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Redskins Owner Daniel Snyder has mastered the art of crowd control at lifeless FedEx Field.

By Patrick T. Hand Photographs by Charles Steck

I used to love the Washington Redskins. Back when they played at smelly old RFK Stadium.

Back when you had to know somebody just to be able to go to the games. In the ’80s, during the Super Bowl years, my friend Ken DeThomasis was good for a couple of games a year. Ken got his season tickets through Barnee Breeskin, an old piano player who co-wrote “Hail to the Redskins.”

The seats were terrible, off the corner of an end zone, in the next-to-last row, under the mezzanine, but it didn’t matter. Going to a Redskins game was great fun. The team was good. So was the atmosphere. Around you were blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans, city people and suburbanites, highbrows and rednecks. Everybody was happy and friendly.

In retrospect, much of the Redskin experience had little to do with football. Ken drove in from Burke to my old place at 14th and D Streets NE, less than a mile from the stadium. He liked coming into the city. Maybe half an hour before kickoff, we’d head to the stadium, walking over leaf-covered brick sidewalks.

At East Capitol Street, we joined other fans, some coming from Capitol Hill brunch spots, walking past row houses and Eastern High School until joining the stream of people exiting the Stadium/Armory Metro stop at 19th Street. At the stadium entrance, we were bombarded by the din of excited chatter (punctuated by an occasional blast from an air horn), cigarette smoke, and bodies funneling into the turnstiles. As much as I remember Art Monk and Joe Gibbs, I remember that walk.

Now, when ordinary Redskins fans arrive at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., they pull up in shuttle buses, onto which they’ve been herded like cattle at the parking lot a mile away. They are pissed off because they just paid more to park than they used to pay for a game ticket at RFK. The garish purple, green, and orange of the stadium’s namesake are as much in evidence as the burgundy and gold of the home team. They walk past corporate tents that are off-limits. They hear a recorded message welcoming them to the stadium for “today’s exciting game,” given with the same inflection as an airport announcement that unattended bags will be destroyed.

The trip from the parking lot to the stadium sets the tone for the game-day experience at FedEx Field. Going to Redskins games has become degrading, because the team doesn’t even hide the fact that your ability to fork over cash matters far more than your status as a fan.

I don’t feel the camaraderie of strangers, looking forward to sharing a good time, the way I did at RFK. Instead, I feel as if I am entering a carnival—a carnival where you have to pay a half-day’s wages just to get inside, where the cotton candy costs 10 bucks, where the rides are boring and the games aren’t any fun.

I don’t love the Redskins anymore.

Redskins owner Daniel Snyder made his fortune in marketing and sales, not in sports. It’s a point that all but assaults you as you go to your seat at FedEx Field. “Snyder’s attitude is, ‘I’m here to take your money. Nobody put a gun to your head to get you out here,’” says James Maloney of Northwest, 48, a lawyer and longtime fan. “At least he’s not hypocritical about it.”

Fans can’t bring any food into the stadium, as they can at, say, Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards. “I’m already paying $110 for two tickets,” complains John Fry, 30, of Arlington. “You would think I could bring my own food.” A beer costs $6, a soda $4, a bottle of water $3.

Then there’s the Redskins Hall of Fame Store, plus the four satellite stores ringing the ground-floor concourse, manned by Snyder’s perky acolytes. They can be relentless. One time, when I had a pass to a luxury box, a young saleswoman entered and handed me a Redskins catalog. “Shall I wait while you make your selections?” she asked, when I made the mistake of politely feigning interest. Almost every step of the concourse, there are hats, food, and, most prominently, beer for sale.

Many fans interested in a bit of Redskins paraphernalia are poorer than they thought they would be when they arrived, thanks to Snyder’s parking policies. Unless you live in one of the nearby developments, you can’t walk to FedEx. It’s nowhere near a Metro stop. Indeed, FedEx’s biggest admirers could be New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles fans who travel via Interstate 95 for the annual intradivisional meetings. For Redskins fans, the stadium’s proximity to I-95 means sharing the road with the entire Eastern Seaboard. To avoid Beltway traffic, fans must arrive two hours before game time.

