- The Washington Times
Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Ted Abela has missed only one Washington game at FedEx Field in the last 20 years. He still remembers it vividly: It was Christmas Eve 2011 and the diehard fan of the Burgundy and Gold was in church with his future wife and in-laws, quietly listening to the game with an earpiece before he got scolded for jumping up because of the action.

So when Abela — better known as “Tailgate Ted” because of his game-day parking lot feasts — found out Wednesday that he and other fans won’t be allowed at the team’s stadium this fall, he couldn’t help but be disappointed, even knowing the realities of the pandemic.

“I figured eventually when I am 80 or 90, maybe I won’t be at a game,” Abela said. “But I never thought in my wildest dreams that this would ever happen.”

Washington became the latest NFL team Wednesday to announce fans won’t be allowed at home games this fall due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. In a press release, the club left open the possibility of reevaluating the decision if conditions improve.

But for now, Washington decided “out of an abundance of caution” that it was safer playing games with empty stands after consulting federal, local and state officials.

Washington joins the Las Vegas Raiders, New York Giants and Jets in making the decision to play without fans at home games in 2020. The Green Bay Packers have said they won’t permit fans for the first two games at Lambeau Field, and then would reevaluate.

“We are fortunate to host the best fans in the NFL year after year, but the well-being of those supporters, along with that of our players, coaches and each and every member of our game-day staff is simply too important, and the current knowledge of COVID-19 too unpredictable, to welcome our fan base to FedEx Field to start the season,” owner Dan Snyder said in a statement.

Before the team’s announcement, Washington had taken steps to try and have fans in a limited capacity, working with officials from the state of Maryland and Prince George’s County (where the stadium is located) to develop health and safety protocols. In an email to season-ticket holders late last month, Washington said it would have sanitizing stations throughout the concourse and have only mobile ticketing in 2020.

The decision came almost exactly one month before Washington opens the season against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 13.

Over the past decade, Washington home games had become notorious for primarily three things: throngs of opposing fans, empty seats and losing. Washington is just 33-47 at home since 2010, fourth worst in the NFL. The team also ranked 20th and 27th in NFL attendance over the last two seasons.

The problems at home are why Wednesday’s announcement prompted plenty of jokes on social media. Former Washington linebacker Will Compton joked it meant there would no opposing fans. Others remarked it would be no different than usual, with one observer posting a screenshot of the empty stands from the team’s 2013 blowout against the Chiefs.

Last week, Packers and former Washington linebacker Preston Smith was asked about the possibility of playing with no fans in the fall and he answered with a joke at his former team’s expense.

“My first four years in the league, there weren’t that many fans in the stadium anyway,” Smith said. “So it might be kind of normal now again.”

Despite the fodder, attendance typically is an important revenue stream for NFL teams. Most of an NFL franchise’s income comes from media rights fees, but Forbes reported that the league’s teams could lose a collective $5.5 billion without stadium revenue, which includes tickets, concessions, parking and corporate sponsorships.

Using 2018 figures, Forbes said Washington earned $205 million that year in stadium revenue alone — accounting for 41% of its revenue ($405 million).

In his statement, Snyder said the team was” “working to find ways to make our fans’ presence felt in new and innovative ways for 2020.”

The NBA has had virtual fans pop up electronically via video boards in the backgrounds of its games inside the league’s bubble near Orlando.

Some MLB teams have gone with a more low-tech approach, adding sections of cardboard cutouts of fans to their empty stands.

Washington said it has reached out to season-ticket holders to discuss “financial alternatives” in the wake of the news.

Abela, though, is still coming to terms with the idea that his favorite team will be playing 15 minutes from his house this fall — and he won’t be there.

“As fans, I think we all held out hope that we’d have some form of football, different form, but some form of football (in person),” he said, “and now that’s gone.”

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.