21 April, 2014


Reflections on the Post’s Survey of Our Sports Town Standing

If you haven’t read Dan Steinberg’s Washington Post essay on the District’s standing as a sports town, which ran on A1 this past Sunday, you really ought to. It’s underpinned by a significant survey of the region’s sports patronage/consumption patterns, and the analytical narrative Steinberg constructs is thoughtful and provocative. We’ve long known that we aren’t a great sports town; we’re also probably of a consensus that we aren’t real good, either; but we bristle I think when the partisans from other municipalities attempt to label us a “bad” one. Steinberg attempts to uncover the truth of where we lodge with our ballpark and arena passion, and just as importantly, find out why we are the sports town that we are.

Turns out, as a sports town we’re somewhere in the middle — not real good, certainly not awful. Steinberg offers a bit of a comparative continuum which posits cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo as distinctly passionate about their teams — the very civic identity of those towns is directly related to the teams, Steinberg suggests — versus a set of sports apathetic outposts found in Atlanta, Tampa, and Miami. We’re somewhere in between on that continuum. Sounds about right to me.

Of course, I’ve been one who’s long suggested that big media in these parts have played a lead role in limiting — undermining, actually — the perception of Washington as a sport town. Tourists and business visitors to our city are fairly forced into the perception that D.C. only cares about one team each morning they pick up the big paper or tune in to the local television sportscasts. To some extent — especially with respect to NHL hockey — this self-fulfilling myopia bred a countering, insurgent new media alternative.

If there’s a shortcoming to Steinz’s piece I’d point to its deference to a longstanding (cliched, really) scapegoat for our perceived inadequacy: that the cultural foundation of D.C. is the federal bureaucracy, bringing with it, among other traits, unavoidable transiency. For one thing, D.C. has become a high-tech haven over the past 20 years, delivering high-income, durable, roots-planting occupations, which in turn has helped drive dramatic development across the region. Concurrently, there has been exponential growth in federal contracting, and contracting careers, and the only thing that outlives death is a federal contract. But I’m not sure it matters any more whether you’re in D.C. four years with an administration or 40 with a lobby shop. The ubiquity of digital media, the voracious information consumption via hand-helds — and Washington is as wired as any city in the world — renders occupational consideration in this discussion, I think, moot. And doesn’t it say something that we now have two around-the-clock sportstalk radio stations operating here?

I think there are very specific features unique to D.C. that damn us as a sports town, separate and distinct from a one-trick-pony media. Up at the very top — and Steinberg certainly captures this, if in somewhat muted tones — is the conspicuous absence of winning. And not just winning, but winning as a well-managed sports entity. The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t win the Super Bowl every year, but isn’t it commonly accepted that they’re an especially well-run outfit, competitive every year? And further, that the Redskins are not much run like the Steelers are? Interestingly, Steinz amplified this sentiment in Tuesday’s Post, in responding to readers on line. “[A]t some point, I think ownership needs to accept some responsibility for repeated failings over years and years,” he wrote. “And I mean more about the Abe Pollin-led Wizards than the Daniel Snyder-led Redskins, although both would qualify.”

Snyder. To me — and I speak as one who in his Washington youth slept in Redskins pajamas, and toted a Redskins lunchpail to school — Snyder is a plague. We are rightly mocked by the fans of other NFL teams for giving him safe harbor here. I wish I had a dime for every instance I heard a Washington sports fan email me or address me at the rink with ‘If only Ted [Leonsis] owned the Redskins.’  There are two constants to Snyder’s reign of error-terror: His team will lose, and somewhere along the way he’ll freshly speak or act in a manner that gravely offends the sensibilities of our civilized community. Like suing a financially strapped grandmother or creative, civic-minded journalists.

The hope — the expectation — is that now that the pro basketball team is owned by Leonsis better days are ahead. (Of course, they actually have to play for that to happen.) But Ted inherited a spectacularly dysfunctional, decades-long-in-decay entity with the Wiz. That was Abe Pollin’s doing, and Steinz is right to remind Washingtonians of it.

Washington, too, has a physical infrastructure problem with its sports teams, in my opinion. Verizon Center is fine (spectacularly located, turns out). But FedEx Field might be the most reviled big stadium in the entire country. It is a monument mostly to the ineptness of D.C. government, in forcing the Redskins to flee the District to find a much-needed new home. It takes forever to get out to, forever to return from, and while you’re there you’re fairly pilfered out of your retirement savings in attempting to feed your family or wet your whistle.