District residents at least can avoid the Beltway. From my home in Northwest, the trip to FedEx is almost exactly 15 miles—and it takes 40 minutes to get to the Cash Lot, if I allow plenty of time. Nothing at FedEx strikes more of a raw nerve than parking. “The parking is dismal,” says Dan McGeehan, 73. “If you get there early, you’d think you could position yourself to exit rapidly. But that’s not the case.”

When the stadium was brand-new, and the Cooke family still owned the Redskins, fans paid $10 for parking. Not cheap, but there wasn’t a lot of complaining. But unfortunately, when the stadium was designed, there wasn’t enough land set aside for parking. In the early days, lines of cars crept out onto the Beltway.

After Snyder took over, he set aside the lots closest to the stadium for premium-ticket-holders and leased the nearby Capital Centre lots. On its face, this didn’t seem like a bad idea, akin to satellite lots at an airport, where customers get a discount for parking far from the terminal and taking a shuttle bus. However, fans didn’t get a discount. Instead, Snyder raised prices. The Redskins now charge $25 for parking at the Capital Centre, more than it costs to park all day near the White House.

Redskins spokesperson Karl Swanson defends the pricing, pointing out that there are only 5,000 spaces at the old Capital Centre, and, at $25 a pop, the team can gross only $125,000 per game, out of which it must rent the shuttle buses—which the Redskins cheekily call “free”—and pay the drivers. “It’s not a moneymaking part of the business,” Swanson asserts. When pressed, however, he declines to state that the team does not make a profit from parking.

For a time, fans had the option of parking for free at Landover Mall and walking across Maryland Route 202 to the stadium entrance at Redskins Road. Some mall merchants were happy to provide this courtesy to fans, in the hope that they would do some shopping before or after the game. But in 2000, Snyder issued an edict prohibiting fans from walking onto the Stadium grounds via Redskins Road, effectively cutting off the mall as a parking option.

“That’s a pure public-safety issue,” Swanson says, pointing out that a pedestrian was killed crossing Route 202 after a game earlier this year. One Prince George’s County Police spokesperson contacted for this story also cites public safety as the reason for the ban. However, another police spokesperson, who declined to be quoted on the record, says it is strictly a matter of the property owner’s deciding how fans can enter the stadium. “[The Redskins] have their own staff that work that area,” he replies, when asked whether the police enforce the Landover Mall pedestrian ban.

The only way most fans can avoid the exorbitant parking charge is to take the Metro to Addison Road and pay $5 for a shuttle to FedEx. Of course, Snyder cut a deal with the transit authority so that he collects that fee, too.

For residents of Washington and the close-in suburbs, RFK Stadium was ideal. It had a Metro stop, plus more than enough parking. “We finally got rid of the Cap Centre, and we have hockey and basketball downtown,” laments Bobby Katz, a fan and FedEx season-ticket-holder from Bethesda. “And just as that’s coming to pass, they move the Redskins to Landover.”

RFK’s concourses were narrow and had the sour smell of the vinegar used in the french fries sold at the stadium. A lot of the sight lines weren’t great. It was decrepit. “The bathrooms stunk,” Rozier Wair, 50, a postal worker from Fort Washington, recalls wistfully. Yet RFK had an aura. Politicians and pundits hung out in the owner’s box. On television, when a rooftop camera zoomed in on the Capitol, two miles to the west, it looked on television as if it were right across the street.

But for former owner Jack Kent Cooke, who presided over the Redskins’ greatest days—including Super Bowl championships following the 1982, 1987, and 1991 seasons—atmosphere and tradition were not enough. RFK, with 56,000 seats, was one of the smallest NFL venues. Cooke was saddled with a lease that did not allow him to share in parking or concession revenues. On road trips, he saw other teams’ newer and bigger stadiums, with plush luxury boxes.

And Cooke began thinking of his legacy. In 1988, then 75 years old, he announced that he intended to build, at his own expense, a stadium in Washington. For the next seven years, he dickered, first with Mayor Marion Barry, then with Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, and then with Mayor Barry again.

