“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.
Media outlets are scrambling to keep pace. The Washington Post has added a second beat reporter to cover the team. At WJFK, the Nats’ flagship radio station, ratings for game broadcasts have tripled, and the station airs more Nats talk than ever, according to program director Chris Kinard.
“There’s a ton of interest in the Nats, and I think it’s going to grow and grow,” Kinard said.
But editors and programmers say that nothing lights up phones and drives ratings and online traffic like the Redskins. The fan pool is enormous. According to a recent Post poll, football is roughly three times more popular than baseball nationally. And the Redskins are a particularly popular franchise.
“The NFL is such a monster, the Redskins are such a monster,” said Kinard, who hears every day from baseball fans who feel slighted by the football focus. “Oh, they’re very vocal, which is great. That shows passion. But they should focus on making the Nationals more popular. This is a business, and we’re going to follow the audience.”
The Nats have streaked to the top so fast that they may have disoriented their potential fan base, which has had little reason to rally behind a team that was among the worst in baseball. Since arriving in 2005, the Nats had never posted a winning record and lost more than 100 games each in 2008 and 2009.
Suddenly, they’re the best team in baseball, and weekend crowds are now reliably big and loud. But the team’s thrilling pennant race still often unfolds in front of a half-empty house.
“Good morning everyone!! Great game last night but we need more people at the park!!!” tweeted Nationals shortstop Danny Espinosa after a measly 17,648 watched them clobber the Cubs on Tuesday night.
Nationals executives contend that weeknight attendance is soft all over baseball and that the Nats’ overall jump in attendance is bigger than anyone predicted when the season began. Ticket sales are up 20 percent over last year, and the team has jumped from 20th to 14th in major league attendance. They were expected to pass the 2 million mark Friday night for the first time since the new stadium opened in 2008.
“The Nationals are only seven years old, we’re still a start-up franchise,” said chief operating officer Andrew Feffer, who expressed nothing but delight with the bear hug his team is getting from area fans. “Isn’t it great? They’re coming up to me saying they can’t sleep, this is so exciting.”
The team doesn’t see sports love as a zero-sum equation, Feffer said, and it doesn’t view the Redskins as a competitor. His ideal is the omni-sport loyalties of a kid he saw on a local soccer field this summer: Nats cap, Capitals jersey and Redskins T-shirt.
“You’ve got kids in this town who didn’t have a baseball team to follow for 30 years and now they follow all the teams,” he said.
Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, who transformed his hockey team from a niche sport to a sell-out powerhouse, agrees that any winning franchise helps all the others.
“We’re all trying to build great teams so that this is a world-class sports town,” said Leonsis, who is a Nationals season ticket holder. “The Nats have the best record in baseball, they have an exciting team and they play in a beautiful building. They’re going to be good for a long time, and that’s only a positive for all of us.”
Leonsis sees the District evolving into a Philadelphia-like sports scene, where all four major teams enjoy significant support. But Dallas may be the better model.
Like Washington, Dallas is known as a football town. Like the Redskins, the Cowboys are a colossus astride the landscape. The Cowboys are still immensely popular, but they haven’t been to a Super Bowl since 1996, and their unpopular owner is perceived as a meddling rich guy. (Eerie, isn’t it?)
Into that vacuum stepped the Texas Rangers, who have been to the World Series the past two years and look like a contender again. Now 42,000 fans show up, on average — the third-best attendance in baseball. And local media are making time to talk about them.
“Before, baseball was just something to fill the gap until Cowboys training camp started,” said Jeff Catlin, program director of KTCK sports radio. “Now we can talk about the Rangers day in and day out through the whole season.”
In Washington, with the Redskins widely predicted to post their fourth losing season in a row, the suddenly winning Nats have a similar opening. In recent years, a lot of bartenders couldn’t even find the baseball game on their cable systems. Now there are known Nats spots, including Duffy’s Irish Pub in Northwest and Tune Inn on Capitol Hill, and all sports bars are seeing more baseball fans.
“Last year not a single soul would ask us to put on Nationals games,” Cam Khazai, 27, a manager at Black Finn in Bethesda, said last week. Above the bar, half the sets were tuned to the Nationals-Marlins game, and half to the final Redskins preseason game against Tampa Bay. “This year people come in all the time to watch the Nats, they’re wearing their red gear, they’re asking for the audio.”
Even Redskins fans are paying attention. Several of the burgundy-and-gold-clad fans who were watching the Redskins’ last preseason game down the street at Hanaro Restaurant said they were also rooting for the Nationals.
“Best team in baseball,” declared Daniel Ross, an optician wearing a Redskins jersey, hoisting his drink. “Go Nats.”
But when one person in the crowd asked to have one of the two TVs above the bar switched to the Nats, he was instantly shouted down.
“No way,” yelled Velia Reyes, 25, wearing a Santana Moss jersey. “They both have to be Redskins.”
“Baby, it’s preseason,” said Ross. “It doesn’t matter.”
“No,” she insisted. “When my Redskins are on, I don’t care about anything else.”
Restaurant co-owner Gene Han shrugged and left the TVs alone.
“It’s hard to go against the monster,” he said, meaning the Redskins, not Reyes. “The Nats are definitely getting there, but the Skins still rule.”