Being a sports fan is an irrational act.
Who roots for a group of strangers wearing one set of colors against another group of players in another set simply because they represent your hometown, state, or school?
Still, we do it, and it is the loyalty of millions that drives the business of sports. The trade-off for that loyalty is entertainment and the hope that someday, if all goes well, your team will break through and win big.
Perhaps even be crowned champion.
But what about when the team you cheer for is so incompetently run, so inept, so embarrassing on a year-in, year-out basis, hope is stamped out like a nasty cigarette butt and fans enter every new season knowing it is headed nowhere?
Welcome to life as a fan of the Washington Redskins and New York Knicks.
In the roughly 20 years that Dan Snyder has owned the Redskins and James Dolan has owned the Knicks, no two franchises in sports have become more synonymous with mediocrity, toxic culture, and flat-out embarrassment.
You could call both franchises a dumpster fire, but that would be an insult to dumpster fires.
Under Snyder, the Redskins are 150-189-1 with two division titles and a playoff record of 2-5. In those 20 seasons, Snyder has employed nine head coaches, three general managers/team presidents, and a rotating cast in the team’s scouting department.
This year’s team is 3-9, fired head coach Jay Gruden after an 0-5 start, and has fans calling for the removal of the head of the team, president Bruce Allen.
Mike Jones is a columnist covering the NFL for USA TODAY and grew up a Redskins fan as a youngster in Virginia. He spent eight seasons covering the team as a beat reporter for The Washington Post.
“When they hired Jay Gruden I had a source tell me he told Jay: ‘That organization is like a reverse car wash. People go in clean and come out dirty,’” Jones said. “And that is pretty much how it has been for everyone that goes there. It has just been an incredibly toxic environment and I can’t see how that can be conducive to winning.”
Dolan makes Snyder’s operation look like the New England Patriots. In his two decades running the Knicks, the team has 997 losses, an NBA-worst .410 percentage, and has won one playoff series.
Dolan has employed 13 coaches in 18 seasons, and even the legendary Phil Jackson could not escape the stink associated with the Knicks brand, as his three-year tenure as team president ended in failure.
After one of Dolan’s many public embarrassments, then-NBA commissioner David Stern said: “It demonstrates that they are not a model of intelligent management.”
If Snyder and Dolan did anything as badly as guiding a professional sports franchise, they would have been fired years ago. They are the captain of the Titanic wandering aimlessly into yet another iceberg.
Over and over again.
It is possible to imagine a conversation between a Redskins fan and a Knicks fan going down like this:
Skins fan: “Well, at least your owner never sued a 72-year-old grandmother over season tickets during a recession.”
Knicks fan: “Yeah, well Dolan had one of the most beloved players in franchise history booted out of Madison Square Garden.”
Skins fan: “OK, well, Dolan doesn’t demand that people who work for him not make eye contact and call him ‘Mr. Snyder.’”
Knicks fan: “Wow, um, ya got me there, but how about my guy barring the New York Daily News from sending the Knicks beat reporter to a press conference because Dolan was upset about coverage?”
Skins fan: “How about the team president saying: ‘We’re winning off the field’ after a 4-12 season?”
The two fans shake their heads, quietly sip their drinks, and stare off into space …
Business never winning
The Knicks were once one of the NBA’s marquee franchises. Under Dolan they have become irrelevant.
Other than Carmelo Anthony, they have never had a true “star,” prime free agents like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Kevin Durant have shunned them, and the emergence of the Brooklyn Nets is challenging their hold on New York City.
But at least Dolan has Madison Square Garden, which remains its own draw, and fans can always justify buying tickets because they get to see star players perform for other teams.
Things are worse for the Redskins, who once bragged about a waiting list for season tickets. Recently they had tickets going for $4 on the secondary market for a game against the Detroit Lions.
The team ranked 27th in attendance last season.
Last Sunday, the unthinkable happened:
Dolan and Snyder have been able to do the one thing that keeps them in place: their teams make money.
Snyder purchased the Redskins for $800 million in 1999. According to Forbes, the franchise is valued at $3.4 billion now, making it the NFL’s fourth most valuable.
Dolan owns the Knicks and Rangers, along with other Madison Square Garden holdings, are worth around $7.2 billion.
Lucrative television contracts and national sponsorships make it impossible for owners to lose money, even if they are inept.
“The way these leagues are set up, they rake in money before the lights are even turned on,” said John Ourand, a Washington, D.C.-based reporter for the Sports Business Journal. “So you can mismanage, run your team in a poor way, have losing season after losing season and still make a ton of money. And forget about making money year to year, they are sitting on an incredible asset they can sell at any time for an incredible profit. Being a pro sports owner is exclusive company.”
What can a fan do?
Donald Sterling was an embarrassment to the NBA for decades. The league finally got rid of him in April 2014 after he was taped saying racist things.
Both leagues have bylaws that would allow an owner to be banned should they cross legal, moral, and ethical lines. Short of Snyder or Dolan doing something like Sterling, it is unlikely either league tries to remove them.
“You have to remember, the commissioner works for the owners, not the other way around,” Ourand said. “And the business of the NFL and NBA is very good.”
The only possible option: SERIOUS fan pressure.
Stop buying tickets and merchandise. Stop watching on television and stop caring. Enough empty seats and suites and poor TV ratings is the ONLY way to force fellow owners to step in.
“I don’t know what it would take (for the NFL) to step in but I can tell you that owners are not happy to see all of those empty seats,” Jones said of the Redskins. “It is a bad look for the league. And Snyder is not having an easy time getting a new stadium project off the ground. I could see that being an issue with fellow owners.”
As for fans, despite the horrible ownership, both franchises can dangle just enough hope to keep folks hanging on.
A high draft choice. Yet another general manager or team president. A new coach. A rookie quarterback. Cap space.
When all else fails, they can always count on nostalgia.
To be sure, some fans have walked away, tuned out, and moved on. Others are hanging in there, hoping for meaningful change and/or begging for a sale.
What is like being a fan of BOTH franchises?
Ask Lizz Robbins, a D.C.-area native who has been pulling for the Redskins and Knicks for more than 30 years.
She remembers the good old days. The Redskins were known for having won three Super Bowls and the Knicks were a perennial playoff contender.
“I’ve been here so long, it wouldn’t make sense to change,” Robbins said. “Some of it is loyalty, not necessarily to the teams but more so the fandom. I still have the passion, but it’s more frustration for them to get back to where they were. Also, with my dad passing away a few years ago, the Skins are one of the things we shared a love for, so I don’t see myself ever changing.”
And if Robbins were to wake up one morning and hear that Snyder and Dolan had sold their teams overnight?
“Pure joy,” Robbins said. “Like opening up presents on Christmas morning type of joy.”