The line between Ravens and Redskins territory, if such a thing existed, might run directly through the halls of Reservoir High, a Howard County school located just west of Interstate 95 about halfway between downtown Baltimore and Washington.
It would run between the offices of school resource officer Jason Hall — a founding member of the school’s Redskins Fan Club, whose walls are plastered with Redskins memorabilia — and assistant athletic director Josh Sullivan, a Ravens fan since the franchise arrived in Baltimore in 1996. Between freshman Sydney Lanham, whose grandfather attended Redskins games at Griffith Stadium, and her friend and North Laurel neighbor Alex Hedgren, whose mother recently wore purple on 17 straight days in honor of the Ravens.
And it might snake right through the Fulton school’s gymnasium, where Ann Rager and Jamie Davis — friends and neighbors in the southeastern nook of Howard County for more than 15 years — recently discussed the passion that divides their 20723 zip code.
“I grew up a Redskins fan, and I’ve always been a Redskins fan,” said Rager, 50.
“I was thinking about getting a Ravens tattoo this week,” interjected Davis, 49.
As the Ravens prepare for Sunday’s Super Bowl — their second championship game appearance and 21st playoff game over the past 13 seasons — fans and media members have revived the nearly annual debate about whether Redskins fans should cheer for a Baltimore team in the postseason. The Ravens’ long run of success has coincided with an extended downturn for the Redskins, who have played just four playoff games in that span, but who enjoyed an on- and off-the-field resurgence in 2012 behind rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III .
While the Redskins struggled and the region’s suburbs expanded in recent years, the Ravens openly courted suburban Washington fans, holding a 2012 practice in Anne Arundel County, putting preseason games on Washington television and regular season games on 1500 AM radio, and beefing up their presence on Comcast SportsNet, which sent 22 people to New Orleans for the Super Bowl.
“I think we’re still growing in the Washington market,” said Ravens President Dick Cass, himself a Montgomery County resident. “I think there are a lot of fans in both markets that will follow the other team with interest. If you’re a Redskins fan, you’re not going to be a Ravens fan, but I think you could follow us with interest.”
But in the swath of land running from northern Montgomery and southern Frederick counties southeast through Laurel and beyond, the question is less whether to support a rival city off in the hazy distance than whether to support your next-door neighbor’s favorite team.
“It breaks down by family,” said Carl Hedgren, a Ravens season-ticket holder who lives in North Laurel’s Cardinal Forest development. “You don’t have many split families within one house — you have a Redskins family next to a Ravens family.”
Plenty of suburban areas, of course, have split sporting loyalties. Connecticut has the Yankees and Red Sox, New Jersey the Flyers and Devils, and the Bay Area the 49ers and Raiders.
The Route 216 corridor in southeastern Howard County, though, seems unusual in the apparent exactness of its divide. A half-mile from the 10-year-old high school, the sports bar Looney’s has dueling Redskins and Ravens menu cards and segmented viewing areas — Redskins fans use the big screen upstairs and to the right, and Ravens fans head for the big screen downstairs and to the left.
“Even just three miles north, it’s more Ravens,” said Looney’s regular Doug Brand, 56, a Montgomery County native.
“Exactly,” fellow Redskins fan Andy Burke agreed. “Here, it’s mixed.”
A short drive further southeast, the Rocky Gorge driving range plays host to a divided crowd of football-obsessed customers; cashier Joe Whitehair estimates his clientele is 60 percent Redskins fans during the week, and 60 percent Ravens fans on Sundays.
“If the Ravens are playing, mostly Redskins fans will be there. If the Redskins are playing, then the Ravens fans are out in force,” said Whitehair, who grew up and still lives in the Laurel area. “If both teams are playing, I have absolutely no business whatsoever.”
Follow 216 over the Prince George’s County border into the city of Laurel, and Mayor Craig Moe will don a Ravens shirt or tie in honor of the team’s “Purple Friday” promotion, despite being born a Redskins fan.
“You know, I think it’s split right down the middle, at least in the city of Laurel area,” he said last week. “We’re at that halfway mark.”
