The Washington Redskins were one of the most successful teams in the NFL between 1982-1992, winning three Super Bowl championships. The team also had one of the most committed fan communities in the league and a broad base of regional support in the southeast United States. But over the last two decades, a variety of factors have combined to erode fan loyalty. As part of a larger research project on fan communities in the NFL, historian Brett Abrams looks at his local team and its supporters. 

Empty seats during a game at FedExField (Ron Cogswell/Flickr)

Empty seats during a game at FedExField (Ron Cogswell/Flickr)

 

“People don’t live and die for sports in D.C…. They don’t have history with teams.”

The comment by Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser seems to hold true for the nation’s capital, where so many educated professionals  – like Kornheiser himself – are transplants from somewhere else. But in researching fans of six NFL teams in our 24/7 era of sports coverage, I discovered that fans of the Redskins belie this view. From the 1960s to 1990s, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium was filled for the team’s games, with 20,000 more fans on the waiting list for tickets. These people represented a creative tradition of fandom, with costumes and nicknames displaying their adoration for the team. They forged community at RFK, as fans in every section came together season after season. In recent decades, however, this community feeling and creative devotion to the team has declined with the change of stadiums and owner Dan Snyder’s controversial decisions.

 

Smurfs, Hogettes and the Championships of the 1980s

“I feel the Redskins are a major part of life in this community,” noted one female fan during the 1982 NFL strike. “No football… will just destroy the character of the whole fall.” As it turned out, the strike-shortened season proved to be the start of a decade of dominance for Washington football. At the end of the 57-day strike, the Redskins’ players bonded. The offensive lineman defined themselves as “the Hogs,” after their portly image and blue-collar demeanor. The receivers had two nicknames: “Fun Bunch,” who did a choreographed high five in the end zone after a touchdown catch, and “the Smurfs,” which only included the team’s three small receivers. The fans loved these groups. When the Redskins played arch-rival Dallas in the NFC Championship Game, the fans chants shook the stadium. According to a Miami Dolphins scout, the atmosphere at RKF gave the Redskins “at least a touchdown.”

Fans went in great numbers to the Super Bowl in Pasadena, California. Attendees included political figures like Marion Barry, Eugene McCarthy, and Sargent Shriver, and media figures such as columnist Carl Rowan and TV journalists Lesley Stahl and Ted Koppel. Zeema Williams, the African-American taxi driver who dressed as an Indian for team games and called himself “Chief Zee,” was at the game. Three Marines did their best Smurf rendition. Washington fans outnumbered Dolphins fans ten to one. They booed the Dolphins flag and roared when the Redskins flag entered the stadium. Days later, after the Redskins’ 27-17 win, an estimated 500,000 fans braved a cold winter rain and greeted the team along the 12-block parade route.

Midway through the next season, for a game against Philadelphia at RFK, nuclear waste engineer Mike Torbert and nine other men – in their thirties through early fifties – donned women’s dresses and hats, wigs, and hog’s snouts. During the game broadcast, CBS put the men on camera and the Hogettes became known across the country. The Hogettes always sat in a group and along with the team band, which was seated in the stands along the home team’s side, led all fans in singing the team’s fight song, “Hail to the Redskins,” after a score.

Over the next several years, Washington remained a playoff team and hog snouts became ubiquitous in the stands. During the 1980s, nearly 70 percent of the active televisions in the Washington market watched every Redskins’ games, and fans throughout the region and the Southern U.S. watched the team on TV.

Geography of Redskins Fans, Late 1980s

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With success on the field in the 1980s and early 90s, Washington fans barely noticed the small but growing numbers of people protesting the team name outside of the stadiums. Throughout its history, Washington’s NFL franchise had a poor record in matters of race. The team did not include African-American players until 1962, after all other NFL teams had been integrated. Prior to that time, many of the District’s African-American football fans rooted for the black players on other teams. Melville Turner had rooted against the team for over a decade but switched allegiances after the Redskins were forced to integrate. But by the late 1980s, he was cheering for a Washington team that had a black man, Doug Williams, starting at quarterback – a rarity at the time in the NFL. “The Redskins have turned things around, just as a lot of American has. But the job is by no means finished,” said the public school teacher. Another African-American fan, Lester Richardson, had also embraced the team by the 80s. Richardson claimed to wear Redskins colors, “seven days a week, wherever I go.”

 

Decades of Decline

Washington won their third Super Bowl in 1992. After reaching the playoffs the following season, coach Joe Gibbs surprised the team by retiring. Throughout the rest of the 1990s, Washington struggled to win. Nevertheless, owner Jack Kent Cooke built a huge new stadium in Maryland’s suburbs after years of negotiation. Despite costing $10 more per game, the 60,000 general seating tickets went fast. When the new stadium opened in 1997, Washington had the second-most expensive average ticket in the NFL at $51. The stadium also contained more exclusive seating, including 4,000 premium seats and 208 luxury suites, with leases starting at $59,000. One corporate executive noted, “It’s not hard to get top-level executives to join you at a popular NFL game. What you do is go to the game Sunday and sell on Monday.” The team leased over 95 percent of the expensive seating, gaining a total revenue of nearly $50 million per season.

At the new stadium, fans sat further from the action in clean, comfortable surroundings, then faced traffic jams on the way home. The team made it impossible for the Hogettes to sit together, and the Redskins band sat along the visiting team’s sideline. “We couldn’t play well because it was nearly impossible to see the director,” said one band member. “We didn’t know how good we had it while playing at RFK!” The new stadium featured recorded music and generated crowd noise through message board prompts. One county government employee said her seats were smaller and the food was too expensive. Yet when the Redskins won, she felt it was a wonderful day.