On several occasions, headlines trumpeted a deal for a new stadium near RFK. Each time, however, the deal fell through. Environmentalists, neighborhood groups, and city lawyers seeking minority set-aside contracts stalled negotiations. “Cooke said, ‘These dummies are doing everything they can to force me to move the team out of the city,’” publisher Bill Regardie recalls of a conversation he had with the team owner. “He would have preferred to keep the team in the city.”

In the end, facing his mortality, Cooke just wanted to build a stadium somewhere. With a site in Landover available, Cooke signed a deal with Maryland officials in December 1995. Construction commenced almost immediately, and Jack Kent Cooke Stadium opened in September 1997. Cooke did not live to see the opening—he died on April 6, 1997.

Five years and two name changes later, FedEx Field is challenging the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building as the most reviled structure in the Washington area.

“I hate the place,” says McGeehan. “It’s a disaster.”

“FedEx is Jack Kent Cooke’s revenge on the fans who laughed at him and the District of Columbia,” says Maloney.

FedEx Field lacks soul or architectural merit, and its deadly combination of commercialism and suburbanality is sucking the life out of one of professional sports’ most storied franchises. Like the stadium’s surroundings, games at FedEx are becoming lifeless affairs, and not just because the team can’t get to .500. “The noise doesn’t carry,” says Harry Ferris, 55, of Northwest, who has been going to Redskins games since the days of Dick James and Eddie LeBaron. “You got twice as many people, and they don’t make as much noise.”

Nobody talks about a “vaunted home-field advantage” at FedEx. It’s not the sort of place that Steve Sabol will feature on NFL Films. In the five years since it opened, it has developed not a trace of tradition. If the stadium has a signature moment, it’s the night in 1997 when former Redskins quarterback Gus Frerotte, excited about scoring a touchdown, deliberately butted his head against a wall and knocked himself out of the game.

Not much of the stadium’s $280 million cost (including roads and infrastructure) went toward the common fan. It was built by money for money. For a man of advanced years and fabulous wealth, Cooke was mighty eager to increase his pile through the leasing of luxury boxes and club seats. There is a marked division of classes at the new stadium, including a separate entrance for the club seats and boxes, where premium-seat-holders are whisked to their seats by elevator away from the masses. Conversely, until Snyder installed an escalator, fans in the upper deck were forced to walk up ramps that crisscross endlessly.

The class apartheid hasn’t kept the haves from complaining. Since FedEx opened, its seating capacity has increased from 78,000 to more than 85,000, often at the expense of existing fans. “One time, two years ago,” recalls John Gilece of Annapolis, who leases club seats, “while the team was away and had an off week, [Snyder] went in there and took out the last three rows of the Gold Section and put in smaller seats and moved people around.” Gilece says he was not given notice of the renovations, which resulted in less legroom and a less attractive view than he bargained for.

Team spokesperson Swanson counters that Cooke left much undone. “There were different-size chairs in different locations,” he says. What Gilece is complaining about, he says, was the team’s effort to “put chairs in, so they all matched.”

For a man who owned the Chrysler Building—perhaps the world’s most beautiful skyscraper—and prided himself on his knowledge of architecture, Cooke was far behind the curve when it came to trends in stadium design. During the ’90s, retro was in vogue. Inner-city stadiums, such as Oriole Park, that echoed older venues opened to rave reviews. “In baseball and, to a lesser degree, in football, there’s been a recent trend to integrate the facilities as much as they can into the surroundings,” says Douglass Lea, a writer and expert on land-use practices.

Ravens Stadium, for instance, has a downtown location and an upper level divided into four parts, with spaces in between, giving spectators views of Baltimore. Detroit, Houston, Cleveland, Nashville, and Charlotte have also built new, interesting urban venues for their NFL teams.

