My business school finance professor, Dean R. Charles Moyer, once began a class by proclaiming, “Give a manager too much cash and he will do something stupid with it.” This bold statement instantly captured the attention of a classroom of MBA students, and several lessons emerged over the next hour or so of Socratic discourse.
I recently recalled Charlie’s statement as I followed the turmoil swirling around the Washington Redskins just two games into the 2009-2010 season, several days before a must-win game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday, September 27. The Lions surely have reasons to believe that the team will finally break a 19-game losing streak by beating Washington this weekend at Ford Field.
Daniel M. Snyder, the majority owner of the Redskins, enters his 11th year at the helm of the franchise. Over that time period, Snyder has hired six coaches, all of whom have achieved a cumulative record slightly under .500, which when viewed under the harsh light of numbers stands as a testament to mediocrity. To his credit, Snyder has admitted that he made some mistakes early in his tenure, and that he has matured and evolved as an owner. From a business standpoint, Snyder has done an admirable job for himself and his partners, building the franchise into one of the most valuable sports properties in the world.
Local sportscasters and sports talk radio hosts insist the fans are too harsh on Snyder, that the fans should rejoice over an owner who yearns to win and is willing to spend whatever it takes to achieve that goal, such as rewarding the most prized free agent of the last offseason, Albert Haynesworth, with a $100 million contract.
But thinking about Snyder’s proclivity to use cash as a hammer in search of a nail brought me back fifteen years ago to Charlie’s classroom as I once again ponder his lessons. Has Snyder just foolishly spent money on a quixotic quest for the Vince Lombardi Trophy? Is he simply operating with the bedrock conviction of a successful businessman who has built and sold a billion-dollar empire? Or is Snyder acting more like a driver jumping behind the wheel of a rental car with his friends egging him on to “drive it like you stole it”?
As a fan, Snyder’s free-spending methods have certainly resulted in some unintended consequences. This brings to mind another teacher, my old computer science professor Dr. Hanan Samet, who used to repeatedly declare in class, with a smile, “There’s no free lunch!”
All that cash Snyder has spent to lure free-agents and coaches to the team had to come from somewhere.
Well, long-suffering Redskins fans who have pored over the lunch bill with a pencil and calculator have found skyrocketing ticket and concession prices, stiff parking fees, and traffic gridlock at FedEx Field. Add to those appetizers entrees such as filing lawsuits against defaulting season ticket holders, and you get fans who find themselves pushing away from the lunch table with more than a mild case of indigestion.
Some teams have built a culture of winning and stability, like the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers. Other teams have earned a reputation for frugality and mediocrity. The Redskins under Snyder have developed a culture of money that would have made Gordon Gekko beam. Players and coaches eagerly join the Redskins to secure a huge payday, not to win. During the internet dot-com boom of the late 1990’s, the goal of every internet technology startup company was to make it to a successful IPO where billions awaited in a frothing stock market. After the bubble burst and web businesses evolved into version 2.0, the goals of startup technology companies shifted to the similarly lucrative goal of getting on Google’s radar screen in the hopes that the cash-flush giant would swoop in and buy them up.
Snyder has become the Google of the NFL.
Every NFL player dreams of playing well enough to appear on Snyder’s radar screen and ultimately earning the reward of a rich free-agent contract to play for the burgundy and gold. Only with the Redskins could a player, Robert Henson, respond to boos from fans by tweeting, “…I still made more than you in a year…” This attitude starts with the man at the top.
I have moved beyond wishing that Snyder would relinquish control of the Redskins. That scenario seems about as plausible as a Super Bowl victory at this moment in time. Snyder is a young man, and fans should expect him to occupy the driver’s seat for the foreseeable future. For sure, winning would quickly erase many of the fans’ complaints, and Snyder could yet still find himself – if not adored – at least not continuously blamed for all that is wrong with the Redskins.
No one knows where this journey will end, we can only confidently predict that it will be an interesting ride. Let’s just hope Snyder doesn’t wrap the jalopy around a tree or two along the way.