LANDOVER, Md. — Trista Langdon’s task would essentially be to put lipstick on a pig — er, hog — for years to come.
That metaphor wasn’t in the job description when Langdon joined Washington’s NFL franchise as the overseer of FedEx Field in December 2021 after spending 16 years with the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. But she knew she would be charged with sprucing up a dilapidated building … while fans, friends and foes rooted for the wrecking ball.
Langdon’s roles with the Hornets varied, but she most recently ran their events and operations department, managing daily activities of all shapes and sizes that occurred year-round in the 19,000-seat Spectrum Center.
With that experience, and having played — like her brother, former Duke star and current general manager of the New Orleans Pelicans Trajan Langdon — college basketball in Division I, Trista knew she could handle the pressure of running a 70,000-seat NFL stadium. The first test came Jan. 2, 2022, after Washington’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
“You get a call, and you go through the (interview) process, and you have a high-level understanding of the objectives of the building,” Langdon said. “Then you come to work on the first day — and experience it.”
Langdon was in postgame mode on the stadium’s club level following Washington’s loss when her cellphone buzzed. She was told that a railing had collapsed by the field. Fans were involved — along with Eagles star quarterback Jalen Hurts.
Railing at FedEx Field collapses as Eagles’ Jalen Hurts enters tunnel; no fans injured, Washington says
That’s when Langdon’s vision changed dramatically. Any ideas about transforming the Prince George’s County property, which appears older than you’d expect for having opened in 1997, immediately went on hold.
“It was pretty apparent from the day that I got in that we were going take a few steps back,” Langdon said.
Whether season-ticket loyalists or those who stayed away because they were fed up with FedEx, fans have waited years for the organization’s stadium plans to move forward. Not an upgrade of FedEx Field, which was the butt of countless jokes and league-wide derision even before what Hurts described as a “near-tragic incident” or a significant water (sewage?) leak that dumped on patrons early in that 2021 season.
Rather, to somewhere or something new. Not simply for the futuristic amenities that new colosseums offer. They want out of the stadium that’s better described as old than venerable. The one that The Athletic and countless others have declared the league’s worst.
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“I have been complaining about that dump for years,” Eagles longtime radio announcer Merrill Reese said after the railing collapse. Reese chose not to attend that game because of his disdain.
“Almost everything about it is below the standard of what an NFL stadium should be,” one player said in The Athletic’s anonymous poll published last month.
Regardless of the anger and mockery, the staff continues caring for the stadium as well as possible. That job falls to Langdon and vice president of guest experience Joey Colby-Begovich, a perpetually upbeat individual who is the emotional counterweight to Langdon’s stoicism.
“I tend to talk about the nuts and bolts and the not-so-pretty,” Langdon said, “and then Joey brings in all the rainbows and fireworks to ensure our fans have a great time.”
Together, they lead Washington’s effort to produce positive game-day experiences even when the masses arrive expecting the worst. Both have eyes open to their customers’ frustrations, saying multiple times that FedEx Field was “undermaintained” during the years Dan Snyder owned the team.
Billionaire investor Josh Harris, a lifelong Washington fan, leads a deep-pocketed group of partners who purchased the Commanders from Snyder for $6.05 billion in July. He’s already well aware of the maintenance struggles.
“I can’t say I’m super excited when I have to get on an 11:00 call and talk about leaks and bathrooms and puddles and seats that are broken,” Harris said before the season opener.
Josh Harris on the stadium pic.twitter.com/Gdi5UQjTpg
— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) July 21, 2023
The vague timeline for any new digs opening is 2030 … ish. The duo has work to do until Harris finalizes a course of action with D.C., Virginia or Maryland officials and a new stadium is built.
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“All of us are super excited (for) the idea of a new stadium,” Langdon said in September, “but we have a very much functioning stadium … (that we’re) hopeful to continue to maintain and bring back up to standard. We’re here to ensure all of our great Commanders fans are coming in and seeing value in the stadium and the product we’re putting out every day.”
Maryland state and local officials, led by Gov. Wes Moore and Lt. Gov Aruna Miller, have aggressively sought to keep the franchise in the state. Economic and transportation investments along the Blue Line Corridor near FedEx Field include $400 million in state funding.
“The Commanders have called Prince George’s County home for 25 years, and Governor Moore is committed to continuing this long-standing partnership,” said Carter Elliott, Moore’s press secretary. “Governor Moore looks forward to continuing conversations with the Commanders about our vision for the future of the Commanders in Maryland.”
