Why the Redskins Still Win Despite a Losing Record

When the Washington Redskins host the New York Giants on Monday Night Football tonight, the 90,000 Skins fans at FedEx Field might look a little happier than they have in a while. That's because last week, team owner Daniel Snyder did what most thought he never would: he fired his friend and longtime front-office executive Vinny Cerrato. To the Redskins faithful, Cerrato is the architect, or at least Snyder's sycophantic yes-man, most responsible for what's been a decade of dismal football. This year will be the team's fifth losing season since 2000, a span in which the Redskins have compiled the eighth worst record in the NFL.

In Cerrato's place next to Snyder in the owner's box tonight will likely be his replacement, newly hired general manager Bruce Allen, the son of Redskins legendary coach George Allen. The move comes as a ray of light at the end of what's arguably been the worst season under Snyder's 10-year ownership. But as the Redskins close out a decade of losing, one thing is undeniable: off the field, the team has been a roaring success.

The Washington Redskins make more money than any other professional sports franchise in the United States. Their estimated annual revenue is $345 million, according to Forbes. Their closest contender, the New York Yankees, bring in somewhere around $320 million a year—but the Yankees bring home championships, 27 and counting. By comparison, the Redskins are lucky to simply have a winning season. They've had all of two since 2000 and won just a single playoff game. And yet, at $1.5 billion, the Redskins are the third most valuable sports franchise in the world, behind English soccer powerhouse Manchester United, and their rivals the Dallas Cowboys, who leapfrogged the Skins this year to claim the title of America's most valuable team.

Since buying the team in 1999 for $800 million, Snyder has doubled its value by saturating every orifice of the D.C. area with Redskins' burgundy and gold. He's bought radio stations, charged fans to watch players sweat through training camp, and opened 14 Redskins retail stores to sell as many jerseys, hats, and Redskins' paraphernalia as possible. Snyder was even rumored to have considered selling a brand of Redskins cola at one point.

Since 2000, he's crammed 10,000 extra seats into FedEx Field, many of them high-end luxury boxes; sold the stadium naming rights to the Memphis-based shipping company for a reported $7.6 million a year; and upped ticket prices, though the Redskins have always had the NFL's highest seat prices. Snyder's used all that extra cash to sign big-name players and coaches to record-breaking contracts, which in turn fuels more ticket sales, more merchandising, etc., etc. "Snyder took a very under-marketed asset and squeezed every last cent out of it," says Dan Kaplan, finance editor at The Sports Business Journal. "He's turned the Redskins into a cash machine. And the result is a completely soulless, corporate product."

It's also a losing team. Under Snyder's tenure, the Redskins have been a testament to the fact that in the NFL, winning and making money can be mutually exclusive goals. With one does not necessarily come the other. For the past couple of years, corporate America has done some searching on the issue of pay for performance. Why reward top execs with stock-option-loaded contracts and buyout packages even as their companies fail. When it comes to the Redskins, "the traditional P-and-E ratios simply don't apply," says Kaplan.

The NFL likes to point out that the Redskins and Cowboys are its most heated rivalry, convenient since they're also its most valuable teams. The rivalry dates to 1960 when the expansion Cowboys invaded what was then Redskins country: the South. But unlike Yankees–Red Sox, where the teams that really do hate each other the most are also perennial contenders, the Redskins and Cowboys have defined mediocrity over the last decade. Sure they have 13 Super Bowl appearances and eight Lombardi trophies between them, but that's ancient history. The Redskins and Cowboys both rank in the bottom third of the league in terms of winning percentage since 2000. Dallas hasn't even won a playoff game since 1996.

What the Redskins and Cowboys really illustrate is that the NFL is a business, a collectivist one at that. In a league where 80 percent of revenue, nearly $6 billion a year ($3.8 billion from TV deals, $1.9 billion from ticket sales) is shared equally among all 32 teams, what matters most isn't who wins but who makes money. For the NFL to succeed as it has, and with $7.5 billion of annual revenue it certainly has, what's essential is that big-market teams make as much money as possible to subsidize the smaller market ones. Without revenue sharing, teams like the Buffalo Bills and New Orleans Saints would have relocated years ago. The NFL has been able to keep its regionally symmetric footprint intact, thanks to the millions that owners like Snyder bring in.

But while he's beefed up the Redskins' bottom line, Snyder's lost more than just games. He's lost something that no other team had: the support of the most powerful people in the country. This is a team that over the years has counted presidents, senators, and Supreme Court justices among its most die-hard fans. In a town as partisan as D.C., the Redskins were the one unifier, the one thing that Republicans and Democrats could both cheer for.

As president, Nixon used to show up at practices. He's even rumored to have called in a play during a 1971 NFC playoff game. (The play lost 13 yards.) In 1966, LBJ became the first sitting president to go to a pro-sports event when he visited then-Redskins' minority owner Edward Bennett Williams's box. Pre-Snyder, that owner's box counted as its regulars presidential hopefuls like Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, and Pat Buchanan. Ethel Kennedy was given a luxury box after RFK was assassinated. Sen. John Warner used to show up with wife Elizabeth Taylor in tow.

After the Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1983, President Reagan stood in the freezing cold at Dulles airport, shaking hands as the team deplaned from Pasadena. Nine years later, after their third Super Bowl victory, President George H.W. Bush threw the team a backyard barbecue in the Rose Garden. He even beat them at a game of horseshoes.

But those days are gone. President Obama likes the Bears and Steelers. The biggest name you'll see in the owner's box these days is Tom Cruise. Not only has the winning stopped, but the team's luster has been tarnished among the Beltway brass. Hall of Fame running back and Redskins' all-time leading rusher John Riggins sees it all too well. In a mid-December interview with NEWSWEEK, Riggins described a party he'd recently attended at the home of a U.S. senator. "There were some Supreme Court justices there, definitely people high up inside the government," says Riggins, "and they were all saying the same thing: they are done supporting this team."

Maybe that's why Snyder made the change and fired Cerrato. Maybe he realized that, after a season in which chants of "Sell the Team" have wafted up to the owner's box and fans have been banned from bringing signs into FedEx Field, lest they say something nasty about the owner, all that dysfunction and losing might finally hit him where it hurts: the wallet.