Washington’s sports identity reflects D.C. region’s population makeup and growth

October 22, 2011

Ask what sort of sports town Washington is, and you’re likely to hear what sort of sports town it’s not.

It’s not Philadelphia or Boston, cities that are gripped by year-round soap operas starring multiple professional teams. It’s not New York, known for a relentless pressure to win championships, or Chicago, considered one of America’s great sports towns.

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.”

About three in 10 of those polled say they have lived here for fewer than 15 years, and more than four in 10 say they plan to stay here a decade or less. Fans complain about visiting fans streaming through stadium gates, and city streets are filled with a rainbow of National Football League team jerseys on Sunday afternoons.

“D.C. feels so much bigger now than it did growing up as a kid,” said Joe House, a lifelong Washington sports fan made famous by his frequent inclusion in Bill Simmons’s ESPN.com columns. “And it feels like because D.C. is so much bigger, it has such a broader fan base. The phenomenon of fans of other sports teams taking over our arenas, that feels like a newer development, something over the past 15 years, not something that felt familiar to me as a kid.”

Some area residents, of course, go through a conversion process of sorts. After a decade, they might begin to accept the local teams and then, once they have children who grow up in the area, finally embrace them.

“Baseball’s about where you grow up; I can’t force my kids to be Dodgers fans,” said NBC’s “Meet the Press” host David Gregory, a native of Los Angeles who is now a fan of the Nationals and Capitals. “For my kids, this is the air they breathe. There’s no question that they’re Washington sports fans.”

For others, a change of loyalties is an impossibility.

“I just don’t care about the Washington Nationals, I don’t care about the Washington Redskins,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said in a recent ESPN radio appearance. “You move to a new city, you don’t give up your allegiance to your hometown team, for gosh sake.”

Which is why virtually all the local pro sports teams are courting a minority audience, even on their home turf. Of area pro football fans, just 48 percent say the Redskins are their favorite team, according to the poll, which was conducted in late August.

Of area baseball fans, 51 percent support either the Nationals or the Orioles, while 16percent favor either the Yankees or the Red Sox. Of area basketball fans, 29 percent choose the Wizards as their favorite team, with a stunning 14 percent identifying the Los Angeles Lakers and 9 percent the Boston Celtics. Of area soccer fans, 42 percent say D.C. United is their favorite professional team.

“In D.C., because of its very nature of changing administrations, you have a new influx of people that come into jobs that change every four years,” said Matt Williams, a vice president with Maroon PR and longtime official with Washington Sports and Entertainment, an area sports ownership group. “For a professional sports team, that really requires a lot of hard work to capture those fans, as opposed to them coming to see the other team.”

‘We’re fair-weather fans’

Washington’s pro teams have mostly been a wasteland of ruined seasons and unmet expectations for two decades, since the Redskins won the third of their three Super Bowls. Of U.S. cities with NHL, NBA, NFL and MLB franchises, only Minneapolis-St. Paul has waited longer for a title, and that is by a matter of months.

While several area college teams have been more successful, this is a decidedly pro sports market; 55 percent of area sports fans favor pro sports and only 10 percent choose colleges, according to the survey. Thirty-five percent say they like both college and pro sports equally.

Today’s high school seniors have been alive to see just one area pro team play for a major championship — the Capitals’ 1998 appearance in the Stanley Cup finals — and that was a four-games-to-none disaster in which fans complained about the influx of Detroit Red Wings fans. D.C. United has won four MLS Cups, but has missed the playoffs for a club record four straight years and is searching for a new stadium.

“Losing is like the Agent Orange of fandom; it’ll wipe out huge swaths of fans,” said McLean native Steve Czaban, who hosts both local and national sports radio shows.

And yet, the region’s fans have demonstrated they’ll support a winner. After becoming one of the National Hockey League’s best teams starring Alex Ovechkin, one of the league’s most exciting players, the Capitals have sold out more than 100 consecutive home games, even while raising ticket prices four straight seasons. The team went from having one of the country’s smallest television hockey audiences to ranking eighth last season. This for a franchise that some in hockey argued should be eliminated less than a decade ago.

“Just a stunning turnaround, and that’s what Washington fans are capable of,” said Kasten, the former Nationals executive.

In fact, 37 percent of area sports fans aged 18-39 have “strongly” favorable views of the Capitals, more than double that of any other area team, according to the survey. The Capitals are chosen as the favorite NHL team by 72 percent of area hockey fans, dwarfing any other local franchise.

“Washington fans are terrific when you give them something to cheer for,” said longtime television broadcaster Steve Buckhantz, an Arlington native.

Still, while some see the Capitals phenomenon as progress, others bemoan Washington as a bandwagon town, where the support could just as easily disappear if losing seasons return.

“There’s definitely a sense that if there’s a cool team to root for or a cool place to be, that team is going to get attention, whether people grew up rooting for them or not,” said Nate Ewell, the Capitals’ former head of public relations.

