The biggest sports business story over the holiday was the continued chaos surrounding the once-proud Washington Redskins and the shocking termination of President of Business Operations Brian Lafemina and his leadership team.
In June, I applauded Redskins owner Dan Snyder for making such a smart hire in landing the former NFL executive. Lafemina is well-respected, with a strong ticketing background, and he is familiar with the inner workings of a league/team dynamic. Many believed he was the right person to change the business performance and negativity around the organization.
Lafemina worked quickly to build his team — hiring Steve Ziff from the Jacksonville Jaguars as CMO in June and Todd Kline from the Miami Dolphins as chief commercial officer in August. The organizational turnaround was never going to be quick or easy; it required a slow, methodical grind. Lafemina and his group were doing the right things — being transparent with an angry fan base while trying to change the longtime disrespect of people’s time and wallets. He aimed to be more honest and fan friendly and to repair the team’s dreadful relationships with local leaders. But the ever-impatient Snyder obviously lost trust and faith in this group after just eight months, which is shocking considering how long and hard Snyder worked to convince Lafemina to leave the league office.
Few know exactly what led to the swift terminations, but it’s hard to believe the business leaders had a litany of screw-ups in only eight months. Reports out of Washington suggested that the team’s signing of controversial linebacker Reuben Foster after a second domestic violence arrest caused a rift between the business side, which didn’t approve of the signing, and football operations, led by the woeful Bruce Allen. Then there was Snyder’s frustration with attendance, which our research shows is down more than 20 percent since 2016.
The environment around the organization and FedEx Field is toxic — the team has not made the playoffs since the 2015 season and hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2005 season; attendance, local TV ratings and team revenue have plummeted.
But this is not on Lafemina. It falls on Snyder and his lieutenant, Allen.
Lafemina spent 22 years at Madison Square Garden and eight years at the NFL, so he knows how to operate in difficult environments. I know he talked to plenty of people before agreeing to join the Redskins. I’m sure many of his friends offered the same advice I would have if he asked me — beware of the politics and an incumbent who obviously has Snyder’s ear and attention. I don’t know what talented business executive will work for Snyder now after witnessing the treatment of this well-regarded group. Maybe Allen takes over the business side, which would only further erode the brand.
This is clearly the low point for the Redskins and the weeks over the holiday showed how far this once gold-standard franchise has fallen.
The dysfunction was the subject of a bruising feature in the New York Times, which ran the headline “The Redskins Aren’t Very Good On The Field. Off It, They’re Even Worse.” The local Washington Post, which chronicles the team as closely as it does government, had numerous features lamenting the state of its hallmark sports team. Columnist Jerry Brewer wrote, “it takes more than losing to sink so low.” This is “what happens when a franchise loses while displaying little integrity and having absolutely no feel for what its fan base wants. This is what happens when an organization has no trustworthy face of the franchise.” Longtime Post columnist and D.C.-area native Tom Boswell wrote, “The shrinkage of the fan base has become shocking.” A featured piece on the final weekend of the NFL season by Liz Clarke, Les Carpenter and Mark Maske wrote Snyder has “(driven) away one of the more loyal fan bases in professional sports.”
It’s really sad. It’s especially sad to see a franchise that means so much to so many stand for so little that’s right. No, Snyder is unlikely to change his approach, and yes, winning is a way out for the franchise. But winning can’t mask all of the Machiavellian flaws of this organization. Neither Snyder nor Allen have enough local capital or allies to wave the flag for them. The apathy, anger and distrust of the fan base is at an all-time high, all while the organization is seeking public assistance for a new stadium. Lafemina, Ziff and Kline will hopefully be fine and likely end up in key business roles at other organizations. It’s a shame they weren’t given time to change the culture and fortunes at the Redskins. I’d be surprised if anyone is successful as long as the current ownership and leadership remains.
Abraham Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.