The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nationals are D.C.’s favorite team, Post poll finds, as Redskins’ popularity plummets

The Nationals' first World Series appearance thrilled Washington baseball fans this past October. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

A World Series title coupled with years of on- and off-field blunders by the local football team have reshuffled the sports hierarchy in Washington, and the Nationals are now clearly the city’s favorite sports franchise, according to a poll from The Washington Post.

More than one in four D.C. residents — 28 percent — name the Nationals as their favorite local team, four times the number that named them in 2010. Meanwhile, fandom for the Redskins, long the dominant sports team in the region, has plummeted, with just 13 percent of Washingtonians now calling the Redskins their favorite local team, down 21 percentage points from 2010.

The Nationals and Redskins are followed by the Capitals with 10 percent, the Wizards and Mystics, both at 8 percent, and D.C. United at 6 percent. Under a quarter, 23 percent, say they don’t prefer any of the local teams.

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The Post poll was conducted Nov. 12-17 among a random sample of 905 adult residents of the District and carries a margin of error of plus or minus four points. The poll did not include residents of the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. It marks a unique snapshot in time, capturing fan sentiment in the District just two weeks after the Nationals claimed their first World Series title and a month after the Mystics won the WNBA championship. But it also came right in the heart of the football season.

So the results underscore the elation that surrounded the Nationals’ postseason run but also the precipitous fall for the local football team. For years, the Redskins were the toughest ticket to get in town, dominating television ratings and water-cooler chatter.

In poll results released in March 2010, about 1 in 3 District residents — 34 percent — named the Redskins as their favorite team, far more than any other professional sports franchise in the region. That was 11 seasons into Daniel Snyder’s tenure as owner, just three of which had resulted in playoff appearances, and the team was coming off a 4-12 season that resulted in the firing of coach Jim Zorn. The Nationals were about to embark on their sixth season in Washington, having finished the previous season 44 games below .500, and just 7 percent of polled Washington residents said they were their favorite sports team.

Since that time, the Redskins’ continued struggles in the standings have manifested themselves in the stands as many fans have aimed their ire at Snyder and team president Bruce Allen, who has run the front office for nearly 10 years.

Full poll findings and methodology

The poll results reveal stark divisions among demographic groups. While 43 percent of white Washingtonians name the Nationals as their favorite local team, just 5 percent name the Redskins. Black Washingtonians are more divided: 21 percent name the Redskins, and 18 percent chose the Nats. Whites are more likely than black D.C. residents to name the Capitals (15 percent vs. 6 percent) or D.C. United (6 percent vs. 2 percent) as their favorite team, while black residents are more likely to pick the Wizards as their favorite Washington team (14 percent vs. 2 percent).

In addition, Washingtonians who have lived in the city for 20 years or more are more likely to say the Redskins are their favorite team than those who have lived in the city for less time. Almost 2 in 10 (19 percent) say the Redskins are their favorite, compared with about half as many who have lived in the city for 10 to 19 years and 4 percent who have lived in the District for fewer than 10 years.

For some, it’s not really a complicated question.

“The Nationals,” said Nathaniel Cruz, 35, a lifelong Washingtonian, “because they win. To be my favorite team, you got to prove it. You got to win.”

That could be said in many towns, but the Nationals’ October run galvanized a region still basking in the afterglow of the Mystics’ championship and the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup title.

Baseball fan Dave Vorland, 35, moved to Washington in 2009 with an allegiance to the Chicago Cubs. But he said it was easy to adopt the Nationals as his favorite D.C. team. He even bought into a shared season ticket plan this year and was a regular at Nationals Park for the team’s title run. He said many people move here and find the Nats easy to root for.

“There are probably a lot of people who are not willing to support [the Redskins] because of the name,” he said, “and then, frankly, they’re just really bad, and I think that hurts people adopting them as their second team or their favorite team in a transient town.”

The poll results also indicate a major generational shift. A younger generation that didn’t experience the Redskins’ glory years has less affinity for the local football team. While the Nats have steady support among all age groups, the Redskins’ highest support is among Washingtonians 65 and older (22 percent say the Redskins are their favorite team) and that support weakens with each younger age group: 15 percent among those 40 to 64 years old, 11 percent among those 30 to 39 years old and only 6 percent among those 18 to 29.

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Nate Karch, 74, remembers a time when a seat at a Redskins game was hard to come by. He used to buy Ravens’ tickets and drive his kids to Baltimore on Sundays instead. While tickets to FedEx Field are now readily available — they were selling for as little as $6 on the secondary market this past weekend — Karch, like others, says he has issues with the team’s owner and the team’s nickname. Rooting for the Nationals isn’t nearly as complicated.

“I really thought they were doing a lot of the right things in acquiring players,” he said, “and I really liked the way they were being managed. It certainly was fed by their success.”

In part because of a sluggish start, the Nationals’ season attendance was actually slightly down last season — the 27,899 nightly average was the franchise’s lowest since 2011 — but by October the team had captured interest across the region. More than 16,000 fans gathered at Nationals Park to watch the seventh game of the World Series, which was taking place in Houston, on the video scoreboard.

The seven World Series games averaged a nightly rating of 23.3 in the Washington market — meaning nearly one-quarter of the TVs in the market were tuned in — and the Nats’ Game 7 win earned a 31.8 rating, with more than half of televisions in use in the area turned to the game. It was believed to be the highest baseball rating the District has seen since the Nats arrived in 2005.

The team’s popularity has grown steadily over the past decade as it has posted eight straight winning seasons with five postseason appearances. By contrast, this season will mark the Redskins’ eighth losing campaign in the past 11 years. The most recent of the Redskins’ three Super Bowl titles came in 1992, when the team was the dominant force in Washington sports.

“Whatever second was, it might as well have been five spots from the top. That’s how big the Redskins were and how consumed with the football team this city was,” said Kevin Sheehan, a native Washingtonian who hosts a weekday radio show on the Team 980.

This season, the Redskins are 1-9 and fired their head coach, Jay Gruden, last month. They haven’t posted a home victory since October 2018. The announced paid attendance at Sunday’s loss to the New York Jets was 56,426, the lowest the team has posted since a December 2013 game that drew an announced crowd of 56,247 in wintry conditions.

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The current season average of about 67,000 fans, according to the Redskins, represents a steep drop from 10 years ago, when the Redskins announced an average of about 85,000. In the past 10 years, the team has removed seating options to lower the stadium capacity and has revealed that its fabled years-long waiting list to purchase season tickets no longer exists. Television cameras and social media posts regularly show large swaths of empty seats, with many of the fans dressed in the visiting team’s colors.

“What’s been happening with the Redskins has been happening for a long time,” said Eric Bickel, the longtime co-host of the “Sports Junkies” on 106.7 the Fan. “It seems like it’s bottomed out recently, but it’s been trending this way for at least 10 years.”

This probably will mark the seventh straight year that local TV ratings have fallen for the Redskins broadcasts on Fox — the predominant network for NFC teams. In 2012, those games averaged a 25.9 rating in the Washington market during quarterback Robert Griffin III’s rookie season and have since plummeted. The Fox broadcasts are averaging 15.2 in the market this season, and Sunday’s loss to the Jets registered an 11.7, one of the lowest numbers in years.

“If you’re younger and you missed out on the joy and euphoria that came with a Redskins winner, you have no emotional connection to the team,” Sheehan said, “so there’s nothing inside of you waiting for the team to turn it around. The Nats and Caps are providing young people what Redskins gave people my age: a winner.”

Scott Allen, Ben Strauss and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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