For evidence, look no further than the Wizards. In 2007, when they were an up-and-coming playoff team, the franchise averaged 18,372 fans, 12th in the National Basketball Association. Three years later, the team was struggling and attendance dipped to 16,204, ranking 21st.

“We’re fair-weather fans, we are,” said Miles Rawls, the commissioner of Southeast Washington’s Goodman League basketball circuit. “Some cities like Philly, they boo you, but they stick with you. Here, from being here my whole life, they’re fair-weather fans. They may not like the Wizards or Redskins, but when we start winning, they throw away their other team, get on the train and ride it till the wheels fall off.”

The longest such ride Washington has known was driven by the Redskins.

‘A lot of pride’

The Redskins found some success in the 1970s and then became a power under head coach Joe Gibbs in the ’80s. Those decades permanently altered the city’s sports landscape, with the Redskins establishing a stranglehold on the region, regardless of success.

“This town is palpably different on Monday mornings when the Redskins win or the Redskins lose,” said Scott Sterling, a New York native who has lived in the D.C. area since the late 1970s. “Do I think that’s crazy? Absolutely. Do I think that’s real? Absolutely.”

Sixty percent of area residents say they care a “great deal” or “somewhat” about the National Football League, while no other pro league interests even a third of area residents. That passion crosses demographic lines. More than 50 percent of area residents, white and black, male and female, of all income brackets and age ranges say they’re interested in the NFL.

“I think as much as any major market that I can think of, there’s the NFL team and then there’s everything else,” said ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt, a Montgomery County native. “Everything else is just a scramble for what’s under the fold of the neighborhood.”

Fans who lived through the Redskins’ glory days — four Super Bowl appearances in 10 seasons — recall it as a time when the entire region felt united by its football franchise, when schools serenaded departing children with “Hail to the Redskins” and streets felt deserted as soon as the team kicked off. They describe it as a time when one sports team helped define what it meant to be a Washingtonian, which is why so many still clutch their worn-out burgundy-and-gold T-shirts and fading memories.

“Everybody was behind them,” said Michelle Benson, 59, who cheered the team buses on as the Redskins returned from the airport following one of their Super Bowl triumphs. “It just made you feel good, to know that your team was nationally known, that people were paying attention to the Redskins. . . . It just made you feel a lot of pride, a lot of pride.”

Which helps explain some of the demographic quirks among area fans. Of those who are at least 65 years old, almost seven in 10 have a favorable impression of the Redskins, according to the survey. That number dips to about four in 10 for those aged 18 to 39, few of whom experienced the Redskins’ best years.

While area residents have similar views of the Capitals and Nationals regardless of where they were born, 68 percent of Washington natives view the Redskins favorably, compared with just 43 percent of those who grew up elsewhere but live here now.

“It’s more meaningful, because it’s been a part of the family,” said writer Steven Krupin, whose grandfather, restaurant owner Mel Krupin, first bought season tickets in the 1960s.

As the region’s cultural offerings and ethnic diversity have increased, some wonder whether any Washington team could again become such a community-wide touchstone.

“Where do people find that inspiration, where do people find that yearning to believe in something bigger than themselves?” asked Luke Russert, a congressional correspondent for NBC News whose late father, Tim, was an unabashed Buffalo Bills supporter. “In Buffalo, it’s the sport teams. . . . Whereas in D.C., yeah, we root for our teams, but we’re much more defined by the brainpower in our city, the politics, the gentrification, the think tanks, the programs. In a town that has so much opportunity, the sports kind of get marginalized.”

And yet Washingtonians say they care about sports, even more so than Americans at large. Eighty-three percent of Washingtonians call themselves sports fans, with 45 percent describing their passion as greater than casual. In national Post polling, 75 percent of Americans call themselves sports fans, with 38 percent saying they’re more than casual fans.

While the pool of Washington residents who root for the city’s teams may be diluted by the region’s population shifts and growth, Washington natives and newer transplants interviewed for this story said they’re seeking such communion through sports.

They include people such as rapper Wale, who frequently refers to local D.C. teams and athletes in his lyrics because “the music, the sports in the city, it creates an environment in the city, and it creates an extra thing for you to be proud of.”

They include Michael daCosta, a construction manager who was raised in Ghana and doesn’t understand American football but wants the Redskins to succeed because “they are my hometown team, I can say.”

And they include people such as Shelby Oakley, a Western Pennsylvania native now living in Fairfax County who cheers for her hometown Pittsburgh teams but wishes the Capitals well.

“I can’t even really tell you why,” she said. “The city is just a much better place whenever the sports teams are doing well.”

Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill, research analyst Scott Clement, polling director Jon Cohen and staff writer Michael Lee contributed to this report.

Dan Steinberg writes about all things D.C. sports at the D.C. Sports Bog.
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