Everyone's a winner if the Commanders move to the boonies

May 23, 2022

Upon reading that the Washington Commanders have taken steps to purchase land in A Town You Don’t Care About That’s A Considerable Distance From Washington, D.C.’s City Center, ostensibly with the plan of building a new stadium there, I fully expected to see complaints about how the team would be abandoning their fans, but I didn’t expect quite this level of vitriol. By now, it’s probably a reflex to condemn anything Dan Snyder does, but in this case, if Snyder wants to build a football stadium in the Virginia hinterlands, that would be a good thing, on net.

I don’t get why most people care about their football team’s reach into such and such a county if they’re not ownership. In this case, as with other NFL team moves, the move would be a bad break for a few people, but also a boon for others. That is, Commanders ownership has telegraphed for a long time that they see their future in D.C. and Virginia given the Baltimore Ravens’ longtime success just up the road, so perhaps fans in Maryland who would face even more daunting travel to attend a game in person would have reason to be disappointed with a move, but people in Northern Virginia would suddenly be a lot closer to a big stadium.

Either way, it’s worth highlighting that we’re talking about perhaps 10 weekends each year in an environment where in-stadium attendance means less and less to both ownership and fans. It means less to ownership because the bulk of their money comes from media deals, maximizing their facilities beyond sports team anchor occupants, and real estate holdings associated with their stadiums, rather than ticket and in-stadium sales. It means less to fans, particularly NFL fans, because with the advent of high-definition television, the virtual death of media blackouts, and pull of second-screen interaction, the in-stadium experience generally holds less appeal than it ever has.

On top of all that, because we’re only talking about 10 or fewer days per year, big time college and pro football teams tend to draw season ticket holders who come from farther afield than the other big pro sports, which play more often and get far more casual attendees. This is anecdote, but I think illustrative: When I lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, I came across some scattered members of the Buffalo, New York diaspora who went to multiple Buffalo Bills home games each season. They found each other in Charlotte, and for most games gathered in one guy’s home, where he had a premium setup for watching football, but many of them also arranged to fly up to western New York four or five times per year to watch games, planning their entire weekends around going to games. For more anecdata, you can look to how Raiders fans in Oakland continued going to games in Los Angeles, how Raiders fans in Los Angeles kept going to games in Oakland, how Packers fans in Milwaukee keep going to games in Green Bay after the team stopped playing games in Milwaukee, how 49ers fans keep going to games in Santa Clara (despite the awful stadium), and so on.

But most important of all, from a societal standpoint, just about every unbiased study on the topic concludes that building big football stadiums on valuable land is a terrible idea. It makes intuitive sense, too, so long as one factors out purely selfish reasoning amounting to “I want to drive less to see football”. Essentially, if you agree the most valuable land ought to be devoted to uses that provide the most value to the most people, a football stadium comes in about No. 3,219 on the list of priorities, behind things like housing, retail, and sometimes even parking lots because while NFL teams are prominent and take up a good deal of mind share, they don’t actually have much economic impact on their respective regions because they play so few games. At most, a stadium in Woodbridge, Virginia, might host 30 events per year, including NFL games — and that might be wildly optimistic if Levi’s Stadium’s website trumpeting 20 events per year is any guide.

In the end, teams generally want to build their stadiums in city centers because it’s the most valuable land, and it’s good for them to be on valuable land, particularly when they get that land low-cost or free. But governments generally don’t give free valuable land to regional supermarket chains, which is about the level of economic impact most NFL teams have, and when they give those incentives to sports teams, said governments and their taxpayers almost always lose out on the deal.

Therefore, if Dan Snyder wants to build a new stadium in Woodbridge, then D.C. leaders ought to encourage it. So long as Woodbridge, Prince William County, Virginia, and the state aren’t paying Snyder outrageous sums to do it, this is a potential winner for everyone involved, as indicated by the past five decades of new stadiums in the United States and NFL history.

(Photo: "Antonio Gibson makes a run with the ball" by All-Pro Reels. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)