I’ll raise some eyebrows and provoke some rebuke with my thoughts on Nationals Park, but I maintain that the Nats, in going cheap and with a cookie cutter design, have cultivated, durably, below average attendance on nights when the ace isn’t pitching. It’s not so much that Nationals Park is bad — it isn’t; it’s that to me it suffers comparatively by virtue of its proximity to one of the finest baseball stadiums in all the world, Camden Yards. Put it this way: If I’ve a chum in from out of town who’s a real seamhead, and both the Nats and O’s are home and I’m seeking to deliver to my buddy the more memorable stadium experience, I’m taking him up to Charm City. Note that Camden Yards opened in 1992 and took all of one year to secure Major League Baseball’s All Star game. I’m sure the Nats will get that game one day; it’s just that there’s little clamor from seamheads around the country to fly in and take in a game in our new baseball stadium. For good reason. Again, it’s not a dump. It just suffers as alternative to a classic design up the Beltway. I’m really surprised the Nats didn’t give that greater consideration on the drawing board.

Anyway, we have a bunch of pro teams, but only two of them compete in a stylish home. And we really only have one owner in town who stands as exemplary with respect to earning fans respect and placing proper management in place. In sports, as with so many other things in life, you reap what you sew.

Take note that you can visit the Post here and leave comment related to how D.C. could become a better hockey town. I think a little more springtime winning would take care of that just fine.



7 Comments

  1. WFY wrote:

    Nationals Park was planned by the District bureaucrats and MLB (who have shown no love for anything D.C. except the money they got from it) in a hurry. The Lerners did not have much input on it, since ground was broken before they had taken possession of the team. It is a fine place to watch a ballgame. Is it as spectacular as I would have hoped? No, it is not. However, what good has having a spectacular ballpark helped the Chicago Cubs or the Baltimore Orioles? Neither has played a World Series in their parks in our lifetimes and appear unlikely to get their before the Nationals.

    Additionally, one of the most damning things about DC sports fans is their willingness to support another city’s team, particularly since that team has a very deliberate antipathy to DC. The Baltimore Orioles and their owner Peter Angelos have engaged in very bad faith to Washington, the Nationals and their fans. Angelos/Orioles voted against D.C. getting a baseball team. Then, they snatched away 90% of the Nats broadcast rights, only agreeing to a deal the week the team debuted. Angelos/Orioles then put Nats games on a cable channel with no other programming and asked for unrealistic rates from area cable companies in an effort to keep the Nats off of most DC area TV sets. That worked and until September 2006, most area cable subscribers could not watch the Nats. When MASN finally became available, we got to see poor quality broadcasts and Baltimore-centric coverage.

    So, in evaluating DC’s fitness as a sports town, I can’t help but find one of the most damning things to be the support that some Washingtonians continue to give a person and team in another city that has shown so much bad faith to our city and our team. We can never get back those first two Nats seasons.

    Peter Angelos is everything that Dan Snyder is, perhaps short of trying to bully a media outlet through the courts. The difference with Angelos is that he is trying to destroy a team in his own city, as well as another city. I just don’t understand how any DC sports fan can continue to hand over their money to such a despicable franchise/owner.

    As for Snyder, in order to reform himself he need not be the outgoing owner that Ted Leonsis is, he just needs to make the Redskins something that does not embarrass its fanbase. That might be the golden rule of sports management — don’t embarrass your customers. Fans are patient and understand that winning won’t always happen, but they don’t want to feel stupid for cheering for the team.

    26 October, 2011 at 5:50 am | Permalink
  2. WFY,

    Thank you for your thoughtful reflection here. Deeply appreciated. As it relates to the Nats home, I’m less concerned with buck passing on its birth and more saddened that in a city renowned for monuments the gathering spot for the great return of a great game is anything but. Nothing we can do about it now, of course, but the sadness is unavoidable. I didn’t mention its location, but that, too, is a sore spot. No one will soon confuse the banks of the Anacostia for revitalized Chinatown.

    For precisely the reasons you articulated I limit myself to a single visit to Camden each summer, and for a good many of the past 10, haven’t gone even once. I’m a charter member of the fanclub formed against patronizing the products of civic bullies and bastards. Anyway, in those three or so hours of visit I am largely able to suffocate my outrage of the Angelos stewardship by Camden’s enduring beauty and charm. Largely.

    As it relates to Snyder, he perhaps isn’t intentionally trying to ruin a once glorious franchise, he just is. I’m actually more outraged by local media’s complicity in that.

    26 October, 2011 at 7:17 am | Permalink
  3. Paprika wrote:

    I’m not sure that I’m qualified to opine about D.C. as a sports town as I do not live there (or rather, have never lived there), but I did live in Baltimore for several years.

    As an outsider, I do think it’s funny when people say that D.C. isn’t a sports town because it was through my friends in D.C. that I got into the Capitals in the first place. With the exception of basketball, I wasn’t a huge fan of sports teams growing up, and so I was completely surprised by just how passionate Capital fans were back when I first started going to Capitals games (in the 08/09 season). Granted, I was only in D.C. a few times a week at most, rather living there, but I remember being in D.C. and seeing people rock the red. And this was even before I really understood what rocking the red meant and its significance.

