The Washington Football Team, considered one of the five most valuable sports franchises in the world just a decade ago, barely makes the top 20 these days, falling five spots over the last year alone in Forbes’ latest rankings.
Owner Dan Snyder’s franchise is ranked No. 19 on the business magazine’s annual list of the world’s 50 most valuable teams, a list headed by Washington‘s NFC East rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, with Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees at No. 2 and the NBA’s New York Knicks at No. 3.
In addition to the Cowboys, Forbes has six other NFL teams ranked ahead of Washington on a list that the team, then known as the Redskins, topped in 2000. That longtime nickname, which had come to be seen as racist by many, was jettisoned last year under pressure from critics and partners.
Snyder hasn’t lost money — he paid $750 million in 1999 for a team that’s now worth $3.5 billion, according to the magazine’s appraisal gurus. But years of losing, scandal and mismanagement have taken a toll on a franchise that was once widely seen as a gold standard, not just for the NFL but beyond.
Washington continues to accrue value, though its growth pales in comparison to other high-profile clubs, especially among the premium brands that populate the Forbes list.
The magazine has Washington’s value up 3% in 2020, while the average increase in the top 50 is 9.9%.
In 2010, Washington ranked as the fourth-most valuable sports team at $1.6 billion. Since then, the NFL’s New England Patriots, New York Giants, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, New York Jets and Chicago Bears have all jumped past Snyder’s franchise in estimated value.
“This is the dichotomy the organization has realized, which is why you saw some changes (on the business side) a few years ago … and now you’ve got a completely new business team coming in to try and adjust those circumstances, ” said Marty Conway, an adjunct professor of sports and business at Georgetown University.
Conway is referring to Washington’s attempts in recent years to overhaul the organization’s business side. In 2018, Snyder hired Brian Lafemina as president of business operations and a slew of other executives, then fired them after less than a year on the job. This past summer, Snyder hired Jason Wright as team president to revamp the organization amid an ongoing investigation into the team’s alleged workplace misconduct.
Of the teams listed in the top 50, Washington has the slowest growth rate — 23% — over the past five years.
While it’s tempting to blame Washington’s relatively modest 3% gain this year on the pandemic, other teams seemed unfazed by the impact of COVID-19 and the upheaval the virus had on business plans.
The Cowboys, for instance, renewed their sponsorship with Miller beer for a reported $180 million over 10 years.
Conway said sports franchises tend to dramatically increase in value because of the “high-margin revenue” that comes from owning a team. He pointed to gigantic television deals that teams share across the league and other income like sponsorships — revenue that dwarfs gate receipts.
There are other theories as to why Washington’s growth isn’t keeping pace with other franchises. For one, the product hasn’t been strong: Last year’s playoff appearance was just Washington’s sixth under Snyder. And Washington hasn’t produced many stars in that span, even in losing years.
Add in the scandals. In 2020, the franchise underwent a name change, got wrapped up in a sexual harassment investigation and had a public, messy legal battle between Snyder and some investors who held minority shares.
Ellen Zavian, a sports law professor at George Washington University, said the team’s stadium — a no-frills, concrete behemoth in Landover, Maryland — has also contributed to the team’s slide from elite status.
Washington’s lease at FedEx Field expires in 2027, and the team is looking for political and financial partners to back the construction of a new, more modern — and therefore more lucrative — home.
According to Forbes, FedEx Field contributes only 14.1% of the team’s valuation. That’s good for 10th in the NFL.
“They will need a new stadium,” Zavian said. “A new stadium will bring additional revenue streams.”
The team’s difficulties filling seats at FedEx Field have been well documented.
In 2019, the last season with fans, Washington ranked 20th in attendance and 30th in terms of full stadium capacity — both sharp declines for a franchise that ranked annually among the league’s best when Snyder first bought the team. And of the fans who attend, many are seen wearing the visiting team’s merchandise.
Conway, however, said the main issue at FedEx Field is that the team isn’t drawing the well-heeled, luxury-box clients that other franchises do.
“A lot of it has to do with their game day experience and the footprint of that has shrunk so much,” Conway said. “… That’s been their biggest challenge to overcome. It’s not so much getting people to come to the stadium because fans have come, even though they might be fans of the other team.
“But what they’re not getting is getting fans to buy the high-margin, luxury type seating where the sharing component is small or nonexistent with the other teams.”
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