- - Thursday, April 12, 2018

I get why there isn’t much excitement in town about the Washington Wizards and Capitals starting their respective playoff seasons. The indifference has been well earned.

But let’s not forget the opportunity that once again is before them — to fill the Washington championship void. To finally take advantage of the pathetic Redskins’ reign of dishonor.

No one knows for sure what would happen if one of the other three pro sports franchises in town — the Nationals, Wizards or Capitals — would finally break through with a title and, at least briefly, wrestle away the hearts and minds of DMV sports fans from the Redskins, who, despite being one of the most dysfunctional and embarrassing franchises in all of sports for the past two decades, remain the top dog in the competitive battle for fan attention and dollars.

AUDIO: Former All Star & NL Manager of the Year Felipe Alou with Thom Loverro

But it sure would be nice to see what happens.

The Redskins have been, of course, insulated by their very product — NFL football. It has reigned supreme over the American sports landscape during the time the Redskins have been, for the most part, a bottom-feeding franchise on the field. It protected them from their own self-inflicted failures.

But what has also protected them locally is no formidable opponent to challenge them during their terrible tenure. The Wizards had the Gilbert Arenas bump, making the playoffs from 2004 to 2008, but that was a fraudulent playoff contender, a team that would never get beyond the second round. And it appears the John Wall bump may be the same thing — a team settling into Wizards mediocrity, winning 40-50 games a season and failing to advance beyond the second round.

It is harder for the Wizards to take advantage of the void because they have been such a loser for so long — nearly four decades of failures, with the brief glimpses of hope that are getting harder and harder to sell. See the Capital One Arena mausoleum during Wizards games for evidence. It’s going to take a lot for the basketball franchise to make an impact on Washington fans. They, more than anyone, have earned the badge of apathy.

The Capitals have had the benefit of at least one Eastern Conference championship and reaching the Stanley Cup finals in 1998. But that is evidence of what happens when you squander the opportunity. As has been well-documented, the excitement of hosting Stanley Cup finals games was damaged by the Pollin ownership’s willingness to sell playoff tickets to out-of-town fans, and the then-MCI Center was filled with Detroit Red Wing fans.

They failed to capitalize on whatever buzz their 1998 season created, missing the playoffs the next year, followed by two first-round exits at the hands of the hated Pittsburgh Penguins and another missed playoff season.

Yes, they did not win the Stanley Cup. But still, what followed supports the notion that it will take more than challenging for one title to change the fan landscape in this town. It’s one thing to be the champ, or in this case, fight for the title. It’s another to keep contending for the crown.

The arrival of Alex Ovechkin in 2005 obviously helped energize the franchise and has kept the fanbase strong locally. But you could argue that the Capitals have lost out on the chance to have a bigger presence here, fueled by the presence of Ovechkin, one of the greatest athletes this area has ever seen in uniform.

Now, the Capitals have the opposite problem of the Redskins. Their growth is limited by their product — hockey — which is still low on the fandom totem pole in the United States. But who knows what the impact would be of a Stanley Cup on a championship-starved Washington fan base? And how much of a piece of the pie it would take from the other teams — particularly the Redskins?

Then there are the Nationals, a unique situation. There was no baseball here in the District for 33 years, and, when the former Expos arrived here in 2005 and competed for the NL East title, the Lerner family, which took over ownership of the franchise in 2006, failed to take advantage of that momentum.

There was a desperate need to build back up the baseball fan base here, and instead, the Lerners cheaped out, both in marketing and the product on the field. They opened their brand new ballpark in 2008 with a team that lost 102 games. As one former high-ranking Nationals official once told me, “No one plans on opening a ballpark by losing 100 games.”

Now, of course, after six winning seasons starting in 2012 and four NL East division titles, Nationals Park has become a destination location, drawing an average of 31,000 fans a game with all that winning. But the winning has also raised expectations, and their inability to get beyond the divisional series has likely held them back from taking more of the sports dollars away from the Redskins.

A World Series title, or perhaps at least a World Series appearance, could change that. Then again, a collapse could also reveal the lack of foundation of the Nationals fan base — what the Lerners failed to build in their early years of ownership. Nationals Park could become a ghost town.

All this has happened — or not happened — while the Redskins have flung the door open for someone to walk through and take their school lunch money. And it appears they have never been more vulnerable than now. Local television ratings are down drastically, and FedEx Field has become a visitor’s football stadium. In addition, the product that has insulated them — football — is on the ropes, with falling television ratings and the growing perception that this product may be harmful to one’s health.

The door remains open. All the Wizards or Capitals have to do is walk through it. It would be fun to watch what happens then.

• Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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