The team owners, including NBA legend Magic Johnson, have spent ample time making the local rounds to re-engage fans and the ticket-buying public. So far, so good. The franchise that ranked last in attendance percentage last season (85.9) has announced sellouts for all five home games. Fans and skeptics returned for the Sept. 10 opener against the Arizona Cardinals, which doubled as a celebration following Snyder’s long-awaited departure.
“It was a great day here,” Langdon said, “and we felt the emotions of our fans.”
Sponsors are also back. The organization has 13 new deals since the ownership change. There are also partnerships with the Air Force and Air National Guard.
Those making their first appearance of the season for Sunday’s game against the Miami Dolphins will notice a difference from previous visits. New video boards, LED enhancements and upgraded sound systems headline the $40 million investments.
Harris loves mentioning “ingress and egress,” a technical way of saying they’re seeking ways to limit traffic jams on the way to and from the stadium. That’s already occurring, as in-and-out times have decreased by 40 minutes, per a team spokesperson.
The managing partner hopes to see the football team cook opponents on the field — and food workers be able to cook in the kitchens.
“I mean, one of the things we didn’t have enough of? Ovens,” a perplexed Harris revealed.
More mending is coming. Some matters are challenging to tackle in-season, and the sale occurred less than a month before the preseason opener. There are forward-thinking expenditures that will allow the franchise to reuse expensive equipment at a new stadium. Expectations for 2024 include the final phase of sound system upgrades, a premium loge area that will “function as a high-end, exclusive, day-club experience,” and automated food and beverage installations across the stadium.
These and other efforts won’t turn every frown upside down. Complaining about FedEx Field is now in the bloodstream. A team spokesperson said that “winning cures all” isn’t a mere saying — fan satisfaction surveys score higher after victories. But the Commanders are now 4-8 and headed to a seventh consecutive season without a winning record, with no obvious path to a quick turnaround.
Colby-Begovich said his career has been built on “removing points of friction from guest experience.” Even Sisyphus thinks that task seems impossible in this scenario. Still, his desire for all visitors to have a great experience is sincere.
“When fans experience points of friction, I do take that personally,” Colby-Begovich said. “I am deeply invested in the way that we recover that service.”
Through negative and positive feedback, the planning continues.
They train their staff about the “quirky” venue, like which specific roads to enter from to park in a designated lot. Food, beverages and non-football entertainment experiences are available in all stadiums. Why not make their options the best possible?
“These are soft things,” Colby-Begovich said. “Trista is working on hard things like welding and joints —”
“And roof membranes,” blurted Langdon.
That’s an actual term that, in this instance, involves floor coating and joint expansion in the 400 level — essentially the roof to the executive suites — to cut down on leaks and other water intrusions due to lack of maintenance. Some equipment has a lifespan of 12-15 years. FedEx Field’s third decade is around the bend.
Unfortunately for the organization, another maintenance blooper occurred after Washington’s most recent home game, when both locker rooms were without hot water afterward. An equipment failure with the main water heater could not be resolved without turning off the water, which was an impossibility with thousands of fans in the stadium, according to a team spokesperson. The Giants opted for cold showers rather than a stinky situation on the train ride home.
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That came nearly two years after Langdon dealt with her first FedEx Field mishap. Spectators angling for an autograph or a picture with Hurts piled onto a temporary portion of the stands. Their collective weight caused it to break, and they fell in Hurts’ direction. Fortunately, Hurts and others avoided significant injury, though several spectators sued the Commanders’ organization.
Langdon and professionals steeped in stadium analysis spent the next few days determining what happened and what’s next. They reviewed structural seating throughout the stadium. Deficiencies were found and rectified.
Not long after the railing collapsed, Langdon got lost on the way down to the field because the closest elevator bank to her location did not go to that level. So very quirky. As the lack of hot water showed, another stadium fumble is never far behind.
Several more years of FedEx Field oddities remain. Langdon will continue plugging holes, while Colby-Begovich announced in November that he accepted a position with MLS’s Chicago Fire franchise. He will remain with the Commanders through the end of the regular season. That’s another six weeks for potential troubles — and good times.
“We spend a lot of time listening to how we can make sure those failures never happen again,” Colby-Begovich said. “Yes, it is emotional. It is personal. … We want the 65,000 people who come here to have the time of their lives without a moment of challenges.”
Langdon and Colby-Begovich recognize that all the fresh paint and smiles won’t satisfy some customers, or many, or even most. But until they get new orders from their bosses, breathing life into the stadium continues, whether the masses want it or not.
(Top photo: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)
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