It’s not Pittsburgh, Cleveland or Buffalo, whose civic identities are often wrapped around pro teams with longstanding working-class roots. Neither is it Atlanta, Tampa or Miami, cities known for indifference toward pro sports teams.
“Washington fans are really a wonderful blend of the best parts of Northern tier fans and Sun Belt fans,” former Washington Nationals president Stan Kasten said. “They’re really in the middle.”
Washington, as Kasten sees it, displays neither the generational, salt-of-the-earth passions of the Northeast nor the prefab apathy of the Sun Belt. It’s a conclusion supported by a new Washington Post poll of D.C. area sports fans, an in-depth look into the region’s attitudes toward sports and its major sports franchises.
The area’s sports loyalties and fan behavior reflect many of the salient characteristics of the region as a whole.
Washington residents care more about sports than the national average, but many don’t cheer for Washington teams, reflecting the region’s dramatic population growth and sizable transient makeup. In a city whose power structure is biennially reshaped by wins and losses, fans flock to winning teams and tend to ignore losers. And, not surprisingly, D.C. fans have an inflated view of themselves: 81 percent of area sports fans say the city is an average or above average sports town and 11 percent say it’s the best in the country. Only 1 percent in a recent national poll say the same about D.C.
“I lived in Boston, I lived in Philly, I lived in Columbus, [Ohio], and this is definitely a unique area,” said Gary Williams, the longtime University of Maryland men’s basketball coach who recently retired. “A lot of people come here to work, but they’re not from this area. It takes time to build a fan base, and just as you’re starting to get people interested, all of the sudden they’re gone, they go somewhere else. Politics change, contracts run out. This is a unique area.”
‘D.C. feels so much bigger’
Ronald Montague moved to the Washington area in 1959, going to high school and college in the District and eventually settling in Arlington. He spent his teenage years rooting for the Washington Senators, and remembers attending games surrounded by other Senators fans before the team relocated to Texas in 1971.
When Major League Baseball returned with the Nationals in 2005, though, the crowds had transformed.
“I think Washington had changed,” said Montague, 67, a retired air-traffic controller. “Washington had become more international, there were more people coming from different parts of the country. So when the Nationals came here that first season, there weren’t just Nationals fans. When they played Arizona, there were Arizona fans. When they played the Phillies or Giants or Atlanta, those fans were in the stadium.”