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.