By Leon Lazaroff
The Washington Redskins told beleaguered coach Jay Gruden that he can return for the 2019 NFL season while the team’s owner, Dan Snyder, continues to struggle to secure a deal for a better stadium than the widely detested FedEx Field in suburban Maryland.
For Redskins fans, this off-season promises to be more of the same: a slow drip, drip of uninspiring news, further proof that Snyder has irretrievably lost control of the public conversation around the city’s football franchise.
It wasn’t always this way.
When Dan Snyder purchased the Washington Redskins in 1999 from the family of Jack Kent Cooke, the Internet was in its infancy. The iPhone was still eight years away, and Twitter was little more than a flicker in the mind of Jack Dorsey. Snyder was 34, a child of the last year of the baby boom, old enough to remember when television was limited to a handful of channels accessed through an antenna.
Back then, owners had many ways to control the news about their team. The number of local news outlets wasn’t more than a handful, and even the occasional boisterous radio talk show host or cranky newspaper columnist could be offset by a favorable interview with the starting quarterback on a local TV station.
But as Snyder’s relationship to the team’s fans has turned from testy to downright hostile, the former communications entrepreneur has struggled to control the public’s opinion of the Redskins, and by extension, the health and welfare of its brand. The hashtags #SellTheTeamDan and #FireBruceAllen, a reference to the team’s unsuccessful president, are routinely attached to acerbic tweets protesting a hike in ticket prices and parking fees, and a laundry list of questionable trades, overpriced free agent signings, regrettable draft choices and a revolving door of coaches.
Snyder’s reign as Redskins owner happens to overlap with the ascendancy of social media. Talk show hosts and newspaper columnists often get their queues from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. No executive action or incriminating photo can be hidden, whether it’s rows of empty seats at the team’s FedEx Stadium in suburban Maryland or signs forbidding pedestrians to walk to the stadium and therefore requiring them to drive and pay a parking fee.
“People find out things more regularly today that aren’t in the traditional news media,” Benjamin Wright, a professorial lecturer in the marketing department of American University who studies how organization use digital efforts to influence consumers. “They know bad news travels faster than good news. So, when you look at an organization like the Redskins, they’ve been in the news for quite some time now, and it’s an easy grab. People like re-tweeting that content, sharing that content, that’s human nature.”
While losing is part of Snyder’s problem — the team has had just five winning seasons the past two decades — the brand’s sunken status transcends its performance on the field. The emotional debate over whether the Redskin name is racist often grabs headlines, but Snyder has also generated backlash from a series of moves that fans perceived as putting profits over performance. In 2008, for instance, he sued longtime season ticket holders, some of them elderly, for trying to get out of their 10- and 15-year season-ticket commitments, roughly $65,000 per ticket just as the U.S. economy was tumbling.
More recently, the Redskins had to explain a New York Times report that the team’s cheerleaders were asked to pose topless during a trip to a Costa Rican resort that included some of its sponsors and longtime season-ticket holders. And then in November the team signed a linebacker who had been cut by the San Francisco 49ers after his second arrest for domestic violence, prompting yet another Twitter outcry aimed at Snyder.
Things have gotten so bad that Redskin players told reporters this season that they prefer to play road games than in front of their purported supporters. Attendance this past season fell by 24% as TV viewing dropped and game-day revenue tumbled by $18 million, according to The Washington Post. The team finished with a 7-9 record, once again missing the playoffs.
“The Redskin brand was hugely successful up until the change in ownership,” said Ronald C. Goodstein is an Associate Professor of Marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “It had all the tradition, it had all the hometown smalltown feeling. It’s now ‘Redskins by Snyder’ as opposed to ‘Redskins,’ and ‘Redskins by Snyder’ is a diluted brand.”
How did it come to this? How did this once sterling relationship between team and its fans fall into tatters, and why would fans punish their team just because they don’t like its owner? Taking it a step further, why do once loyal consumers suddenly turn on a product they seemingly loved?
The root of consumer backlash, explains Americus Reed, marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, can be found in the principle of identification. The relationship between consumers, clients or fans with a successful company, organization or sports team extends well beyond the face value of a product or a ticket to a ball game. Consumer identification runs deep, especially in sports. When something does happen to a product that damages that identification, consumers will walk away.
Such was the case in 2014 when years of allegations of sexual harassment directed at Dov Charney, founder and CEO of the clothing line American Apparel, coalesced into a series of lawsuits that forced the company to fire him. Charney tried all he could to smother the allegations, but the reaction on social media was overwhelming. American Apparel filed for bankruptcy in 2015. Likewise, the ride hailing service Uber suffered a drop in users after an internal investigation in 2017 revealed a belligerent workplace culture that fostered sexual harassment and discrimination. Though Uber replaced its founder and CEO Travis Kalanick that same year, the company has struggled to transform its image amid slowing growth and mounting losses.
