Washington, DC: Not Just a Redskins Town, but a Great Sports City

Mike FrandsenCorrespondent IOctober 28, 2011

Washington Nationals fans cheer on Stephen Strasburg in 2010. Photo by Mike Frandsen.
Washington Nationals fans cheer on Stephen Strasburg in 2010. Photo by Mike Frandsen.

Washington, D.C. may not be the best sports town in the country, but it deserves a lot more credit than it usually gets.  In fact, D.C. is an excellent sports town that supports more teams in more sports than just about any city in the U.S. 

The Washington Post, a marketing machine that bores its tentacles further and further into the belly of local radio, TV and the Internet all the time, recently had the gall to call D.C. a “mediocre” sports town. 

Don’t pay attention to such drivel, though, because the writers behind the series for the most part have only been in town for a few years, and they overlook many of the aspects of D.C. sports fandom that make D.C. sports fans unique. Virtually none of the columnists who criticize D.C. as a sports town, many of whom live off the reputation of the once great Post, hail from the area. 

D.C. can’t be judged on its lack of recent championships or blamed because people want to live here. Examine the loyalty of fans through good times and bad, and you’ll find that D.C. stacks up well with almost any major city.  Washington hasn’t won a pro sports championship in 20 years other than the four Major League Soccer trophies DC United took home.  Yet D.C. fans are remarkably passionate in supporting our teams. 

The most egregious oversight of the poll conducted by the Post is the failure to differentiate between locals and non-locals. Fans from the area are passionate about their teams as much as or more than those from any other city. Those who have been in D.C. for just a few years, for example, the columnists for the Post, are less apt to embrace D.C. teams. That would be true of any city.  

D.C. shouldn’t be penalized because it has a plethora of activities to offer, and people move here more than to just about any other city.  The D.C. metropolitan area has steadily grown during the last 10 years, according to the U.S. Census.  In 2000, the D.C. metro population was less than 4.8 million. In 2009, nearly 5.5 million people lived in the metro region. 

DC United fans may be the most rabid in MLS. Photo by Mike Frandsen.
DC United fans may be the most rabid in MLS. Photo by Mike Frandsen.

Much of this growth has occurred during a down time for D.C. sports. The Redskins have made the playoffs twice in the past decade. The fledgling Nationals have never had a winning season. The Caps have experienced a resurgence with superstar Alex Ovechkin, but have failed in the playoffs. The Wizards are, well, the Wizards. 

By not differentiating answers from natives and out-of-towners in the poll and therefore lumping statistics together, the Post’s results are skewed toward people who do not have strong loyalties to area teams. Furthermore, the poll didn’t define “casual fans,” so it included people who identified themselves as such, which could have meant extremely casual fans who don’t know much or care much about sports.   

The poll results also misspelled Jurgensen, and included Larry Brown under basketball instead of football.  It was an odd decision to ask people to identify their favorite soccer team and choose from D.C. United and the men’s national team, thus reducing the tally of United fans.  Another problem with the poll was that it took a snapshot of how D.C. supposedly is now as a sports town, but ignored D.C.’s great sports history.  

One of the measures of D.C. as a great sports town is that it is one of the very few cities that is home to franchises in all five major sports, plus has at least one major college basketball and major college football team. Don’t say MLS isn’t a major sport, because the average MLS game attendance in 2010 was better than that of both the NBA and the NHL.

Maryland, just a few miles away from the district line, qualifies as a Washington area university. How many other cities can support teams from this many sports? You can count them on one hand—Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia

Redskins fans wait to get a glimpse of players at training camp. Photo by Mike Frandsen.
Redskins fans wait to get a glimpse of players at training camp. Photo by Mike Frandsen.

Philadelphia sneaks onto the list, but only because Temple is a somewhat relevant football program again, as it was sporadically during the last century.  New York? They have no major college football, unless you count Rutgers, but the stadium is 20 miles from the city.  Dallas has no major college basketball. If you include WNBA teams, then cross Philly off the list.  

The Washington area has also been host to four U.S. golf Opens, the Kemper Open golf tournament for nearly three decades and a pro tennis tournament for more than 40 years.  Speaking of tennis, the World Team Tennis Washington Kastles were deemed important enough to be assigned Venus and Serena Williams.      

D.C. has always been a unique sports media market.  From the late 1970s to the 1990s, local D.C. TV sportscasters became stars, and they set national trends that are still in effect today.

George Michael’s 30-minute “Sports Machine,” complete with background music, helped bring upon the explosion of highlights that are now seen nightly on ESPN.  His sports round table discussions led to shows such as “Pardon the Interruption.” 

In fact, George’s sports TV shows are where Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon got their start on TV, arguing issues of the day. Though they often disassociate themselves from D.C. on PTI, Kornheiser and Wilbon, who each spent three decades covering D.C. sports, are watched daily by millions across the country. 