Outside of FedEx, by contrast, there is absolutely nothing to look at, except parked cars. There are no places to eat or drink nearby. FedEx’s nearest points of reference are developments called Summerfield, Centennial Village, and Lansdowne Village. “It’s built with no integration into the surrounding community at all,” says Lea. In those developments, there are no street signs hinting that a mammoth stadium lurks about. Nor is there is any buffer or transitional area between those communities and the stadium. Thus, a resident turning off Hill Oaks Road abruptly finds himself in FedEx’s parking lot. You sense that a toxic waste dump would be a more welcome addition to the neighborhood.

Although Cooke hired HOK Sports Facilities (the firm that designed Oriole Park) to design his stadium, it is a knockoff of ’70s-era monolithic facilities, such as Texas Stadium and the Pontiac Silverdome, admired by Cooke but despised by just about everyone else. On its own, a stadium like FedEx might last 50 years or more, says Ben Powell, of Berger Devine & Yaeger, a top stadium-design firm based in Kansas City, Mo.

However, the ultimate fate of crummy ’70s stadiums gives hope that FedEx Field may sooner end up a scrap heap. “They’ve torn down just about all of the doughnuts,” Powell points out. “Doughnuts” are circular, multiple-purpose, and mostly AstroTurfed stadiums, such as the old Three Rivers in Pittsburgh. Other unloved venues also are now history. Seattle’s dreadful, mausoleum-like Kingdome, opened in 1976, was destroyed in 2000. The Pontiac Silverdome, opened in 1975 and plagued for years with poor attendance, was abandoned after last season when the Lions moved back to Detroit. FedEx has already been around for one-fifth of the life of some of those stadiums.

RFK, opened in 1961 for use by the baseball Senators as well as the Redskins, was the unwitting precursor of the doughnut stadium, but it developed character that most of the others lacked. For now, at least, RFK is still standing, used mostly as a soccer venue. And it is 37 years younger than Chicago’s Soldier Field, home of the Bears, and currently undergoing renovations. “They should have expanded RFK and taken advantage of the existing infrastructure,” says McGeehan, a construction consultant. A makeover was the solution at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., where luxury boxes were added atop the existing stadium, allowing it to maintain its place as the NFL’s most-loved venue while meeting the demands of the modern sports marketplace. Maybe RFK can be nursed until FedEx Field expires—with any luck, before its time.

Asked whether he likes FedEx Field, Ray Mitten, 41, of Arlington replies, “Yeah, because I can go all the time.” Prior to the opening of FedEx, Mitten was on the Redskins season-ticket waiting list for 20 years.

Indeed, the only redeeming quality of FedEx Field is that it allows for nearly 30,000 more fans to attend Redskin games than did RFK, making available to everybody tickets that were once status symbols. Of course, most of the additional seats are in the upper deck. In the farthest reaches, the field is so remote you need binoculars to make any sense of the action. The nosebleed seats cost $44 apiece.

The democratization of the Redskins has had a price. Many of the new ticket-holders are corporate owners—which means that the seat-holders change from week to week. This situation probably delights Snyder, insofar as one-time visitors seemingly are more likely to buy souvenirs. However, longtime fans complain about some of the new fans. “At RFK, we were into the game,” recalls Rozier Wair. “Here, people come for the outing. They don’t come to get into the game.” Harry Ferris adds, “A lot of people don’t know anything about the team or the team’s history.”

With an uninteresting stadium, a succession of underachieving teams, and thousands of fans who can barely see the game, the Redskins have turned to cheese and crass commercialism in an effort to make things interesting. At the Colts game on Oct. 27, the team put on its familiar pregame circus of fireworks and flag-toting young men running around in shorts. The players ran onto the field through a giant inflatable helmet. One wonders how they would be introduced if the team were any good.

The beloved Washington Redskins Marching Band played “Hail to the Redskins” after scores—and nothing else. Instead, dead time was taken up with commercials on the wide screens in each end zone. Whenever the Redskins made a first down, the public-address announcer proclaimed it with a shout more fit for funny-car races. The sound system played the J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold” after the cheerleaders were introduced. It was a gauche, sad spectacle, which made this ex-Redskins fan yearn for the days when former PA announcer Phil Hochberg gave little more than down and distance, the marching band played “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” during TV timeouts, and the football game was sufficient entertainment.

