Who thought on the eve of the Nationals first playoff appearance the conversation in the DC sports scene would be dominated by former Washington Post columnist and current ESPN talking head Michael Wilbon’s comment in the recent ESPN the magazine that DC is a terrible sports town. Sure he back tracked a bit on that comment and has had verbal sparring with Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post and Bram Weinstein of ESPN over those comments, but the real question is the criticism of DC fans fair? Are the sports fans in DC really any worse than those in the other cities around the country? As a life-long DC resident, except for a relocation to New York City for 8.5 years I can say the DC scene use to be bad but not so much anymore.
The area has changed in the past 30 years and unfortunately Mr. Wilbon seems stuck on the DC market as it stood in 1982 when he was early in his reporting career in DC. No longer are the Redskins the only tough ticket to get in town. Back in the 80s there was the save the Caps campaign to prevent the franchise from moving, you could walk up and get playoff tickets to the Capitals the night of a game and it still wouldn’t sell out. In 1998, when they made their run to the Stanley Cup Final the Red Wings fans took over the arena. I was able to get face value cheap seats for the two games in DC that ran something like $60 per ticket. And I got the tickets from a Mystics season ticket holder who was given the opportunity to have first shot at tickets. Can you imagine that today with the Capitals? Can you imagine an empty seat for this current run of the Nationals? It isn’t going to happen. Because DC isn’t what it was 30 years ago.
People often point to the transient nature of the DC population due to it being the nation’s capital that has people coming and going every 2 years. That was true in the past, but it doesn’t hold up anymore. 30 years ago if you told someone you lived in Centreville, VA people reacted as if they were living in the boonies. Nevermind mentioning Leesburg or Manassas. You might have just told someone that you lived in North Carolina. The population of the area has exploded and has resulted in more people becoming natives. The population has also become more diverse and able to support all of the area teams. No longer is the DC population dependent on those coming and going due to politics. Of course that is still and will always be a factor in DC’s population, but no more so than places like New York and Los Angeles. Head to a game of the Redskins, Nats, Caps, or Wizards you’ll still see fans of those other teams. Is that a sign that DC fans aren’t buying up the tickets, or is it a sign that others from around the country live in the area and target those games. When I lived in New York I waited for the NHL schedule to come out so I could be ready to buy the tickets to the Caps games against the Rangers and perhaps against the Devils and Islanders. I was a fan of the Caps and I keyed in on those games instead of the Rangers playing the Florida Panthers. Heck, in 2002 I would be excited to see Caps fans at a Rangers game, but by 2008 we were a measurable contingent. Why wouldn’t the fans of teams from New York, Chicago, or Denver do the same.
That isn’t evidence of the quality of the DC fans it is an indictment on the quality of the franchises in the area. Empty seats isn’t about the passion of the fans it is about the product. And the product in DC has been putrid over the past 20 to 30 years, save for the Redskins and more recently the Caps and now perhaps the Nationals. But what about those passionate fans of New York? Has Wilbon looked at Citifield lately, or Yankee Stadium in the 80s. And this is from a city that has a population of over $8 million to draw from. What about Boston? Check out Patriots attendance prior to the Brady era, or the Red Sox in the early 90s. What about Wilbon’s beloved Chicago. The Blackhawks didn’t draw again until they started winning recently. Were those fans less passionate during those time periods, or was the product so inferior that people weren’t spending to see it.
Let’s fast forward 10 years. Let’s look at the fictional scenario where the Caps have won a Stanley Cup, the Nationals have 2 World Series titles and the Redskins have become relevant and have a Super Bowl title. Does he really think there will be an empty seat at any of those home venues? Does he think there won’t be a conversation about each of those teams on the street corners? Boston has had a championship in each of the 4 major sports in the past decade, New York has had MLB and Super Bowls championships, Chicago has a championship in each of the sports in the past 15 years and Los Angeles/Anahiem has multiple NBA championships, Stanley Cups and a World Series in the relatively recent past. It’s easy to look at the cities that are winning and say they are great sports towns, because it’s easy to be a fan when the teams are winning. Just look at the Wizards, a disaster of a franchise for most of the past 30 years and they drew just shy of 17,000 fans per game last season. Conversely, look at the Detroit Pistons for example. In 2009 they led the NBA in attendance with almost 22,000 fans per game a few years later and a few bad seasons and all of a sudden they have the third lowest attendance in the league with around 14,500 fans per game. Wouldn’t that be more indicative of being a bad sports town?