In a single October, the Washington Nationals generated more goodwill and goosebumps than their NFL counterparts have in a quarter century. Over the past 18 months, the generation of sports fans growing up here has reason to expect something positive from almost all other quarters — from baseball, from hockey, from women’s basketball, optimism all around. With those pursuits, the investment of time, of emotion, of money might actually pay dividends. Who knew?
But football? Football? Please.
This is a different sports town than it was just a year-and-a-half ago, before the Capitals won the Stanley Cup, before there was a World Series trophy to parade around, before the Mystics, too, brought home a WNBA title.
The team that’s left behind in all this — by a margin that seems to grow wider by the week — is the Redskins. Viscerally, that has felt true for, what — three, five, 10 years? But now we have data to back it up: What once was inarguably and inexorably a Redskins city is no longer. Those “District of Champions” t-shirts? They’re not being printed in burgundy and gold.
Pick apart the information loaded in the Washington Post poll on the fandom of District residents. It’s fascinating. That more Washingtonians consider the Nationals their favorite sports team shouldn’t be surprising in a survey taken in the weeks following the World Series. Recency bias, of course. That those identifying the local football team as their favorite has plummeted since a similar poll was taken in 2010 — 34 percent then, 13 percent now — fits with the changing fortunes of not just the Nats and the Redskins, but others, especially the Caps.
But the jumps-right-off-the-page finding is the one that shows the Redskins at the bottom of a well, with no ladder to climb and no phone with which to text. The percentage of District adults under 40 who list the local football team as their favorite: 8. Eight percent. That’s essentially one in 12 young adults who prefer the Redskins above all others. For the same age 18-39 group, the Nats register at 28 percent, the Caps at 15 percent, the Wizards at 10 percent, United at 7 percent and the Mystics at 6 percent.
Logically, it makes sense, and we’ll get into why. But to see the women’s basketball and pro soccer teams within two percentage points of the once all-powerful NFL team is nothing short of astonishing.
Sure, there are caveats. The poll is of District residents only, leaving out what could be Redskins strongholds in the suburbs. The timing comes in the midst of a disastrous football season for the locals, and it’s cast against the recent championships won by other teams. Yada, yada, yada.
Explain it away however you want. That single number makes one element of sporting life here clear: The football team, which mixes constant losing with various and sundry other transgressions, isn’t testing the allegiance of an entrenched fan base. For a generation or more, it has provided no reason for an allegiance to form. When there are other teams in which the investment of time, money and emotions doesn’t seem wasted, it’s worth wondering whether consistent winning by the Redskins — as foreign a concept as that seems — would bring back a fan base this team never even had.
It’s a shift so gradual as to be imperceptible as it was happening, but seismic when you see it reflected in these numbers. Washingtonians in their 40s and 50s and 60s were raised, by and large, as Redskins fans and Redskins fans above all else. They bounced in the stands at RFK Stadium. They reveled in the successes of Riggo and Monk, of the Hogs and Coach Gibbs. Heck, Darrell Green might be the greatest cornerback of all-time, and for the entirety of his 20-year career, he was nothing but a Washington Redskin. Those Washingtonians of a certain age celebrated three Super Bowl titles. They bought the tickets and the jerseys. They never missed a game. That’s the stuff that makes a fan base unshakable.
But to Washingtonians in their teens and 20s and even 30s, that stuff reads like folklore. Gather ’round the fire and let Grandpa tell you what it once was like. Grainy film and tall tales, nothing in HD.
Those same folks are living through the World Series and the Stanley Cup achievements. And the disparities between the experiences color everything. Want to feel good as a Washington sports fan? Flip on the TV for a Max Scherzer start or for Ovi from the left circle. On Sunday afternoon? Get the shopping done.
For years, I’ve believed that kids in the District are growing up not as Redskins fans, but as Nats or Caps or Wizards fans. Yeah, it’s anecdotally based. But I feel like we’re living it. Measure that concept, unscientifically, however you want.
Take Halloween costumes. In the fall of 2012, I remember trick-or-treaters dressed up as Robert Griffin III. Since? I can’t recall a single Kirk Cousins or Ryan Kerrigan or Trent Williams. Maybe I missed them. But I didn’t miss the Bryce Harpers (until this year) and the Trea Turners and the Juan Sotos — not to mention the Alex Ovechkins and Braden Holtbys.
And it’s not just kids. A Washingtonian born after the football team’s last Super Bowl victory could be as old as 27. Unless this current team wins its final six games — cue the laughs — this will be the 12th time since then Washington will lose at least 10 games in a season. The experience of being a consistent force, of winning double digits eight times in nine seasons, as this franchise did from 1983 to 1991, is from yesteryear, ancient history.
How best to quantify the 27-year-old football fan’s experience? Try this: In his or her lifetime, NFL teams have produced 186 seasons of at least 11 wins. Thirty-one of the 32 franchises have at least one 11-win season. The lone outlier: Washington.
And the playoffs? Worse. In that span — in which a Washingtonian is born, forms rooting interests, graduates from high school and becomes a member of the workforce with decision-making power as to where to put her or his disposable income — the football team has three playoff victories. That’s one playoff win every nine years. Only Cleveland, Detroit and Cincinnati have fewer.
You can no longer mention the dregs of the NFL without including Washington.
The most recent Redskins playoff victory around here came following the 2005 season. What else happened in Washington sports that year? Oh, nothing, other than the two elements that transformed sports in this town more than any others: Baseball returned after a 33-year absence, and Ovechkin made his debut with the Capitals.
What’s the relationship between the erosion of the Redskins’ fan base and the rise of others in their midst? Hard to quantify. Yet instinctively, you would have to think there’s a correlation. If the football team had kept winning over the past quarter-century, then there’s no way the Nats would outrank them as the District’s favorite team.
But think of it this way, too: Whether the Caps ever won the Stanley Cup or the Nats ever won the World Series or the Mystics ever took the WNBA crown, the football team would have stumbled all over itself. That happened whether baseball ever returned, whether Ovechkin was ever drafted, any of it.
The Redskins’ self-inflicted wounds would have happened on an island or in a vacuum. But what the Post poll shows is that the District isn’t a sporting island or vacuum. It’s a vibrant, engaged sports city that responds like any other to those moments that, whether in real time or years later, make the hair on the back of your neck stand straight up, make the dust land just so in the corner of your eye.
The football team hasn’t provided those moments or memories for a generation or more. It’s now fair to ask, even if it somehow won again, who would be left to embrace it?