Seats of Gold: Want Skins tickets? Get on a 150,000-fan waitlist or shell out for the ?premium? spots.
Seats of Gold: Want Skins tickets? Get on a 150,000-fan waitlist or shell out for the ?premium? spots. Credit: Charles Steck

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In 1991, when I judged eateries on a calories-per-dollar basis, the Cheesecake Factory opened its first local outpost, in Friendship Heights. Whether I showed up at opening time or closing time or anytime in between on any night of the week, the hostess would tell me the same thing, “It’s going to be a long wait.” Then she’d open up a book as thick as the Yellow Pages and put my name at the end of a huge list. The wait, legitimate or contrived, made me want to get a meal there even more than the portions big enough to feed all of Sudan.

Dan Snyder has a lot of Cheesecake Factory in him. The alleged waiting list for Redskins tickets has been his greatest tool in exploiting the team’s fans.

But supply is clearly catching up to the demand that Snyder inherited when he took over the beloved football franchise. Not since the 1987 NFL strike has the team so obviously had trouble selling tickets.

Last week, fans on the Redskins’ own Web site began reporting that they had received e-mail offers from the team to buy half-season “Premium Seats” ticket plans for the upcoming season. The pitch:

Dear Waitlist Members,

Fans asked for it…the Redskins answered! Partial season ticket plans go on sale today…take advantage of this unique opportunity to purchase the best locations at FedExField for the 2007 season. For the first time ever, the Washington Redskins are introducing Club seat Partial Season Ticket Plans.

Don’t miss out on this opportunity! Be at FedExField and pay half the price…an unprecedented offer!

The pitch also spelled out that there would be no obligation to renew the tickets beyond the 2007 season. In years past, club seats were only available to those who signed multiyear leases.

The Washington Times wrote a story about the partial plans. And, despite all the tales on the Web site from fans who had already begun negotiations with live bodies in the Skins ticket office, after the story was published, the team issued a statement retracting the offer via e-mail and in a follow-up piece in the Times.

The retraction:

Dear Redskins Wait List Member,

In an error this week, an email intended for internal discussion with a marketing partner of the Washington Redskins was mistakenly sent to a number of people on the team’s waiting list for seats at FedEx Field.

The offer contained in the email—partial season tickets for the team’s Club seats—is not a valid offer.

The front office’s panic is understandable. Snyder needs a long waiting list, or the perception that a long waiting list exists, to sell Premium Seats, for which folks fork over amazing amounts of money to get into FedEx without having to wait their turn. Without that, there would be no Dream Seats, which cost several hundred dollars per ticket to sit at field level (seats that, at RFK, were considered the worst seats in the house). And no “TailGate Club,” a brutal money-sucking scheme in which fans pay a $1,750 sign-up fee, plus $540 a head for a season’s admission to a pre-game hot-dogs-and-burgers buffet, just for the right to buy non-premium season tickets with no wait.

The Redskins insist the waiting list is real and legitimate. Via e-mail, Snyder spokesperson Karl Swanson says the line for non-premium season tickets is currently “more than 150,000 names” long.

Snyder’s running a similar scam at Six Flags, the theme-park chain he took over in 2005. Pre-Snyder, Six Flags had allowed parkgoers to request assigned times for rides at no charge. Otherwise, they had to wait in line. But this spring, Six Flags announced the introduction of the “VIP Program,” which gives “front-of-the-line ride access” to anybody willing to pay from $199 to $249 for admission. For those willing to wait in line, tickets to Six Flags America in Landover are only $49.99.

By the NFL’s bizarre rules, premium tickets don’t count when counting sellouts or for revenue-sharing purposes. But even with those guidelines, the Skins’ “sellout” streak has always been suspect—and not just because Snyder refuses to acknowledge that the streak ended in 1987 during the strike game. When I’ve attended games at FedEx over the years, I’ve occasionally walked over to the ticket window on game days just to see if any seats were available. Every time—including on Monday Night Football dates and games against Dallas and New York—I have been offered the chance to buy tickets, at face value, for seats in sections all over the stadium. Again, this is from a Redskins clerk manning the ticket window—not from a scalper working the parking lot. I once asked a ticket agent how this could be called a sellout if tickets were still for sale at kickoff time, and I was told that the seats for sale were those allocated to the visiting team but not claimed. Given that visiting delegations are traditionally seated together, and that the available tickets have always been spread out and in some cases were in the highest rows of the stadium, this explanation always seemed dubious.

In any case, this offseason is testing the Redskins’ alleged demand more than any in recent history. The Skins are coming off an 11-loss season in a year when the 10-year leases on club seats signed when FedExField opened are expiring. For the first time since Snyder took over, there’s been no notable acquisitions of on-field talent—no first-names-only guys like Deion or Bruuuuuce or Jeff George or front-office geniuses like Joe Gibbs. And though Snyder will surely try to hype the heck out of this year’s “75th anniversary” season, he already shot the sentimentality wad with his fan base by hyping the heck out of the “70th anniversary” season in 2002.

Plus, local sports fans have choices now. The Nationals are getting a new home. And the Wizards have the biggest star in town.

The half-year packages are only the latest Hail Mary in an offseason full of signs of the team’s desperation to get rid of the top tickets.

After the end of last season, the team’s ticket office called fans and offered them a chance to sign a contract to buy club seats for only two years, after which they’d automatically be sold much cheaper general-admission tickets. That campaign by itself seems to be an admission that the Premium Seats are a rip-off.

Also, this winter, the Redskins launched a direct-mail campaign pushing club seats to people not even on the waiting list. (Interestingly enough, the brochure produced for the campaign—which was headlined “Get in the Game! 2007 Season Tickets Now Available!”—had a photo of Ladell Betts, not Clinton Portis, on the cover.)

The sales office has even offered existing club-seat holders a referral fee of $500 per pair of seats sold for the upcoming season. Jason Campbellnautographed jerseys and pre-game barbecue tickets were also offered as incentives to potential club-seats purchasers.

The desperation became very visible during the team’s Draft Day party at FedExField, where an army of salespeople descended on everybody who attended. Seemingly hundreds of pieces of paper were attached to the backs of seats all over the stadium’s Joe Gibbs Level, where most of the Premium Seats are located, each with a breakdown of how much that particular seat cost. The entire event had the air of a used-car auction.

Snyder gets a lot of help perpetuating the ticket-demand myth. On June 6, despite the team’s months of desperate moves to get rid of its inventory, the Virginian-Pilot ran a story that told fans of this “rare opportunity” to buy club seats for $2,650 to $4,400. The article, headlined “Redskins fans gobbling up extravagant season tickets,” warned prospective buyers that, according to the ticket office, there were “only 300 seats left.” Yet last week, while retracting the offer for partial-season plans, Redskins Chief Operating Officer Mitch Gershman told those on the waiting list that there were “just over 300” club seats still for sale.

You don’t have to be a Cheesecake Factory connoisseur to know that ain’t gobbling.