And venture into the suburban neighborhoods that feed into Resevoir, and the line between Ravens and Redskins explodes into a swirl of burgundy and purple.
Rager, for example, grew up in Beltsville as a Redskins fan, and kept her two children in line, but her sister now lives further north and cheers for the Ravens. Davis, her friend and neighbor, roots for the Ravens, as do her two children. But her brother across the street supports the Redskins, and her close friend is dating a Hogette.
“I know a lot of Redskins fans in our neighborhood,” said Rager, arguing that the team has maintained its hold in what was once a strong Redskins community.
“And I know a lot of Ravens fans in our neighborhood,” said Davis, arguing that the Baltimore franchise’s reach extends throughout all of Howard County.
The county line is a natural divider between the two franchises. According to NFL rules, the Redskins have exclusive marketing rights in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, meaning M&T Bank — a large Ravens sponsor — cannot display the Ravens logo in those D.C. suburbs. The Ravens, meanwhile, have exclusive marketing rights in the rest of Maryland, meaning Harris Teeter — a large Redskins sponsor — cannot use the Redskins logo in its North Laurel location, barely 10 miles from the Washington Beltway.
North Laurel, like the rest of Howard County, is classified as part of the Baltimore television market, where Ravens broadcasts averaged a 35.1 rating (equal to an average audience of about 380,000 Baltimore-area households) and 56 share (percentage of televisions in use) during the most recent NFL regular season. But Ravens TV ratings are healthy and apparently growing in the D.C. television market, averaging a franchise-best 13.1 rating this season and setting two postseason records. (Redskins games averaged a 27.5 rating and 52 share in the D.C. market.)
Howard County executive Ken Ulman is a Ravens fanatic; he owns four Ravens jerseys, flies a Ravens flag outside his Columbia home and is taking a trip to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. But his neighbor across the street has a Redskins helmet painted on his basement wall, and in a nod to his county’s split loyalties, Ulman bathed county buildings in both burgundy and purple lights this month.
“It really is nuanced,” Ulman said. “Look, Howard County is in the center of Maryland. We're the kind of place where if the wife works in Annapolis and the husband works in Bethesda, or the husband works in downtown Baltimore and the wife works at NASA Goddard [in Greenbelt], you pick a house in Howard County. We really are in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area.”
County demographers say that approximately a third of in-migrants to Howard County hail from the Baltimore region, while about 30 percent come from the District and its suburbs. (Most of the rest come from out of state.) And while the Ravens have pursued sports fans in the D.C. suburbs, their pitch is aimed mostly at younger undecideds and new arrivals rather than longtime Redskins fans.
The county “is growing rapidly; a lot of people have moved into the area since the Ravens arrived, and a lot of those people became Ravens fans,” Cass said. “We’re really not trying to take Redskins fans. That’s a lost cause. We’re just trying to market ourselves to people who are moving into the area and to the fans that we already have there.”
Reservoir High is filled with such people. About five miles to the south sits Paint Branch High in Montgomery County; Athletic Director Heather Podosek said a clear majority of her students are Redskins fans. About five miles north is Hammond High; AD Joe Russo estimated 70 percent of his students are Ravens fans.
But at Reservoir, no one can decide which team is ascendant. Three years ago, faculty and students said, the Ravens seemed to have the upper hand. Griffin’s arrival and Washington’s playoff push, they said, evened the playing field again. Several students said the Redskins-Ravens game this season was more discussed in the hallways than Ravens-Steelers or Redskins-Cowboys rivalries.
Hall, the school resource officer and Redskins fan, wore RGIII socks to Saturday’s basketball game. Brenda Hedgren, a parent and Ravens fan, wore a purple sweater and purple jacket. Junior Leo Brown, wearing a Washington Capitals sweatshirt, insisted that his school has more Redskins fans than Ravens. Four feet away, sophomore Michael Gunther was equally convinced that his school has more Ravens fans than Redskins.
“When you grew up a certain way, it’s kind of hard to let go,” said Reservoir parent Lamont Frazier, a Redskins fan from North Laurel. “But I root for the Ravens, too. They’re not in the same conference. I can root for them.”
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