“You listen to the radio, and there’s already more discussion about the Redskins’ fourth-round draft pick than the Nats’ first winning season,” lamented Munir Mohamed, 22, a finance student at George Mason University. “This is such an exciting time for baseball, but I wonder if the Nats can ever get the attention they deserve here.”
With the start of the NFL season this week, the Nationals are about to find out how much love even a winning baseball team can command in a city so famously crazy for football. Even bad football.
Such is the grip of the Redskins that water-cooler and media buzz around a mediocre NFL squad still, sometimes, can swamp an actual pennant race.
Last month, after a preseason Redskins game shattered a local TV ratings record and dominated sports talk radio and the chatter around his campus for days, Mohamed posted a discussion thread titled “D.C. won’t ever be a baseball town” on a Nationals fan forum. There were dozens of sympathetic posts, with boundless zeal for the Nats’ remarkable surge to the postseason.
Then the thread dissolved mostly into a debate over whether the Redskins had given too much for their much heralded rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III.
“They just dominate everything,” sighed Mohamed, who grew up in Springfield.
After 33 seasons with no baseball team and seven with an awful one, few baseball lovers expect a single winning season to displace the Redskins, a club with an 80-year history and furiously loyal fan base.
But the Nationals now boast baseball’s best record and some of its best stories, including Bryce Harper’s breakout and Stephen Strasburg’s shutdown. Many fans see this as a first test. How deep an inroad can the Nats cut into Washington’s sports culture? What would a division title do? A pennant? How about, dare we say it, a championship?
“You can’t ignore a World Series winner,” said Gerald Martin, a hospital technician in a Harper jersey who was buying a hot dog at Nationals Park on Tuesday as the team routed the Chicago Cubs with six home runs. He paused. “Can you?”
The Nationals and the Redskins will never meet on the field of play. But that doesn’t stop fans from engaging in all sorts of could-Spider-Man-defeat-Superman-style hypotheticals: What, say, would get more attention in late October? Game 4 of a National League Championship Series or Game 4 of a Redskins winning streak?
Nats fans think they know.
The Nationals are far from being ignored, of course. Average attendance has topped 30,000, the biggest increase in the major leagues. Their once-minuscule TV ratings are up more than 60 percent, averaging about 57,000 households. (The first Redskins preseason game posted more than 215,000). Retail sales of curly W caps and other Natswear has tripled, according to retail analyst SportsOneSource, outselling all but five major league teams.