American Apparel and Uber, companies lost sight of the importance of “brand purpose,” Reed added. “Consumers don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” he said. They’re looking for the “why.” The same goes for sports teams like the Redskins.
In 1998, the Redskins sold out all their games at FedEx Field. Fans eagerly filled the stadium’s seats despite their National Football League team’s disappointing performance. The Redskins finished the season with a 6-10 record.
As in prior years, a ticket to see the Redskins play a home game was among the most difficult to get in all of sports. A sellout was routine. Fans attended games because the Redskins were more than just sporting entertainment — they embodied civic pride, a winning tradition, a small city with a big heart. While issues of race and class periodically boiled over to highlight stark differences between neighborhoods, the Redskins were an institution everyone could embrace.
But shortly after Snyder took control of the Redskins, the team appeared to be looking for ways to boost revenue without improving the fan’s experience. In 2000, Snyder added 4,000 field-level seats at FedEx stadium, charging $3,000 per season for views routinely blocked by players standing on the sidelines. While wealthier patrons and corporations purchased the seats, average fans were annoyed. Snyder even began charging for parking and admission to attend the Redskins historically free pre-season training camp. Redskin ticket prices were the highest in the NFL in 2016, according to a report by CBS News.
Snyder’s biggest public relations fight, though, has been the ongoing and heated debate over whether the team should jettison the Redskin name, a term that the Online Oxford Dictionary describes as “dated and offensive,” and which others simply consider racist. Despite a vocal campaign to retire the name, Snyder’s has remained unequivocal: “We’ll never change the name,” he told USA Today in May 2013. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
In the age of Twitter and Facebook, those comments were widely distributed, though Goodstein emphasized that Snyder’s intransigence on the team’s name is an important reason that older fans have remained loyal, despite all the losing. “The name controversy has cut both ways,” he said.
Ultimately, companies and sports franchises prefer to stay out of the news. Even mild controversies are to be avoided.
Starbucks encountered a potentially prickly consumer crisis in April 2018 when two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia store as they waited for a business partner. A video of two mild-mannered men being handcuffed by local police for not yet ordering a beverage went viral, sparking outrage. The altercation seemed to counter Starbucks’ sense of itself as a relaxed, friendly, open place where drinking coffee is a personal experience.
Starbucks management responded quickly — some might even say too quickly. Seattle-based CEO Kevin Johnson flew to Philadelphia to meet with the two men, who later agreed to a settlement, and two months later, the company closed 8,000 of its stores for a day of racial-bias training. The message to consumers was that Starbucks would do anything to safeguard its relationship with its customers.
Johnson’s actions, Wright said, speak to the value that a company places on “brand equity,” those vague yet essential qualities that go beyond a Nike swoosh or Apple’s Macintosh. Wright, who studies the ways in which organizations use social media to influence customers, says consumers will turn against a brand or a even a sports team, once they sense that the relationship has violated a sense of trust.
“Authenticity is huge for consumers today, and that really speaks to the essence of social media,” Wright added. “Consumers are demanding more accountability. They no longer assume ‘they’re a big corporation, they spend lots of money, of course they don’t have to be accountable.’ That’s not the case anymore. If you don’t trust an organization, there’s really no reason a consumer will pay much attention to it.”
With the Redskins playing mediocre football while charging high prices to attend an outdated stadium, it’s not inconceivable that Snyder’s relationship with Washington D.C. could worsen. After all, the team’s increasingly peppery relationship with its fans comes as the NFL suffers through declining television advertising amid a three-year drop in viewership.
Unlike in 1999, consumers and fans have easy access to a platform with the widest of distribution. Grievances are easily aired. Fans are connected through their networks of friends and followers, and those networks are connected to each other, giving birth to a new breed of buyers whom Reed calls “consumer vigilantes.” The upshot is that managing a brand’s public relations is far more complicated than it was twenty or even five years ago.
While social media doesn’t cause consumer backlash, it can certainly exacerbate a problem.
“If something goes wrong, it’s posted on YouTube, and within 15 minutes, it’s gone around the world,” Reed said. “This creates an incredible pressure for the C-Suite. If your brand is falling apart, you have a big problem. It’s possible you haven’t even woken up and yet half the world already knows about a problem going on in your stores.”
Or in your clubhouse.