After the Capitals closed out the Penguins this month to advance to their first Eastern Conference finals in 20 years, Tony Kornheiser suggested that Washington’s fan base would look back on this season with fondness, regardless of how the team fared in the next round. That idea didn’t sit well with fellow former Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon.
“I haven’t said this in a while, but what I used to say and got in trouble for locally, Washington, D.C. is a minor league sports town,” Wilbon told Kornheiser on ESPN’s ‘Pardon the Interruption,’ the talk show they’ve co-hosted for the past 17 years. “It’s because of opinions and attitudes like that. … I don’t want to hear any fan, or they are lame and minor league in this town, who says winning two series and beating Pittsburgh to go 1-5 in the [Alex] Ovechkin era, or whatever it is, is enough. That’s lame. That’s Miami- and Atlanta-like.”
As Wilbon acknowledged, this wasn’t a new take. In a 2012 issue of ESPN the Magazine, he described D.C. as a “terrible” sports town. About a week later, he took back that assessment and labeled D.C. a “pretty good sports town,” as documented on the Bog by his former colleague, Dan Steinberg. During last week’s episode of “Posting Up,” The Post’s NBA podcast, my friend Tim Bontemps gave Wilbon the chance to elaborate on his criticism of D.C. as a minor league sports town, and he did, during a conversation that lasted more than 20 minutes.
“Calling it a minor league sports town, which would infuriate me if somebody called my hometown that, is the nature of the fan base, and part of the disadvantage of being in a place where everyone’s from somewhere else,” said Wilbon, who was born and raised in Chicago, but has lived in D.C., Maryland or Virginia for the last 38 years and acknowledged that his adopted home town has been great to him. “Part of it is something D.C. cannot help, because you have this transient nature of the place, which also makes it a wonderful place and better than most other places to live. But it doesn’t make it a great sports town. Are you listening to me millennials? D.C. millennials? And Steinberg? So, here’s the deal. I ask people all the time: Why don’t you go to the Caps? Why don’t you support the Wizards? ‘Well, because I’m a Redskins fan.’ Well, see, that’s not the case in New England, and in Chicago, the upper Midwest, in Detroit, in New York. It’s not the case in Philly. People don’t say, ‘Well, I can’t go to the Sixers, because I follow the Eagles.’ See, that’s D.C., and if all you can do is follow one thing, you’re minor league.”
While the NFL remains king in D.C., as it does in many cities with multiple pro sports franchises, D.C. sports fans have demonstrated they can and will support more than the Redskins. The Nationals have outdrawn the Tigers, Phillies, White Sox and Mets — to name just a few of the teams from cities Wilbon mentioned — in recent years. D.C. sports fans are into the Capitals, who have sold out more than 400 consecutive home games and are facing elimination in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals on Monday. Doesn’t the fact that D.C. went bonkers after the Capitals’ second-round triumph against the Penguins fly in the face of Wilbon’s argument that the city’s sports fans, by and large, only care about the Redskins?
“I contend that if Alexander Ovechkin walked up a six-block stretch of Georgia Avenue, one in four people would know who he is,” said Wilbon, who suggested the Capitals will never be No. 1 in the D.C. sports pecking order, no matter how many Stanley Cups they win.
Wilbon then mentioned The Team 980, the radio station owned by Redskins owner Daniel Snyder’s Red Zebra Broadcasting, at least until this week, as another symbol of D.C.’s status as a minor league sports town. (While The Team 980 morning drive co-host Kevin Sheehan has admitted to not being much of a Capitals fan, the station has talked a good amount of hockey during the Capitals’ playoff run. Meanwhile, 106.7 The Fan — the flagship home of the Nationals and Capitals — offers plenty of non-Redskins-related discourse throughout the year.)
“I’m not going to wake up and listen to talk about the Redskins in the middle of May, and June, but apparently our town does, and when you do that, it’s lesser,” Wilbon said. “How about that, if I don’t use minor league? It’s less than Boston. It’s less than Philly. It’s less than Chicago. It’s less than L.A. It’s less than San Francisco. It is. It’s less than Seattle, even though they took a team out of there. Believe me, it infuriates me. I live in a place where there’s four sports, golf tournament, tennis tournament, we got sports, man. … So, I’m not saying it like gloating or anything. I’m glad that I’m from somewhere where that doesn’t happen, where every sport can be No. 1 if they earn it. [Chicago] was a Blackhawks town for 10 years, and then the Cubs took it away, and now it’s a Cubs town. Who knows what it’ll be next? I don’t know. But the glory is, if that name is on your chest, that’s who you support, that city.”
Bontemps asked Wilbon if he ever feels bad criticizing D.C. as a sports town.
“Yes, because I married a D.C. girl,” Wilbon said. “My son is being raised in greater Washington, D.C. My dearest friends in my 30-some years here are like David Aldridge, who is a true Washington sports fan. You should be angry at your teams when they’re not good. And you should be in love with them all the time. My dearest friends care about D.C. sports. My neighbors, my family. I feel a little bad, but when I hear morons say, ‘Well the Redskins won three Super Bowls in the ‘80s and ‘90s, how many Super Bowls did the Bears win?’ That doesn’t determine whether you’re a great sports town. That determines that your franchise had a great run, and that’s a great thing to have. I wish I’d had it.
“But that’s not what makes a great sports town. Fill in the seats when they [stink]. That’s what makes a great sports town. Living through ‘The Process,’ and going to the games anyway in Philly. That’s what makes a great sports town. [Note: The Sixers ranked 28th or worse out of 30 teams in home attendance from 2014-16.] The Red Sox losing for 100 years, the Cubs losing for 100 years, and filling Fenway and Wrigley, whatever filling meant at the time. It didn’t always mean plus capacity, but it meant big attendance numbers. That’s what being a great sports town means.”
Wilbon said he sees some hope for D.C. to graduate from its status as a minor league sports town, primarily “because the Redskins stink.”
“I think it’s changing,” he said. “I run into people who go support the Wizards, who support everything more. And they’ve sort of subtracted themselves from the Redskins, which works against what I’m saying. … It’s a sports-light town. It makes it better as a place to live in other ways. There are other things. Again, I chose it for 38 years. It’s one of the greatest places on Earth to live, but don’t expect me to make the argument, Mr. Steinberg, that it’s as good a sports town as the ones I’ve been naming.”
Listen to Bontemps’ full interview with Wilbon here.
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