Ode To The District: Sports Edition Monday May 28, 2012

As mentioned in a previous post, as The Turners near our final hours in The District, I’m planning to take a few moments to jot down some thoughts of my favourite elements and observations of this great city. So what better way to start this series of odes off, than by talking about one of my favourite subjects – sports.

Washington D.C.: The Worst And Best Sports City In America

I know this statement seams odd, but here me out. When you’re talking about the local sports scene the most common theme is that Washington is uniquely positioned as simultaneously one of the best and worst sports cities in North America. But to understand how a city can be both in the same breath you have to understand the make-up of The Washington metropolitan area (or The District or The DMV).

First off, Washington D.C. is geographically located at the cross roads of Maryland and Northern Virginia and is essentially the tail-end of the North-Eastern Corridor. The area that encompasses the Metro Washington D.C. area is home to approximately 5.5 million residents. Of that figure of course only 600,000 people actually live within The District of Columbia. (To put it in perspective when you talk about Washington D.C. proper it’s not that much bigger than Saskatoon or Regina). The majority of the population lives in the surrounding satellite cities of Virginia or Maryland. In addition, it’s also the political epic-center of the United States, so not only is it a populous region, but you have high a percentage of highly educated and high income earners in a fairly compact area. Which in a nut shell is why Washington is one of the best cities for a sports fan in North America.

The population demographics and economic stability of the Washington Metro area makes it a prime location for each of the major leagues to have an entity. It’s pretty much a mandatory market to have a team in and it’s why the city has the Redskins, Caps, DC United, Wizards and since 2005 the Nationals. (Which of course also doesn’t count collegiate powerhouses such as The Georgetown Hoyas, University of Maryland Terrapins and 30 minutes Northeast with the Ravens and Orioles)

But in the same way that the demographics suggest that The District is a prime place for the any sporting enthusiast, it’s demographic structure also make it one of the worst sporting towns in North America.

See, the problem with the DMV (District, Maryland, Virginia) area is that only a fraction of the population is actually from the area. Of course I’m stereotyping and guestimating an unscientific stat, but from our personal encounters with citizens of The District, I’d say that only between 20-30% of the population is from the area.

If you think about it, the key industries that draw people to The District are Government, Defence, International Appointments, Tech (tied to the Defence industry) and of course Higher Education. Most of these sectors are based on term limits or a set time, which in turn makes the population base very transient. Which from a sports standpoint makes it very difficult to build a foundation of ravenous support for any team (not named the Redskins). Plus the population base in which to build a following from is most likely going to have established ties to certain teams. If you did a random survey of people in The District, I bet you would find that most are originally from Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, The Carolinas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan or any of the other North Eastern states… including Pennsylvania. Which of course already have well established followings for the four major leagues.

The “Loser City” Mentality

The other big issue in The District, is this incredible Loser City mentality…

If you exclude DC United (which is the winningest franchise in the MLS), the last franchise to win a championship was the Mark Rypien lead Redskins of the early, early 90s. Yes, that 1991. The only reason I can even remember that win is because Rypien was a Spokane graduate AND they had a half-time show which included In Living Colour. So the city hasn’t seen a glimpse of a championship in almost 20 years.

And I understand that many cities have similar droughts, but of those cities how many have a population base in the 5 million range? How many of those cities have had teams that have been a spectacularly bad as Washington? The Redskins for all their wealth and popularity have been one of the perennial losers in the NFL. The Wizards, well besides that two year stretch before Arenas pulled a gun in a locker room, have been a constant joke. The Caps (albiet the most successful team in DC since Ovechkin came to town) have never won the big prize and last made the Stanley Cup finals in 1998. And of course, the Nationals, which although look to be on the up swing now, saw their best days during the lockout shortened season in Montreal.

It all combines to breed a perennial notion of loserdom which taints each of the city’s sporting franchise and is only reinforced by the majority of the non-Washingtonians who support other franchises. If you want an example just look at some of the tweets from shortly after the Caps unexpected seventh game one-goal loss to the New York Rangers… (Remember the Caps barely squeaked into the playoffs, upset the reigning Stanley Cup champions AND pushed the #1 seed Rangers to 7 games)



So if you take the issues with the population base and then mix that with this perennial loser mentality you can understand while most people in Washington are either indifferent to their local teams or would rather perpetuate the loser mentality to be cool… It’s like the Toronto sports mentality on steroids.

Washington D.C.: RedskinsTown

So let’s get back on track here and talk sports.

If you’re unfamiliar with the local scene and history, Washington is without a question a Burgendy and Gold RedskinsTown. It’s been this way for decades.