After two years of mild turmoil following Cooke’s death in 1997, Dan Snyder took ownership of the Redskins and their new stadium, FedExField. A businessman originally from the District’s Maryland suburbs, he presented himself as the number-one Redskins fan. In 1999, Snyder’s first season as owner, the team returned to the playoffs, sparking a large market for tickets for the opening-round game against Detroit. Tickets with face value of $65 or $75 resold with markups up to $250 and even $500. The atmosphere for the first playoff game at the new stadium showed some of the creativity of RFK in the 1980s. Fans reminded Detroit’s starting quarterback Gus Frerotte, who had played five seasons in Washington, of the infamous incident when he celebrated a touchdown by head-butting a wall, sending him to the hospital with a sprained neck. Myriad signs said things like, “Hey Gus, bang your head here.” Frerotte saw them. “I couldn’t believe so many people wasted their time making those stupid signs,” he said after the game. “What do they think? It’s going to make me play bad?” Actually, he did play bad. The Redskins easily defeated Frerotte and the Lions, but they lost in the next round on the road. It would be 13 years before Washington hosted another playoff game.

Over the next years, Snyder splurged on free agent players, but the team’s fortunes on the field shrank. Frustration grew, as fans went from booing the quarterback to the entire team. Snyder altered FedExField to maximize its profitability, establishing a class of 35 super suites, providing special elegance and treatment to the very wealthy. He also installed three rows of seating in front of the stadium’s existing first row. These “dream seats” proved to be too low to see above the heads of the players on the sideline, forcing their occupants to watch the game standing.

Despite years of losing, Redskins’ fans stayed loyal. In 2007, the team and its fans faced the tragic murder of safety Sean Taylor. Hundreds participated in a candlelight vigil, forming a circle around a huge No. 21 painted on the grass at the team’s complex. Under Joe Gibbs, who had come out of retirement in 2004, the Redskins reached the playoffs that season. The Seattle Seahawks beat Washington in the first round, closing out the trying season and Gibbs’ Hall-of-Fame career. The organization’s mishandling of his replacement as coach stirred opposition on fan websites. Writers for the blog The Curly R acknowledged that it was foolish to believe that Snyder took fan outrage into account. Only once did fans stop Snyder’s plans, the blog noted: when he attempted to force purchasers of season tickets to use a Redskins-brand MasterCard.

Snyder hired Jim Zorn as coach for the 2008 season. The team started strong, winning six of the first eight games under the new coach, but then collapsed in the second half of the season, going 2-6 and missing the playoffs. At the same time, the country was experiencing the Great Recession, with median households losing 35 percent of their net wealth. Although the economic downturn was less severe than in other areas of the country, the Washington region suffered. When some season-ticket holders requested relief from the ticket fees, the Redskins organization offered settlements that still required them to make hefty payments. Team management then filed law suits against 125 owners of season tickets for attempting to back out of their obligations. Most of the fans whom the team sued were professionals in law, construction, and banking. One was 72-year-old Pat Hill, who claimed that she could not make the ticket payment because the recession had hit her real estate business hard. The team’s general counsel, David Donovan, explained, “For every one we sue, I would guess we work out a deal with half a dozen.”

During two losing seasons under Zorn, fans wore anti-Snyder t-shirts to games and tried to show signs that criticized the owner and team executive Vinnie Cerrato. They faced harassment from stadium security, and team officials banned all signs from FedExField. Fans took the protest on the road. Two Redskins fans wore paper bags over their heads at a game in Atlanta and held up a sign reading, “Danny won’t let us protest at FedEx so we came to the Georgia Dome.” “Cerrato + Snyder = Fail” read another sign at a Redskins road game. Fan protests also adopted a standby phrase in the nation’s capital: “IMPEACH SNYDER.”

Despite a bump in popularity from star quarterback Robert Griffin III and a playoff appearance in 2012, attention to the team has declined. According to last season’s Nielsen survey of market penetration (measured by the share of adults in the market who watched, attended, or listened to the local team’s games in the previous year), the Redskins rank 24th out of the NFL’s 32 teams. The team’s broader region of support has also shrunk. In 1995, the NFL placed a new franchise in Charlotte, North Carolina, eroding loyalty in the Southeast. And the following year, the team lost its hold on a Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, when the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens.

Geography of NFL Fans on Facebook (2013)

 

This erosion of fan support has had little to do with the controversy surrounding the name “Redskins.” A 2014 poll showed that 70 percent of the team’s supporters in the Washington area opposed changing the name. Fans typically argue that the name is not pejorative, claiming that it is meant to celebrate Native Americans and that some Native Americans even see the name as positive. Yet even though the most active fans in the DC area insist on maintaining the name, they do not express support for Snyder, despite his intransigent opposition to a name change.

During Dan Snyder’s tenure as owner, changes to the stadium, team performance, and management decisions have negatively impacted the loyalty of NFL fans in DC. Two more losing seasons after the 2012 playoff appearance have brought empty seats at FedExField, and comments like this from long-time fans, “I’ve learned not to care. That’s the only way I can get through football season anymore.” The creativity that led to the Hogettes during the 1980s has been turned to clever attacks against team management. Despite positive feelings toward the team, and even defense of its controversial name, Washington’s football fans appear ever more willing to defy the ownership of their team. The situation is an unfortunately common one, where fans love their team and the community it represents but cannot stand the owner.

 

Brett Abrams is a historian and author of Capital Sporting Grounds: A History of Stadium and Ballpark Construction in Washington, DC and co-author of  The Bullets, the Wizards, and Washington, DC, Basketball