Success breeds hope for long-suffering Washington, D.C. fans
During the player introductions before every Wizards game, the Verizon Center P.A. announcer, in his most melodramatic baritone, refers to Washington as, "the most powerful city in the world." When I moved to D.C. 15 years ago and first heard this, I found it odd that the pregame script would include a line meant to emphasize the prestige of city, instead of the team.
But now that I'm a full-fledged Washingtonian, I understand that it plays into our civic narcissism. It fuels our overarching sense of self-importance, which provides us with the following identity when it comes to sports:
We think we're a better sports town than we are.
As a group, our fans are not as passionate or invested as those in Chicago, Boston or Philadelphia. But we've convinced ourselves that we are. Our teams don't win championships as often as New York's, but we feel we deserve their level of success.
Washington's sports identity is informed by the fact that we are, to a certain degree, a transient city. As the government turns over every four years, so does a portion of the population. To be sure, there are fans here with generations of history rooting for the Redskins; but go to a bar on Capitol Hill on a winter Sunday and you'll feel like you stepped into an NFL merchandise showroom, with patrons wearing jerseys representing nearly every team. They are congressional aides, committee staffers, White House interns, Supreme Court clerks, pages, flacks, lawyers, diplomats, lobbyists and assorted political aspirants that make up a significant portion of Washington life; and many of them just passing through.
Of all Washington's pro teams, the Redskins are the only one with a meaningful historical heritage. The Burgundy and Gold have been a fixture in the capital city since 1937. The three Super Bowls they won during the Joe Gibbs era cemented the team's relationship with its fan base -- a bond that has withstood even the erratic stewardship of Daniel Snyder. Comparatively speaking, the other teams in town are newcomers.
The Bullets/Wizards only moved to D.C. from Baltimore in 1973. While they did win a championship with Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes in '78, they have now been so bad for so long that whatever institutional, citywide affection may have once existed for the franchise, has long since evaporated. I don't get the sense that old men in Washington gather their grandkids around the Thanksgiving table and tell stories about the good old days at the Capital Centre in Landover.
Likewise, the Capitals, for all their current popularity, have only become a fully-integrated part of Washington culture since the arrival of Alex Ovechkin. Before that, ice in Washington was most commonly found in the left lane of the beltway during a winter squall, or in a vodka tonic. In 1998, when the Caps made the Stanley Cup finals (they were swept by Detroit), the two home games at MCI Center were famously filthy with Red Wings fans. It would have been hard to call Washington a hockey town back then. It is becoming more of one now, but one wonders if that enthusiasm will sustain if the team regresses in a post-Ovechkin world.
The Nationals were the first D.C. team to take specific action to prevent hostile invasions by opposing fans. Having grown tired of their snazzy new stadium being overtaken by Philly loyalists, the team instituted the "Take Back the Park" campaign earlier this year. Management imposed limits on the number of tickets that could be sold to customers outside the Washington metro area. The Philly faithful were offended, though not nearly offended as they would be to find themselves 16 games behind the Nats at the end of September.
For a team in just its seventh year of existence, the Nationals have done an admirable job of slowly but steadily growing their fan base. Still, there are certain inherent challenges when it comes to achieving consumer buy-in with a franchise this new. The most comical has been their effort to get Washingtonians to hate the Orioles. They have marketed their two annual interleague series against the O's as "The Battle of the Beltways", trying to drum up a rivalry between the two teams where none really exists. Fact is, most people in Washington used to root for the Orioles. Between 1972 and 2004 while D.C. was baseball-free and the O's were our home team. Camden Yards is just 30 miles up the road, so braving the I-95 traffic to catch some Boog's BBQ and a few innings of that Ripken fellow became a Washington tradition in the '80s and '90s. Hate the Orioles? Heck, even today when they sing the national anthem at Nats Park, we scream "Ohhhh!" at the start of the final two lines. Don't they know that "O" stands for Orioles?
College basketball could be a tent under which all of Washington gathers, but we're still working out the details. We have two world class programs here in Maryland and Georgetown, each of which has won national championships in the past three decades, but the two schools refuse to play each other. An annual matchup between the Terps and Hoyas would be one of the marquis events on the Washington calendar -- sports or otherwise. It has all the makings of a Hatfield vs. McCoy venom-fest: the elite private school against the behemoth public university; the Big East against the ACC; the suburbs against the city. But because of some vague feud that developed decades ago between Lefty Driesell and John Thompson, Jr., the two schools can't share the same gym. It's a shame on both their houses. Now that John Thompson III and Mark Turgeon are running things, one hopes common ground might be located, but nobody seems to be in a rush. Maryland is too busy being obsessed by their rivalry with Duke -- an obsession that is not close to mutual.
Someone once described Washington as being like Hollywood, but for ugly people. We are not the glambots and the fashionistas; we are the policy wonks and the political operatives. And maybe that self-image has helped form our city's sports zeitgeist, namely: we will never be superstars ourselves, so let's buy some. That certainly seemed to be the management mindset for a while in Washington. The names Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Jaromir Jagr and Michael Jordan all come to mind as players who seduced us with their past achievements and marquis value, but made little long-term impact between the lines.
Still, bearing in mind the immutable sports axiom that if you're bad enough for long enough, you'll eventually be good, it seems Washington's sports scene is now trending in the right direction. Each of the city's four major pro teams now boasts at least one young marquis star that they drafted themselves (Ovechkin for the Caps, John Wall for the Wizards, Robert Griffin III for the Redskins and the combo of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper for the Nats). The watchwords impatience and haphazard, once the hallmarks of sports ownership in Washington, have been replaced by the measured and thoughtful approaches of Ted Leonsis (Caps and Wizards) and Mark Lerner (Nationals), who seem hell-bent on not repeating Snyder's missteps. The net result for this city's sports landscape is a word that Washingtonians have heard before -- one that leaves roughly half of us inspired and the other half wary: hope.