“Sellout? What sellout?”
That’s the question that’s likely to come to mind upon one’s first visit to Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. The most disheartening part of the Raljon experience isn’t the traffic snarls or the sorry sight lines or the level of the football being played lately. No, the biggest letdown comes with the realization that Redskins tickets, once the holiest grail in all of sports, have fallen very far down the food chain. Anybody who wants to get into Skins games can. And not only by dealing with scalpers.
Every week, club officials notify the press how very exclusive their events are. For the Detroit game, the press release read, “Today’s game marks the 234th consecutive sellout for a Redskins home game. The current streak of sellouts dates back to the beginning of the 1966 season and is the longest in the NFL.”
What a crock! Though not advertised or talked about by the team, all season long the stadium has operated a ticket window on game days that sells seats, at face value, to anybody with cash on hand. The NFL’s blackout rule is enforced about as stringently as campaign finance laws.
Advance tickets are also available, of course, though not quite so cheaply. The stadium’s third tier, officially known as the “Joe Gibbs Level” but more commonly called the club seats, has plenty of openings. Even on television, you can see that Joe Gibbs might have trouble with his depth chart if he had to field a team out of the meager numbers on his level. In person, the emptiness is devastating. Whoever built the Superdome in New Orleans was shrewd enough to paint adjacent seats a different color, which helps to camouflage uninhabited areas. But something, maybe Jack Kent Cooke’s ego, prevented designers from considering the possibility that seats in the biggest stadium in the league would ever go unoccupied, so now the club level serves as a big yellow “Vacancy!” sign.
Oversupply is one reason for the newfound availability of Skins tickets: Of the new stadium’s 80,000-plus seats, about 15,000 are club seats, both NFL highs. Cost is surely another. To get club seats, you must sign a lease of five, seven, or 10 years, and pay up to $1,995 per seat for the first year, plus tax, plus a 25-percent deposit on the next year’s lease, all upfront. With eight home dates per season, that averages out to more than $250 per ticket. Parking, at $15 a game, is extra. Though the Redskins no longer have the most exclusive ticket in town, they do have the most expensive, passing the previous leader, the Washington Opera, which retails eight-date season passes to its boxes for $1,840, or $230 a ticket.
The lack of exclusivity is a real buzz-killer to everybody who attends Skins games, but the club seat lessees suffer through disappointments all their own. Like, for example, the utter absence of vendors on the Joe Gibbs Level. Club seat brochures and advertisements for the new stadium boasted about personal waiter and waitress service for patrons in the high-priced sections. Not only have the waitrons not appeared at a single game, but the beer and hot dog peddlers who work the cheap seats don’t even journey to the club level. The new stadium has restaurants open only to club-level ticket holders, but those spots are more akin to college cafeterias than four-star eateries. (For further evidence of avarice, look no further than the new stadium’s ban on fans bringing in their own victuals.)
Before the Detroit game, Mike, an attorney from Alexandria, bemoaned his being a club seat lessee.
“This is nothing close to what I expected,” he moaned. “They sold everybody on the idea of club seats at Camden Yards, with the carpeted indoor areas and the nice bars and restaurants there. But I got fooled. Look around! This isn’t Camden Yards. The total absence of waiters and waitresses is really the least of it at this point. It’s been a fraud and a sham.”
Mike’s bad dream won’t end any time soon. He signed on for 10 years for four seats. If he honors the leaseand he hinted he won’t, which is one reason he didn’t want his surname usedhe’ll be into the team for more than $80,000 when the pact expires.
The tickets for club-level seats aren’t easily unloaded, providing yet another burr for the lessees’ bottoms. Even for the seats that cost $250 per game, the face value of the actual ticket is only $60.
Why? Well, ask the team about the price discrepancy, and you’ll be told NFL rules require them print the fictional price on club seats.
“The league has a rule that says we can’t put a price on club seats that’s any higher than the highest-priced [nonleased] seats,” says a staffer in the Jack Kent Cooke Stadium ticket office. (The cost of a “regular” ticket is $45-60.)
Ask league officials, and you’ll get a very different explanation for the variance. According to Joe Sinclair, treasurer of the NFL, the Redskins can print any dollar amount they want on their tickets. But, Sinclair added, whatever price is printed will be used to determine how much money a team must contribute to the revenue-sharing pool that is divvied up among all NFL franchises. So, by putting $60 instead of $250 on its top club-seat tickets, the Skins effectively skim about $190 off the top to keep for themselves. That tactic, however, also makes it virtually impossible for club seat holders to recoup much of their outlay via the resale market.
“I constantly get calls from club seat holders wanting me to buy their tickets,” says Danny Matta, a ticket broker in the D.C. area since 1978. “I don’t even bother making them an offer, because I don’t want to insult them. I don’t want their tickets, either. They always tell me they signed their lease thinking they were going to make money on the deal. Surprise!”
Lease-breaking could become a favorite local pastime, Matta predicts.
“There’s no way the Redskins could go after everybody that doesn’t renew club seats,” he says. “You’re going to see a lot more of those seats open next year.”
If a mass exodus from the Gibbs Level commences, Jeff Russell will stay in his seat. Russell, a Silver Spring attorney, signed up for the most expensive club seats. A few minutes before kickoff against the Lions, the lifelong Redskins fan explained why he has no regrets about his acquisition, and no time for the nattering nabobs of negativism.
“Very few people that I know of would want to pay $250 a seat to see a football game. And, true, I haven’t yet seen a single waiter here,” Russell said. “There are seats open, but there are also a lot of people in the club seats. So don’t talk to me about the problems. I love the Redskins, and that outweighs everything. I love being here.”
Jack Kent Cooke would probably spin in his grave like a Gus 40-yarder if he knew how much of his beloved Raljon real estate was going unclaimed, but the bottom line might settle him down a bit. Last week, the Washington Post reported the results of a study showing that the new stadium, even with so many unsold seats, has made the Redskins the most lucrative team in the NFL.Dave McKenna