The ESPN round table shows have their roots in the D.C. sports media.  Finally, George’s longtime backup in D.C., Scott Clark, became a No. 1 sports anchor in New York for 25 years. 

Warner Wolf also helped popularize the extensive use of highlights on local TV news, and the D.C. anchor brought his act to New York in the late 70s.  D.C. stations devoted more time to sports than newscasts in most other cities, setting trends for the nation.

Caps fans support the most underachieving playoff team of all time. Photo by Mike Frandsen.
Caps fans support the most underachieving playoff team of all time. Photo by Mike Frandsen.

Glenn Brenner was most likely the funniest sportscaster of all time.  His wry jokes and unique banter with other anchors were copied by ESPN sportscasts. More recently, countless D.C. area sportscasters have gone national to ESPN. 

Before the days of cable TV, coverage of the Redskins in D.C. outpaced nearly every other NFL city in terms of volume. In fact, so many of the Redskins of the ‘80s became local and national media members themselves, that they became trendsetters for other athletes today.

In January 1985, Joe Theismann became the second NFL player ever to broadcast a Super Bowl while still playing in the league. Even offensive linemen became media stars. Mark May has been one of the premier college football analysts in the nation for 20 years. 

Ken Beatrice, a staple of D.C. sports radio going back to the late 1970s, helped start the monster that is sports talk radio. D.C. is also one of the few cities to have two sports talk radio stations.  And despite its mediocre writing of the last few years, the Washington Post has long been considered one of the leaders in sports coverage in the U.S.      

Onto the teams. A look at D.C. sports teams shows that fans in the metro area are considerably more loyal than they are given credit for, given what they have had to root for in recent decades. 

The Redskins are the fourth-most valuable franchise in the world behind Manchester United, the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees.  The team’s glorious history includes three Super Bowl championships and five appearances.

D.C.'s international fans watch Yi Jianlian of the Wizards take on Yao Ming in 2010. Photo by Mike Frandsen.
D.C.'s international fans watch Yi Jianlian of the Wizards take on Yao Ming in 2010. Photo by Mike Frandsen.

The Redskins are still a hugely popular team today despite two decades of mostly losing seasons, and an owner that has alienated fans by employing a strategy of signing over the hill free agents that would have caused most fanbases to abandon ship long ago.  

Redskins tickets have been sold out for four decades, and no matter where the Redskins play on the road, burgundy and gold can be seen in the stands. 

At the 2008 Hall of Fame induction ceremony of Art Monk and Darrell Green in Canton, Ohio, the seats were packed with Redskins fans. Monk got the longest standing ovation in the history of the Hall of Fame.  Few teams in any city experience the support the Redskins receive from fans no matter how many times Lucy pulls the ball away from Charlie Brown.  These are the things that can’t be quantified by polls.  

Attendance for the Nationals has been respectable considering that the Nats haven’t had a winning season since the team came here in 2005. In fact, there have only been four winning baseball seasons in D.C. since 1937, and D.C. had no team at all between 1972 and 2004. 

Still, the Nats have averaged more than 26,000 fans per game, not bad for having no restaurants or pubs near the stadium, and a TV station that fades to black after many of the games conclude. Don’t forget that Washington fans regularly drove an hour up I-95 to contribute up to half the attendance at Baltimore Orioles games before the Nationals came to town. 

Don’t believe the myth that Washington isn’t a great sports town and New York is. The Yankees have 27 World Series championships but unfortunately, their spoiled fans haven’t been very loyal, except during recent years.  From 1913 to 1945, and again from 1962 to 1975, the Yankees never averaged more than 20,000 fans per season. 

Redskins fans start early in Washington. Photo by Mike Frandsen.
Redskins fans start early in Washington. Photo by Mike Frandsen.

From 1989 to 1996, the Yankees never averaged more than 30,000 fans despite winning a World Series title in 1996. For the first five years of the Washington Nationals’ franchise, the Nats averaged more fans than the Yankees did from 1992-1996. 

As for the Capitals, the fans are among the loudest in the NHL, and that’s according to fans and media from traditional hockey cities. It’s a myth to say that the Caps’ fans are new to the party, though. Washington has had good fan support for a quarter century, even though the Caps have never won a Stanley Cup in their 37-year history. Since 1985, the Caps have only twice averaged fewer than 14,000 fans per game. The franchise has had 14 seasons with double-digit sellouts. 

And most impressively, Caps fans are some of the best in North America, remarkable for a team that has underachieved more often in the playoffs than any team in the history of American sports. In a city where lakes rarely freeze enough to skate on, the Caps have sold out every game in each of the last two seasons. Speaking of which, last New Year’s Day, thousands of Caps fans traveled to Pittsburgh to see the Caps take on the Penguins. 

