck, giving the stadium’s downsizing an air of permanence.

Tickets in the departed sections used to have a pre-tax cost of between $44 and $64. Given that these tickets were sold in 10-game packages—eight regular-season and two preseason games—that means Redskins gate receipts will be somewhere between $3.1 million and $4.5 million less, based on Wyllie’s assertion of the new seating capacity.

The latest Fan Cost Index from the Team Marketing Report, a consulting operation that calculates expenditures at every NFL stadium for concessions, parking, and ancillary costs, factors about $31.23 being spent per person per game at FedExField. Using that figure, there’s another $2.1 million or so in lost revenues on top of bygone ticket sales.

So the absence of 7,000 season ticketholders this season could theoretically keep between $5.2 million and $6.6 million out of Dan Snyder’s coffers.

From reading comment sections and listening to sports radio, you could get the impression that the deconstruction taking place at FedExField might be attributable to nothing more complex than a clique of former season ticketholders in the low five figures deciding they didn’t want any more of their money to reach said coffers.

Yet it’s also true that there have never been more reasons not to go to an NFL game—even those not played in Landover by a weak team whose owner gets treated like a piñata by every Joey from Herndon who calls in to a radio station.

Among the obvious: Football on TV has only gotten awesomer.

“The TV product is unbeatable,” says seminal sports TV critic Norman Chad. “For football, that was the case even before it got better with HDTV and the Red Zone channel and all the camera angles. It doesn’t matter where the game is played. You can move an NFL game to Biosphere Two and we’ll still all watch. That’s how good football is on television.”

Then there’s fantasy football, an archenemy of monogamous fan/team relationships and, therefore, of live attendance at NFL games. It’s as mainstream as the March Madness office pool. Last week, AdAge estimated that “more than 30 million” North Americans will field fantasy teams this season. Advents like DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket allow all those fantasy GMs to watch their favorite NFL team and tally up fantasy points in real time, in hi-def, and in their rec room.

Indications are that NFL owners could survive even if football became all about television: During the recent lockout the NFL Players Association asserted that TV contracts between the league and traditional networks and satellite providers brought each franchise $141.6 million last year. That was before a single Dream Seat or $9 beer was sold.

I wanted to know if the FedExField contraction heralded a sort of RollerBall-ization of the pastime, where TV is paramount and the live audience is essentially irrelevant. So I called up UMBC economics professor Dennis Coates. Attendance at sporting events, particularly NFL games, is his bailiwick. With research partner Brad Humphreys, Coates published a paper last year in the International Journal of Sport Finance titled “Week to Week Attendance and Competitive Balance in the National Football League.”

The researchers, after reviewing game-day attendance at 5,495 regular season NFL games from between the 1985-2008 seasons, now feel confident contradicting some canards about the game. For example, for generations the NFL’s motto has been, effectively, “Parity Then, Parity Now, Parity Forever.”

Among the findings of Coates’ research: Parity does not sell tickets.

“Our results do not support the traditional interpretation of the uncertainty of outcome hypothesis that attendance would be greater at games in which clubs are more evenly matched,” Coates wrote.

(Lack of parity is good for football across the pond, too. A British study on attendance in the English Premier League published in 2005 also found that onesidedness is what keeps the turnstiles moving: “[E]quality of playing ability across clubs would reduce aggregate attendance by over 2 million” fans per season, Euro researchers found.)

So much for the aggregate. Other portions of Coates’ research, though, help explain Redskins-specific ticketing dilemmas: “We find…strong evidence that attendance decreases when the home team is expected to lose,” reads the summary.

The Redskins went 2-6 at FedExField last year, the team’s worst home record since moving to the stadium in 1996. “Basically, it’s more fun to be there if my guys are kicking the crap out of their guys,” Coates tells me.

Coates’ paper also relates that attendance suffers among “home teams that give up lots of points.”

“Defense not only wins championships,” the researchers conclude, “but it also attracts fans.”

The Redskins defense finished the 2010 season ranked 31st out of 32 teams in the NFL.

So when Coates hears the upper decks at FedExField are shrinking, he’s not blaming advances in TV. “Bad football and bad management decisions have as much or more to do with the Redskins situation than television,” Coates says. “With other NFL franchises that I’ve looked at, the season ticket is healthy.”

For all his loyalties to TV, Chad pooh-poohs what he calls “the conventional wisdom” that the live football audience is going away.

“When sports bars started opening a generation ago, I started wondering if you can watch the game at home, why would you ever go to a sports bar and sit next to people who you wouldn’t be next to unless you were on a cruise ship and couldn’t get off?” says Chad, who’s also the genius behind the syndicated Couch Slouch column. “The answer is: Because guys want to get out of the house. It’s like Bill Maher used to talk about the so-called death of the business trip. Why would anybody take the time and go through the trouble and expense of going on a business trip with computers and faxes and technology? Because guys want to get out of the house. Same thing with NFL Sundays: As good as the TV product is, as bad as things can get at the stadium, where you have to put up with getting your view blocked by a tattooed mohawked guy throwing shit on the field, people are still going to go to the games.”

So what would cause a storied franchise like Washington to yank seats out of its stadium?

“I’ve talked to a lot of unhappy Redskins fans, and they don’t take the ownership issue lightly anymore,” Chad says. “They tell me they’ve had blinders on for years, but they’ve taken them off and they’ve seen the light.”

And Chad ultimately puts a television-centric spin on the downsizing of the Skins: “It’s to avoid blackouts,” he says. “Can you imagine blacking out the Redskins?”

As the season kicks off, the Redskins say keeping the games on TV had nothing to do with those areas of the stadium that disappeared.

“We were never close to being blacked out before and after seats were taken out,” writes Wyllie in an email. “The reasons for removing the seats were the ingress/regress with parking, [to] create shorter concession lines, and to improve and enhance the entire fan experience.”

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