After years of football futility, Daniel Snyder is having trouble moving tickets, especially premium seats. Look no further than the side of your local Metrobus, where ads tout seats in the hoity-toitiest sections of FedExField.
There are still more signs of sales desperation online, where the Redskins’ website features a mini-infomercial for a spot called the Montecristo Club, located on the stadium’s pricey Joe Gibbs Level. The video shows folks drinking and lighting up and having a grand ol’ time inside a bar.
Where the bus campaign merely raises questions about marketing choices—is the No. 42 bus route, which links Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan to downtown, really full of would-be buyers?—the Montecristo clip raises more interesting ones. Like: “Smoking in a bar! Ain’t that illegal in Maryland?”
It sure was illegal a couple years ago. The Maryland Clean Indoor Air Act of 2007, enacted to protect workers from second-hand smoke, banned smoking in almost all workplaces.
The Redskins were affected by the act’s passage. Since its late-1990s opening, their stadium had hosted a cigar bar called Club Macanudo, open exclusively to premium seatholders. But in 2008, Maryland and Prince George’s County health officials told the team it could no longer sell food or drinks there. Goodbye, cigar bar; hello, cigar store. After the 2008 season, Club Macanudo closed.
But the stadium wasn’t without a cigar bar for long. Last year, the Montecristo Club opened up in the old Club Macanudo space, and once again Snyder offered fans the chance to smoke and drink inside FedExField, for a price.
Cigars, according to people who follow such things, are no longer trendy. A Feb. 9, 2009, Wall Street Journal story on the state of tobacco declared them an anachronistic remnant of the mid-1990s, when everybody was making money. “When Wall Street crashed,” a tobacco trendspotter opined, “people backed off from [cigar smoking].”
But Snyder’s smoke-friendly room adds value to his premium seats even if cigars are passé. According to the “Smoking Policy” section of the Redskins’ official stadium guide: “Smoking is not permitted in the seating areas, lower level concourse, suites, portals, tunnels or restrooms of FedExField…However, Club Level guests may smoke in the Montecristo Club Cigar Bar.” Bottom line: No distinction is made between cigars and cigarettes.
So buying a Club Level seat, which can cost several thousand dollars more per season than a general admission ticket, gives nicotine junkies the right to puff away without having to walk to some out-of-the-way, open-air spot—like the exit ramps. In my few trips to the old Club Macanudo, back when cigars were supposedly in vogue, I saw more people puffing on Marlboro Lights than on stogies.
In 2008, I spoke with Alan Heck, program chief of the food protection program for the Prince George’s County health department, about the impact of the Clean Indoor Air Act. Heck, whose agency enforced the smoking codes, said the Redskins had been warned that selling anything other than tobacco products at the cigar bar would violate state law.
“They know they can’t have any parts of the bar operating,” Heck told me at the time.
The Redskins tried getting the state law changed. Last year, House Bill 1483 called for an exemption to be added to the Clean Indoor Air Act specifically for “an establishment commonly known as a cigar bar that…is located in a professional sports venue.” The measure was co-sponsored by two delegates from Prince George’s County, where FedEx Field is located: Del. Jay Walker, the former Howard University football superstar, and Del. Michael Vaughn.
H.B. 1483 would have allowed exactly one establishment in the whole state—one operated by the Redskins—to both sell booze and let customers smoke. But that bill died before ever getting out of committee.
Yet the Redskins nevertheless reopened the cigar bar as a drinking bar. Team spokesman Tony Wyllie says they only made the move after Prince George’s County regulators gave the go-ahead. “We abide by whatever the county health department tells us to do,” says Wyllie. “The health department dictates, and we comply to their wishes.”
After seeing the promotional film for the Montecristo Club, I went back to Heck and asked how the Redskins could re-open a cigar bar with the Clean Indoor Air Act still on the books. Heck said the county had changed its enforcement of that law with regard to the FedExField spot, but declined to discuss what inspired the change.
Erin Bradley, a spokeswoman for the Prince George’s County Health Department, says she was told by higher ups within her agency that the county no longer regulates the Redskins cigar bar. The Montecristo Club “does not hold a permit to operate as a restaurant or bar,” Bradley writes via e-mail. “As such we do not regulate it. It seems to be operating as a Tobacco shop.”
And tobacco shops are indeed exempt from Clean Indoor Air Act of 2007. However, the law also states that that exemption is only given to a business where sales of anything other than tobacco products are “incidental.”
Booze hardly seems “incidental” to the Montecristo Club. In promotional literature, the Redskins describe the joint as a “martini lounge” and a place where “Club, Field Club, Loge, Suite, and Owner’s Club ticket holders can enjoy fine cigars, food and beverages.” The video for the Montecristo Club on the team’s website opens not with smoking, but with a shot of a bartender behind a full bar pouring a Bud Light from a tap into a glass.
The flip-flop of county regulators with regard to Snyder’s bar baffles tobacco watchdogs.
“There was no law change: [The Redskins] tried to change the law, but they lost,” says Kathleen Dachille, director of the Center for Tobacco Regulation, a state-funded smoking regulation watchdog group that operates out of the University of Maryland’s law school. “We really need to tighten up regulations here, to get these things enforced.”
This isn’t the first bye Snyder has gotten from Prince George’s—whose county executive, Wayne Curry, was inducted into the FedExField Ring of Fame in 2002.
In October 2000, for example, he convinced the county to ban pedestrian traffic into FedExField on game days, claiming safety concerns. The ban was thrown out after a class action lawsuit by season ticketholders, who argued that the prohibition had nothing to do with pedestrian safety and everything to do with forcing them to pay Snyder’s highest-in-the-league parking fees.
Now the county has given Snyder the green light to run a “martini lounge” where folks who pay a premium can smoke inside his stadium. I direct Bradley to the Montecristo Club promotional video, and asked if the spirits retailing shown there fit the legal definition of “incidental.”
“The primary focus of the facility is to sell tobacco products,” Bradley responds. “An inspection during last year’s season revealed that the kitchen area was not in use. Even the refrigeration had been turned off.”
So that draft Bud Light that Snyder’s promotional film opens with was not only incidental, it was at room temperature? “If you know that the establishment is operated as a restaurant or bar, please feel free to lodge a complaint to with the Prince George’s County Food Protection Program,” she says.
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