Nobody is predicting the imminent demise of the Redskins franchise. According to Forbes magazine, the Redskins are the most valuable franchise in American sports, worth $796 million, and the team has the highest revenues in sports.

However, the Redskins definitely are not the hot ticket they used to be. At RFK, empty seats were noticeable only at late-season games when the Redskins were out of playoff contention. At this year’s Colts game at FedEx, on an evening when the Redskins were honoring their 70 greatest players, the announced crowd of 80,169 was 5,000 short of capacity. Conspicuous patches of empty seats throughout the upper deck made it appear as if the actual number of no-shows were much greater. On Nov. 24, even fewer were on hand to see the Redskins beat the defending NFC champion St. Louis Rams, on a beautiful fall afternoon.

With its smaller capacity and winning tradition, RFK was a seller’s market for spare tickets outside the stadium. Now, fans can easily buy tickets from other fans or scalpers at far below face value, even for the choicest games. One wag recommended that I stand at the FedEx entrance and wave a $20 bill, to see how many tickets were offered, but at the Colts game, I didn’t even have to: As I neared the stadium entrance, I approached a man who was looking to sell. When he asked what I was looking for, I replied, “Upper level.” He offered a $44 ticket for $20. I countered with $10. Deal done. Asked how business was faring, another scalper sadly shook his head.

Since FedEx’s opening, there has been an ugly yellow stripe ringing the middle of the stadium, denoting empty club-level seats, visible to television viewers every time the camera pans past it on punts. The mystique surrounding the string of Redskin sellouts going back to 1966 is tempered by the fact that these seats, which go for $1,800 and up per season, aren’t counted. According to the Redskins, the club seats are sold out. However, at the Colts game, to the naked eye it looked as if about a third of the 15,000 club seats were vacant. “Many of our fans buy the club seats and spend a lot of the game back in the atrium,” says Swanson, referring to the posh facilities behind the club seats.

Maybe so, but for a team with a reportedly long waiting list for season tickets, the Redskins sure are aggressive in their marketing efforts. At games, salespersons sit at tables inviting fans to “Sign up for the Season Ticket Waiting List.” The waiting time depends on whom you talk to. A man behind one table reports that the wait is five years for club seats, three years for regular seats. According to another, the club-seat wait is one year, whereas the wait for regular seats is 12 years. A third salesperson informs that club seats are available now, but the list for regular tickets is five to eight years. Swanson says the waiting list for regular seats numbers 80,000 and that there are 200 fans waiting for club seats.

In reality, anybody can buy tickets, now. Four days before the Dec. 8 game against the Giants, I called the Redskins ticket office. While I waited for an agent, radio highlights—not from the FedEx years but from the Super Bowl years—played on the hold line. Not only was I advised that regular tickets were available for the Giants game, I also was given a hard sell to buy club seats. For the remaining three home games, I would have to pay for only two, if I were willing to enter a lease for six, 10, or 15 years.

Some of the original club-seat leaseholders are not renewing. “They are overpriced, and you are subjected to the same parking problems as everyone else,” complains McGeehan, who gave up the season tickets he held for 41 years after last season but occasionally uses club tickets to entertain business associates. “When my lease is up, I’m out of there,” adds Gilece. “A lot of people are leaving.”

So the Redskins continue to push the illusion that tickets are a scarce commodity, as they learn, just like the Buffalo Bills (another team with a 80,000-plus-seat stadium in the suburbs) learned long ago, that you need a winning team to sell out. Not everybody is buying it. Take, for example, Mike Fishkin, 55, of Southwest, a lifelong Skins fan. His father was on the season-ticket waiting list for decades, until his death in 2000. Last year, Fishkin opened a letter addressed to his father from the team, with an invitation to purchase season tickets. Fishkin did what was once unthinkable: He tossed the letter in the trash. “It’s not like the good old days at RFK,” he says, “with the whole section swinging back and forth, with everyone yelling, ‘We want Dallas!’” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.