Thanks largely to three Super Bowl victories, the District is a place where Redskins owner Daniel Snyder is as polarizing as the Affordable Care Act; where conservative pundit-cum-baseball nerd George Will once ranked the team’s importance as “just below the president, and well ahead of the vice president”; where President Richard Nixon famously proved Mr. Will’s point by diagramming a Super Bowl play for former coach George Allen; where not one but two 24-hour sports talk radio stations devote more bandwidth to quarterback controversies than YouTube does to kitten videos.
The Redskins may not always be the best sports boyfriend — see Haynesworth, Albert — but hey, at least they’ve been around.
“It’s an obsessive Redskins town, completely intertwined in people’s hearts and souls,” said MLB.com baseball writer Richard Justice, formerly of The Washington Post. Hate or love, I could never tell which — but I can’t imagine a place that cares more about football.”
The Nationals are working to change that. Between overall No. 1 draft picks Harper and Strasburg, the franchise boasts the most exciting young duo since Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden starred for the 1980s New York Mets (skippered by one, Davey Johnson); under Rizzo, the club has restocked its minor league farm system and assembled a young and talented supporting cast that figures to remain intact for years to come.
Not coincidentally, the team’s front office has shifted its marketing strategy: While former Nationals president Stan Kasten went on Philadelphia radio two years ago and invited Phillies fans to come to Nationals Park for Opening Day, the franchise spent last week encouraging locals to “Take Back the Park.” District Mayor Vincent Gray even declared a “Natitude Weekend.”
“A whole generation of kids went without baseball here in town,” Nationals Chief Operating Officer Andrew Feffer said. “So for us to build a fan base and brand identity will be a great amount of work. The key thing is fielding a team worthy of fan support.
“We have a very young, competitive team on the field now — and with guys like [Ian] Desmond, [Danny] Espinosa, Harper, Strasburg, [Tyler] Clippard, [Drew] Storen, we’re poised to be a great team for a long time. That’s part of how you differentiate yourself in a marketplace that’s crowded not just for sports, but for entertainment and tourism.”
District sports fans may be notoriously transient — sharing a mindset with Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, who once said, “I just don’t care about the Washington Nationals … you move to a new city, you don’t give up your allegiance to your hometown team” — but they’re also political animals, prone to front-running and drawn to success.
In that sense, the Nationals may have impeccable timing.
The Wizards are arguably the worst NBA team not based in Charlotte, a long way from rekindling the city’s grassroots affinity for basketball. Judging from frustrated sports talk radio chatter, the Capitals have gone from fun surprise to overhyped disappointment — the lack of citywide excitement aroused by their current playoff run only confirming their lost momentum as a bandwagon fan favorite.
As for the Redskins? After a dysfunctional decade under Snyder, the franchise seems more vulnerable to hearts-and-minds poaching than ever before, reduced to betting all on the hope that rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III can turn around the team and dazzle an increasingly disgruntled fan base.
Since 2010, the team has reduced FedEx Field’s seating capacity from 91,000 to 79,000. Last year, ESPN Magazine ranked the Redskins 121st out of 122 major league teams in an annual survey that measures fan return for their money and team loyalty.
“Unless Griffin is great right away and the Redskins are good, the trend is going to continue,” said Steve Czaban, a sports talk radio host with ESPN 980.“The window is there [for the Nationals], no question. I think they’ll make some inroads. But baseball towns are funky. Being a fan is like being in a club. It’s more than just rooting for the team.”
Czaban has a point: Some cities follow baseball. Others — populated by obsessive, multigenerational diehards — live it.