In the least surprising bombshell you’ll read about this week, the Skins have admitted that nobody’s actually waiting for season tickets, despite an alleged waiting list that owner Dan Snyder used to claim had 200,000 people.
From the Washington Post: “On Wednesday, the Redskins announced that there is no longer a season ticket waiting list.” Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!
I was obsessed with the waiting list for years, mostly because it was so obviously a sham yet was always treated as a real deal by the team and the folks who covered it. The Skins PR staff used to lead off every postgame notes package after a home game, even those played in two thirds–full stadiums, saying the just-played contest was sold out and was continuing a sellout streak that’s been running “since 1966.”
To me, this was the Studio 54 principle at play, based on the premise that nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd. No matter how crowded the Studio 54 was back in the day, bouncers always maintained a line outside the door of folks waiting to get in for all passersby to see. So the Skins lied about the list for years, hoping the illusion of demand would create real demand.
The dirty truth is that the team never sold out even a single game after the 1996 move from RFK Stadium to the hellhole in Landover, Md., that is now called FedExField. I used to go to the ticket window whenever I’d go to a Skins game at FedEx and ask what was available, and 100 percent of the time, even for prime time appearances versus the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys when those rivalry games mattered in the standings, the clerk behind the window would offer to sell me tickets at face value for seats all around the stadium.
That’s not even counting the 20,000 or so so-called “premium seats,” that Snyder had installed and marketed so aggressively and at silly prices. Snyder needed the illusion of a waiting list for the regular seats to help his sales pitch for the premiums, which went for premium prices. And if people knew there was no waiting list, there would be no place for his money-grubbing gimmicks. The “TailGate Club,” for example, was a grotesque line-jumping scheme that charged fans $1,750 to sign up, plus $540 a head, which got members admission to pre-game buffets of hot dogs and burgers, as well as the right to get ahead of everybody on the fictional waiting list to buy season tickets immediately.
The “Dream Seats” likewise only existed because of the illusion of demand. Snyder installed a few rows of field-level seats immediately after buying the team. At RFK, the lower rows were considered the worst seats in the house because you couldn’t see over the players on the sidelines, but Snyder was charging $3,000 per seat for a season with that view. “Unless you dream of Bruce Smith’s ass,” a buddy of mine told me in 2000, “those ain’t dream seats.”
And yes, those willing to shell out the enormous bucks for these shitty seats were told they could skip the waiting list.
Of course, there was actually a time when football tickets were precious around these parts and waiting was the hardest part of being a Skins fan. The boom started in the mid-1960s, not long after after the Skins moved from Griffith Stadium to D.C. Stadium. Games started selling out in 1966, and the first mention I could find of a waiting list came in 1971, when the team said 5,000 folks wanted season tickets but none were available. A team official told the Washington Post that only 23 season tickets became available because of non-renewals after the 1971 season. The Skins made their first Super Bowl appearance the following season, after which team president Edward Bennett Williams said 7,500 names were on the list. In the spring of 1974, during Congressional hearings debating the NFL’s “blackout rule” which required sold-out games to be televised, the Post reported that the list had grown to “more than 10,000” names. In February 1975, the paper put the waiting list at 12,000 names, and it showed very little growth over the next decade. A report in July 1987 had the Skins claiming 15,000 people were on it.
A year later, after Joe Gibbs’s second Super Bowl win and as talk about building a stadium to replace RFK commenced, the list’s size skyrocketed but grew more precise, with the team saying 38,094 fans were in wait. Around this time, stories about Skins season ticket disputes showing up in inheritance struggles and divorce decrees become commonplace in the D.C. area.
Robin Ficker was among those tired of being shut out. Ficker, a Maryland attorney and D.C. area legend for his political gadfly tactics and heckling at Washington Bullets games, sued the Skins in D.C. Superior Court in 1990 over the waiting list. Ficker had gotten his name on the waiting list in the early 1970s. Back then, you could send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Skins offices to check your progress on the list after each season. Though with Skins tickets going for $49 for a whole seven-game season slate, that was a depressing exercise at the time. After 18 years on the list and finding himself stuck at No. 134, having moved up only 10 places in the previous five years, Ficker decided to take legal action.
“I found out a judge I knew got tickets without even being on the list,” Ficker recalls. So he sued, alleging the team was violating its contract with him by not taking names in order.
