GREATER LANDOVER, Maryland — The Washington Commanders are hopeful that their recent draft picks will help energize a struggling fan base, especially given new data that reveals just how far the team has to go to regain widespread fan support.
According to data WUSA9 exclusively obtained from the consumer research firm Nielsen Scarborough, only 29% of adults in the Washington, D.C. television market called themselves Commanders fans. That’s fewer than one out of every three people in the area, and it's a gigantic drop from 2004 when 51% of the market said they were fans of Washington's franchise.
By comparison, Nielsen Scarborough says 52% of the Baltimore television market still considers itself fans of its NFL franchise, the Ravens.
Ted Abela, who has had Washington Football season tickets for 20 years and is known as “Tailgate Ted” for his large-scale tailgate parties at FedEx Field says the fan exodus is obvious.
“In the past, there were six people cooking,” Abela said of his tailgates. “Now, it’s just me.”
Washington Commanders President Jason Wright told WUSA9 in a one-on-one interview in April, he believes the Nielsen Scarborough research.
“Because when we walked in we quickly discovered that the fan base was not what it used to be,” Wright said. “That’s obvious.”
Wright said the team is turning things around, ranking fourth in the NFL in new season ticket sales and number two in new club season tickets and suite sales.
“So, in the numbers, there is enthusiasm for this team,” Wright said.
The team hopes that enthusiasm will be bolstered by a new stadium, with three of the four perspective new sites located in Northern Virginia. The Nielsen Scarborough data offers 1.6 million reasons why.
The market research found there were 1.6 million Commanders fans across the Commonwealth, with season ticket holders as far away as Tidewater and Richmond, where the team holds its pre-season training camp.
By comparison, Nielsen says there are 1.1 million, or 500,000 fewer, Commanders fans in Maryland, where the success of the Baltimore Ravens has siphoned off huge chunks of the younger generation.
“With no wins, a lackluster stadium, and a fan base that doesn't like the owner, it's all these compounding factors,” said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, an associate professor of sports management at George Washington University.
But Neirotti added that if the team hopes a move to Virginia will act as a reset for the fan base, it will take more than just a new stadium
“The reset in Virginia will only go so far without a winning team, and perhaps a new owner,” Neirotti said. “Maybe the people in Virginia are a little bit more forgiving? But really, unless the negative stories end and the winning begins, the team is still going to have some challenges.”
It’s the challenge of getting to a Virginia stadium that worries long time Commanders fans like Abela who lives in Northeast D.C., about 20 minutes from the team's current home, FedEx Field.
The proposed stadium sites in Sterling, Woodbridge or Dumfries could push his game-day commute to an hour and a half or more.
“It would be easier for me to take an Uber to DCA and fly to an away game and have a good time and fly back, win or lose, than deal with that traffic in that mess,” Abela said.
So if the Commanders move away from Landover, Ted’s tailgating days may be numbered.
“I'm not going to say I'm not going to go to the new stadium if it's there,” he said of a Virginia location. “But I'm not going to be a season ticket holder anymore.”
Abela is still hoping the team constructs its new stadium close to its old one and rebuilds fan support in the same place it lost it. The idea of ending his Tailgating tradition, he says, is keeping him up at night.
“Not trying to be overdramatic about it, but I would lose a kind of a piece of my identity slash heart," Abela said.
The Virginia legislature is debating a $300 million bond package to help finance a new stadium. Maryland has pledged to invest $400 million in the area around FedEx Field but has refused to offer taxpayer money for the stadium itself. There are no formal plans to bring the stadium back to D.C.