Admittedly, the Washington Wizards don’t have the best fans of all the D.C. teams.   But that’s what three decades of losing will do for you.  Even worse was the incomprehensible name change from Bullets to Wizards in 1997.  Our history was stolen.

Sports fans everywhere should hope that such an indignity never again happens to a pro sports team.  From the late 1980s to the 2000s, management marketed the opposing team’s players.  

Redskins fans give Art Monk a 5-minute standing ovation at the 2008 Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio. Photo by Mike Frandsen.
Redskins fans give Art Monk a 5-minute standing ovation at the 2008 Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio. Photo by Mike Frandsen.

Only recently has ownership made an effort to remember the glory days of the Bullets.  But even the new owner, Ted Leonsis, is rebuilding the team so slowly that the franchise remains near the bottom of the NBA, where it has floundered with the L.A. Clippers and Minnesota Timberwolves, the worst teams in the league over the past 20 years.  The point is that Wizards fans have had to put up with more than fans of almost any other team. 

The name Bullets was once synonymous with winning, as they made the playoffs 18 times in 20 seasons from 1969 to 1988. In the 1970s, the Bullets appeared in four NBA finals, winning in 1978.  The Bullets, with two of the NBA’s all-time greats in Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, were a national draw. 

Game 4 of the finals in 1978 was played before 39,457 at the Kingdome, the largest crowd ever to watch a single professional basketball game. Game 3 of the finals in 1979 was held in the Kingdome in front of 35,928. 

While it’s fashionable to say the TV ratings were low for those series, that simply wasn’t the case. In fact, the 1978 Bullets-Sonics finals received higher TV ratings than both the 1980 finals with Magic Johnson’s Lakers against Dr. J’s 76ers, and the 1981 finals featuring Larry Bird and the Celtics vs. the Rockets. 

The 9.9 Nielsen rating the 1978 Bullets-Sonics series garnered was pretty good for the era preceding Larry, Magic and Michael. That rating was better than ratings for each of the finals from 2005 to 2009, which featured stars such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. 

When the Bullets returned to Dulles Airport after winning the title, nearly 10,000 cheering fans were waiting for them. The Bullets later rode in a victory parade from the Capital Centre to the District Building.

While the WNBA has a low Q Rating compared with men’s pro sports leagues, the Washington Mystics’ infamous “Attendance Champions” banners show that D.C. supports a greater variety of sports teams than almost any other city.  

D.C. United has been one of the most successful franchises in MLS over its 16-year history.  The fans at 50-year old RFK Stadium shake the bleachers and create an atmosphere that is among the very best in the league.

With three fan clubs banging drums and waving banners, United fans rival those of soccer teams in Europe and South America. Most won’t remember, but 30 years ago the Washington Diplomats were one of the most successful franchises in the North American Soccer League, averaging nearly 20,000 fans per game, and selling out RFK for games against the rival New York Cosmos. 

College basketball is a big deal in the D.C. area, more so than most other major U.S. markets, including New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia.  The University of Maryland is known as one of the toughest places for opposing teams in the ACC to play. 

The metropolitan area is also host to former national power Georgetown, and three more teams that have recently made it to the NCAA tournament—George Mason, George Washington and American.  In any case, Maryland and Georgetown are major programs that have been top 25 teams for much of their history.

While the D.C. area has only one major college football team within the beltway, the University of Maryland, metro area fans support Virginia and Virginia Tech as if they are local.  In fact, the media gives Virginia Tech coverage as if they are a D.C. team, even though Blacksburg is about a million miles away. 

You also won’t find a more diverse sports town than D.C., with more black fans at NBA and NFL games than at most other arenas and stadiums. The same could be said for the Hispanic contingent at United matches. 

So D.C. shouldn’t bow down before the so-called great sports cities. People love to talk about New York, Boston and Chicago but it’s easy to generate interest when the Yankees win multiple World Series, seven teams in Beantown win titles in a decade or the Bulls win six championships in eight years. As good as they are, these sports towns are overrated. 

Philadelphia deserves a spot near the top of the list, and blue-collar cities like Cleveland and Detroit merit consideration, but none of these cities has the variety of big time sports that Washington has. 

The future looks bright in the nation’s capital.  The Caps’ young, talented players are ready to make a playoff run. The Nats are on the way up. The Wizards have nowhere to go but up. And the Redskins are finally doing things the right way.  Loyal D.C. fans are starved for winners and will be getting them soon.   

D.C. is an excellent sports town.  With its numerous major teams and sporting events, history of media that has led the way for the nation and underrated fan support despite decades of mediocre to bad play and playoff failures, D.C. is unquestionably one of the best sports towns in the country.


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