“Being honest with the fans is just as important as winning the Super Bowl,” Ficker told the Washington Times after the filing. The case got tossed by a judge who’d ruled Ficker didn’t prove that the team promised him to abide by the list. The squeaky wheel got some grease, however: The Skins offered Ficker the season tickets he craved a year after beating him in court.
Wins and new stadium rumors continued, and the list grew: By July 1992, months after the Skins whupped the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVI, the Post reported that the team claimed “about 45,506” ticketless fans wanted their shot. Owner Jack Kent Cooke, while making his pitch to area governments to find the best location for his next stadium, boasted that the waiting list had grown to “about 50,000.” He got Prince George’s County, Md., to let him build there in part by agreeing to give the first 2,000 county residents on the list the right to buy season tickets. The opening of Jack Kent Cooke Stadium in September 1997, soon to be the biggest stadium in the NFL with more than 20,000 more seats than RFK held, caused the list to shrink a bit, as reports put the list at 45,000 names. When Snyder was approved by the NFL as owner in May 1999, a Post report had the list at 40,000.
The Skins have habitually lost under Snyder, and dissatisfaction with his ownership and the game-day experience was huge from the start. Yet for years he claimed that demand for his lousy, unlikeable product was growing. In March 2000, the Post reported that the list was growing again, to “about 45,000.” By January 2001, that figure swelled to “about 50,000.” In May 2002, at the beginning of the woe-filled Steve Spurrier Era and with broadcasts showing huge swaths of empty yellow and red seats, Snyder told the Washington Times the waiting list was at 75,000 names. When Spurrier ran away and Snyder threw big bucks at Joe Gibbs to return as head coach in January 2004, the team claimed for the first time that more than 100,000 fans were waiting for tickets.
In November 2006, the Times said the Skins claimed more than 150,000 names on the waiting list. In April 2008, with Gibbs gone again, years of games at FedExField where the opposition’s fan base was louder than and at least as large as the home team’s flock, and with the hiring of Jim Zorn as head coach engendering amazing amounts of hopelessness, Snyder went full Pinocchio, telling the Times: “Our waiting list is over 200,000.”
The team’s miseries only spiraled in recent years, but the organization stuck to that crazy number—even as the sales tactics got more desperate. A direct mail campaign from April 2009 told target customers there were “over 200,000 fans on the waitlist behind you.” But by the end of that year, Snyder was offering Christmas gift packages that included standard tickets to the Dallas Cowboys game, a tacit admission that those seats hadn’t ever been sold. There were other clear signs of trouble in Skins ticketland: Several of the team’s season ticket–sellers sued Snyder in 2009 for $185,000 in back overtime pay. If the lines to buy Skins tickets were indeed as long and organized as the team constantly claimed, why would they even need a large ticket-selling staff, let alone a staff working scads of OT? (The Skins were eventually ordered by an arbitrator to pay off the plaintiffs.)
Through the years, the Skins always had help from beat reporters willing to push the waiting list myth. This one from the Virginian Pilot in 2007, headlined “Redskins fans gobbling up extravagant season tickets,” is a classic of the lap-dog genre. The lede:
How badly do you want Redskins tickets? The team’s famous, years-long waiting list remains. However, fans have the rare opportunity to sink their credit card into seats at FedEx Field this fall - for a price.
Ficker says the magic wore off for him early in the Snyder Era. The last straw was Snyder’s big splash signing of high-priced, do-nothing defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth in 2009. Before Haynesworth even played a down in burgundy and gold, Ficker voluntarily turned in the season tickets he’d once sued to get. He says he hasn’t ever regretted the decision.
“I really wanted the tickets for years!” he says. “But my interest and enjoyment just waned, and when I gave them up, they spent years trying to get me back, and I’m thinking, if there really was anybody waiting, why would they even try to get me back? I came to realize they were just saying there was a waiting list to create demand, like they had a hard thing to get. It’s not a hard thing to get.”
No, it’s not. The team’s announcement yesterday said that season tickets are as of now “immediately available to all Redskins fans.” So Snyder acknowledged that supply had indeed been kicking demand’s ass all these years. Get in line.
Disclosure: Dan Snyder once sued the author for writing mean things about him.