The Redskins dominate the papers and the most menial of player transactions will push the best Caps or Nats news to the third or second page. If you want to know how ravenous and blinded by the Redskins Washington is, just look at the extent the current Mayor Gray is going to try and lure them back to practicing in Washington.

Yes, Practice. We’re only talking about Practice, not even the game. We’re just talking Practicing in D.C. … Now compare that with the luke warm reception D.C. United has received in trying to build a modest stadium in the gentrifying South-Eastern Marina and you’ll get my drift.

So as you can see The Redskins pretty much rule the town with all the other franchises just fighting for the attention of the rest of the fan base.

But in regards to the rest of the teams, and of course I’m biased, I honestly think that the Capitals since ex-AOL giant Ted Leonsis took over, have become the number two team in the region. Yes, some people will say the Nationals, as The Major League Baseball entity, are number two, but in regards to actual fan support the Nationals really rely on the population’s transient demographics to sell seats. Of the five games I’ve attended 40-60% of the fans have been supporters of the other teams. To prove my point just this past month The Nationals organization had to make a public attempt to ban Phillies fans from home games. And similar to the Nationals, the Wizard only sell out games when the Heat, Lakers, Bulls or Celtics come to town. Heck, just this season you could have bought an all you can eat ticket at a Wizards game for 30 dollars.

To be honest, if the Capitals continue to establish themselves as a successful franchise, I have a feeling they’ll surpass the Wizards (whom I think they have already surpassed) and possibly with continued success the Nationals. If you combine the Caps current grass-roots popularity and sell out streak with a continued reputation as a successful franchise on and off the ice, it’s really only a matter of time before people accept the team as the expectation to the D.C. sports scene.

All they really need is a good run to the finals or better yet to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.

My Experiences within the D.C. Sport Scene

Now that I’ve got my explanation and general observations of D.C.‘s sports scene dynamics off my chest, I guess it’s time to explain our time here. After the past two and a half years of hot dogs, football scarves, cheap seats and sun burns, I can say that being a sports fan in D.C. has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life.

Yes, as odd it is to be in a town where every loss is further ridiculed and ever win is tied to a caveat of lowered expectations, D.C. is still a fantastic place to be a sports fan.

I’ve had the chance attend at least six Nationals games and for the first time I can now say I truly understand the cultural significance of the American Ballpark. While Baseball on T.V. will probably never be my cup of tea, I do get the cultural ties and love of an afternoon at the ballpark. Luckily for Washingtonians, Nationals Park is a gorgeous stadium and incredibly accessible. (Again, is there anything better than a mid afternoon baseball game and a shake shack burger… regardless of the score.)

If you’ve been following my posts or twitter account, you’ll also notice that I’ve become a huge D.C. United fan and I’ve really enjoyed the MLS. As much as Soccer is lambasted in North America, there is something endearing about heading down to the rusted and hollow confines of RFK Stadium to attend a D.C. United game. Yes, they play in an antiquated stadium that feels like it’s one lightening storm from self combustion, but it’s a fantastic experience. The supporter clubs of D.C. United give the games an almost European football stadium vibe that will be better enhanced once a more suitable pitch is resurrected.

I’d love to comment on my personal experiences at FedEx Field and the Redskins, but oddly enough when we arrived the one sporting advice we received was to never attend a Redskins game. And yes, we received this advice from more than one Washingtonian. Turns out that since Washington is a die-hard Redskins town, FedEx field is about as friendly and as accepting to outsiders as Philadelphia’s notorious Veterans Stadium. (And yes our other ex-pat Canadian friends regretted attending a game, so we weren’t just being ninnies.) So rather than subject ourselves to that disappointment, we instead invested our money in the much friendlier confines of Baltimore’s MT&T Bank Stadium and The Ravens. By my wife’s obsession with the Purple and Black, you can pretty much tell how much of an amazing experience that has become.

Coming from the one horse hockey town of Calgary, the move to Washington has become one of my most memorable experiences. As a ravenous fan of most sports, having the MLS, NHL, MLB, and NFL within a short Metro ride or taxi cab has been a dream come true. And as much as the city’s continuous mentality of negativity towards it’s own teams has driven me nuts, the city itself is a fantastic place to be a sports fan. Some of the most memorable moments of our time in D.C. will revolve around humid nights at RFK, cramming into the Verizon Centre to Rock The Red or gorging on a classic Ben’s Chilli Bowl Half-Smoke at Nats park in a mid-summer afternoon.

After two years, I’ve got to say you’ve spoiled me D.C. and as a sports fan you’ve built some lasting allegiances.

Categories: the-dc, the-dc-united, The Capitals, The Nationals, The NBA, The Ravens, The Redskins, The Southern Neighbours

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