    Yes, I probably wouldn’t define D.C.’s identity as being completely intertwined with sports–like Pittsburgh. But I’m from L.A. originally, and while I think L.A. is a sports town with a passionate fanbase, I don’t think that L.A.’s identity is defined by their sports. The town has a lot of other things going on that go into its identity both as perceived by outsiders or by natives–much in the same way that I see D.C. In fact, I think it’s interesting that D.C. has so many things to offer and yet (again, I only speak of my experience with the Capitals) there is still a large and passionate fanbase. It means that people are choosing to spend time and money going to Capitals’ games, watching games in bars or buying Capitals’ gear over any of the other things that they could be doing with their time and/or money.

    And ultimately, as someone who was only in the D.C./Baltimore area “transiently”, I have to say that my sports-experience stayed with me. Here I am, several years later, still passionate about the Capitals. I root for the Capitals over my new town’s home team which, let me tell you, has made me really popular. I still read blogs about the Capitals, count down the days until the Capitals come into town, and drag my friends out to bars to watch important Capital games. Clearly, the Capitals and their fanbase made an impact on me.

    26 October, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink
  4. ValleyCapsFan wrote:

    Can’t disagree with anything said, though I’ll add this ultra-depressing fact: you may be only about a third of the way through a half-century of mediocrity (or worse). Dan Snyder is still a young man (mid-40s), and has shown little capacity to learn from previous errors over the last dozen years. Barring a startling revelation, personality change, decision to sell the team, or premature passing (no, I’m not hoping for that), he’s going to be running the show the next 30 years or so.

    Be afraid. Be very afraid.

    26 October, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink
  5. oldtowncapsfan wrote:

    I don’t think it’s so much that DC is a transient town, though as a federal employee who only comes back every few years from overseas, I certainly fall into that category. I would say, however, that a significant proportion of people living in DC/MD/VA, maybe 50%, are either first- or second-generation area residents. If your father (or mother or grandfather) is a huge Steelers fan, and you’re raised to follow the Steelers, wear their colors, watch their games on TV, then go to Steelers bars when you’re older, etc, odds are you are not going to suddenly become a Redskins fan, especially in the face of all the obstacles the organization has placed before you (awful stadium location, worse management, expensive tickets, lots and lots of losing). You’ll do what your (probably) father did, and root for your “hometown” team, even if you were born and raised in Bethesda. With the proliferation of online media, it’s not that hard to follow a team no matter where you are (I say this having followed my teams from the Middle East for years). Some of us, myself included, were “lucky” enough to come from a town that did not have a hockey team (though we did eventually get an ECHL squad!), and could easily adopt the Caps as our team after moving here. I’m now passing along this to my (2-year old) daughter, who has about 10 words in her vocabulary, two of which are “hockey” and “eight.” But she will also grow up supporting the Reds and Bengals (sorry!), not the Nats and Redskins. So even as DC’s industries have diversified, I’m not sure that necessarily translates directly into rabid fandom.

    27 October, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink
  6. TG wrote:

    Couple things. First, when my parents moved here from the Midwest in the 1960′s, they maintained an affection for their home teams of their childhoods (childrenhood?) – Cubs and Bears for Dad, St. Louis Cardinals for Mom – but they adopted the Washington teams as well. And they are now much more fans of the local teams than the teams from when they were young…although they still hold a place in their hearts.

    However, back then you couldn’t really follow the teams from other areas that closely.

    Now, “transient” population or not — and I think that it’s really not as much as people think it is — it’s much easier to keep tabs on the team from your childhood. With the Internet — reading the daily paper or blog from the old town, watching the team’s games on your computer, what have you — there’s no reason to adopt the locals as your team.

    So yes, while the losing has a big effect on it, there’s other factors which prevent people who move here from becoming local sports fans.

    And of course, you also have people who have been here for 40 years who say, “Well, I live here, but I’m really from XXX.”

    27 October, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Permalink
  7. TG wrote:

    Oh, and about FedEx Field, I agree that it’s a terrible place to watch a game, for many reasons, but I think you’re blaming the wrong party.

    At the time, Jack Kent Cooke wanted to build a stadium near RFK, but wouldn’t do the environmental impact study required by the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT regarding the land that the feds owned near the Anacostia.

    Plus, JKC wanted the DC government to pay a portion of the new stadium costs, improvements, etc. This when the city was pretty much broke and really didn’t have much money to help out with anything. (Yeah, I know, Mayor-for-Life Barry didn’t help much with that.)

    So, rather than take the time to actually work with all of the parties involved, JKC, who was in failing health, did it on his own, on the cheap, in PG County, so he could see it done before he died.

    27 October, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink