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Fail to the Redskins

Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, turned 55 last week. Fans of the team didn’t send birthday wishes.

The Washington Redskins have become the dregs of the National Football League. The team is a perennial loser, not in a hapless, lovable way like the old New York Mets, but in an ugly, irritating way, like a nasty shaving cut or a neighbor’s dog that barks all night. (Shut up!) 

The problem here—as is always the case with a team that stinks for so long—is the owner. It’s an equation really. Bad owner equals bad team. There are plenty of examples of this in sports and of course in business, too. (And at this level, sports is a business. A big business.)

What precisely do I mean by bad owner? It’s not just incompetence. I’m talking about deficiency of character. Sure professional sports owners are a sharp-elbowed bunch, but some are way worse than that. Just a few recent examples: Donald Sterling of the LA Clippers. Both John Spano and Charles Wang of the New York Islanders. The Dolans of the New York Knicks. And at the top of the list today I say, is Dan Snyder.

Daniel Snyder headshot, as Washington Redskins owner, over logo, partial graphic

I’m hardly the first to make this call. Five years ago, Rolling Stone created a ranking of worst sports owners in the U.S., (a great read, btw), and Snyder was their number one pick. To my mind, he’s yet to be dethroned. 

I’m not going to list chapter and verse all the splotches on Snyder’s record. I simply don’t have enough room here on the Internet. But for starters, his Wikipedia page enumerates a number of transgressions, including suing season tickets holders who couldn’t pay during the 2008-2009 Great Recession, banning signs in the stadium (gee, I wonder why), and charging fans for tailgating. He was also the first NFL owner to make fans pay to watch practice, (only a few followed suit.) 

There have also been countless newspaper stories, including a damning history of the team during Snyder’s tenure by the Washington Post. Another exhaustive (and exhausting) list of Snyder foibles and team dysfunction can be found in a City Paper piece by Dave McKenna, The Cranky Redskins Fan's Guide to Dan Snyder. Snyder sued the paper. The suit specified “four alleged misstatements in the story, and also claims that a cover illustration depicting Snyder with horns and a goatee was anti-Semitic.” (Snyder may have been right on the last count, but in any event he dropped the lawsuit after several months.)

FILE - In this Nov. 17, 2019, file photo, some fans watch during the second half of an NFL football game between the Washington Redskins and the New York Jets, in Landover, Md. There were more than 20,000 empty seats for the Redskins’ last home game, and when many of them have been filled this season, it’s with fans of the visiting team. It could be even emptier Sunday when the 1-9 Redskins host the 3-6-1 Detroit Lions. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

‘It stems from the top’

And then there’s the carousel of coaches who have cycled through Snyderland (9 in his 20 seasons), and the fact that the stadium is so empty it’s become a home field for visiting teams’ fans. Oh and naturally Snyder recently bought a $100 million yacht with an IMAX theater.

I give you all of this without even wading into the Redskins’ name controversy. People disagree here, though as a lifelong fan (I grew up in suburban Maryland), I’ve made my feelings known on the subject.

“I think it’s fair to say [Snyder’s] leadership style has not been conducive for external success or internal efficiency,” says Patrick Rishe, professor of practice in sports business at Washington University in St. Louis and director of the university’s sports business program. “Look at the teams in professional sports that have success on the field, success off the field. It stems from the top. It’s not happenstance.”

But wait there’s more.

Impossible as it is to believe, the situation in Washington has worsened this season. Two recent snippets from the Washington Post tell the story. First: In a loss to the lowly Jets, the Redskins, now 1-9, off to their worst 10-game start since 1961, set a new franchise record for consecutive quarters (16) without a touchdown. The team has lost nine straight at home for the first time since 1993. But, “forget all that and focus on the fact that Redskins safety Montae Nicholson started four days after a 21-year-old woman died of an apparent drug overdose at his home.” And then this: “Before kickoff Sunday, tickets could be bought online for $10 — almost unthinkable to get into an NFL game…The franchise that two seasons ago claimed it had a years-long waiting list for season tickets now sees its tickets fetching about half the price of a “Toy Story 4” ticket.”

‘The whole thing has been terribly mismanaged’

Sell the team indeed.

“The whole thing has been terribly mismanaged, says John Kent Cooke, son of former owner Jack Kent Cooke, who also tried to buy the team. “[The Redskins were] one of the most respected as well as successful sports franchises in the U.S. It was world famous. Now I’m afraid it is thought of disparagingly.” 

It’s tough to undermine the value of a professional sports franchise, particularly a storied, iconic NFL team like the Redskins. But Snyder—who made his fortune by aggressively building an unglamorous marketing conglomerate—is making a pretty good show of it.

Snyder bought the team 20 years ago for $800 million using a hodgepodge of borrowed money, including a $340 million loan from French bank Societe Generale. Snyder later brought in other minority investors including FedEx’s founder and CEO Fred Smith. (FedEx also bought the naming rights to the team’s field.) Today the team is now worth some $3.4 billion, according to Forbes. That’s an annual rate of return of 7.5%. 

Not so bad, right? Actually not so good.

“He had nothing to do with the appreciation of the franchise,” says Cooke. “NFL franchises’ main revenue comes from television and from cable. Frankly, if anything, if he had done a good job it would’ve been more valuable than it is today.”

Hmm, how would we know that?

Dallas Cowboys owner, and major stockholder of Comstock Resources Jerry Jones, with wife Gene, visits the New York Stock Exchange trading floor before ringing the opening bell, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019. The company is celebrating its $2.2 billion acquisition of Covey Park Energy. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

‘Why would he sell?’

For some perspective, let’s compare Snyder’s reign to that of the Redskins’ ancient foe, the Dallas Cowboys, AKA America’s Team—yes, that makes me nauseous too—under its current owner Jerry Jones. The Cowboys’ high-profile owner is of course no saint. Jones, (who you may recall played football at the University of Arkansas), is brash, partisan, and has been fined by the league for criticizing officials. He also settled a sexual assault lawsuit. Not surprisingly perhaps, Jones checks in at number four on Rolling Stone’s list of bad owners.

Having said that, Jones hasn’t created the same toxicity in Dallas that Snyder has in Washington. And Jones has built something bigger.

Thirty years ago, Jones bought the Cowboys for $140 million. Today the team is the most valuable sports team in America, worth $5.5 billion, according to Forbes. Jones’ annual rate of return over that period: 13.0% 

There may be some subtleties lost here, in that Snyder or Jones may have used more borrowed money than the other, but the bottom line is this: The increase in value of the Cowboys under Jones beats the Redskins under Snyder by 5.5 percentage points per annum. 

Ouch.

Other numbers add to the case. While the Cowboys haven’t been so hot lately, they’re better than the Redskins. Here are some cold hard comparisons. (All numbers are over Jones’s 30 year-tenure versus Snyder’s 20 year-old tenure.) 

-Playoff appearances: Dallas: 15, Washington 5 

-Playoff wins: Dallas 15, Washington 2 

-Super Bowl wins, Dallas: 3, Washington: 0 

-Player/coach awards: Dallas 10, Washington 1

All that is what accounts for the $2 billion-plus difference ($3.4 billion versus $5.5 billion) in the value of the Redskins versus the Cowboys.

Even more than the numbers, the money and the win-loss record though, is the general lack of decency in Washington. What’s the exact impact of that? Hard to say. But no doubt failure on the field reflects it to a degree. 

Conventional wisdom has it that Snyder will never sell the team—Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and others are reportedly poking around. “Why would he sell,” asks Andrew Zimbalist, the Robert A. Woods Professor of Economics at Smith College. “Maybe the criticism gets to him, or he needs the money or he thinks football teams are at peak valuation.” Not likely though. Also not likely is that the NFL will never make him sell. (Even though a few years ago, another NFL team owner spoke to me of the great antipathy he and the others have for Snyder.)

“In a dark world, perhaps some fans are secretly hoping something scandalous engulfs Snyder the way something scandalous engulfed other sports owners and forced their hand,” says Rishe. “Short of that, there is nothing the NFL can do to push him out.”

At some point though you have to ask, what’s the end game here? Dan Snyder could own the team for another 30-plus years, right? In the meantime, fans must suffer and wait it out.

There is another option. Sadly, after 50 years of rooting for the Redskins, I’ve switched over to the Baltimore Ravens. After 20 years of Snyder, it was time.

This article was featured in a special Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on November 23, 2019. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe

Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.

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