WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 17: Joh Wall of the Washington Wizards throws out the ceremonial first pitch before the game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on June 17, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
This weekend, the Washington Post published an article that tried to answer the question: can the recent surge of success and fandom of the Washington Nationals bring them into contention with the Washington Redskins for DC's favorite team?
It's a really well-written piece, and I encourage you to read it. Very quickly, the short answer to the question: No. Long answer: No, but they might be able to at least sit at the same table someday.
But there was one thing that still bothered me about this piece: there were no mention of basketball at all. The Wizards were literally not in the same conversation as Nationals and the Redskins.
To be fair, the context of headlining only the Nats and the Skins makes complete sense. The Nats are the best team in baseball, and they're expected to be young, talented, and contending for a title over the next few seasons. The Redskins are an NFL team--an immensely popular team in the most popular sport in the country, and it's NFL opening weekend.
But if the Wizards were good instead of the Nats--or if they were good and the Nats were good--would they be mentioned in the story?
Don't worry Caps fans, your favorite team was mentioned in this piece, too. The Caps were brought up in the context of their owner and their metamorphosis into a popular team in DC:
Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, who transformed his hockey team from a niche sport to a sell-out powerhouse, agrees that any winning franchise helps all the others.
"We’re all trying to build great teams so that this is a world-class sports town," said Leonsis, who is a Nationals season ticket holder. "The Nats have the best record in baseball, they have an exciting team and they play in a beautiful building. They’re going to be good for a long time, and that’s only a positive for all of us."
Leonsis sees the District evolving into a Philadelphia-like sports scene, where all four major teams enjoy significant support.
I tend to agree with "Washington Capitals owner" Leonsis's take (For what it's worth, I don't think he would have chosen this title for himself. I just find it odd that "and Wizards" wasn't included). Better teams will have a spillover effect. Winning isn't necessarily contagious among the franchises, but fan pride might be. But all of that still doesn't mean that there's going to be a tweet like the following about the Capitals and the Wizards during the winter:
Are you Team Nationals or Team Redskins? wapo.st/PbD0da— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) September 8, 2012
What is it about the Wizards that keeps them out of this conversation? Is it simply that the NBA is less popular than the NFL and MLB? Did switching the name from the Bullets to the Wizards sever some level of long-standing tradition and support among the metropolitan area? Did the well-intentioned-idea-that-was-devoid-of-fan-involvement poll to change the team name push fans away?
College basketball is popular in DC (Maryland, Georgetown, George Mason, Virginia, and others), but it has been years since the Wizards had a sellout crowd. It has also been years since the Wizards were in the playoffs. Even when the Arenas-Jamison-Butler Wizards were playing well during the regular season and making the playoffs, the team never ranked higher than 12th in attendance in the league (they were 2nd when Michael Jordan played for the team, even though they didn't make the playoffs). What if the success of that era (and the health of the players) lasted five or six years, instead of two or three? Would that have been enough to cement them a permanent spot near the top?
Is "getting better" good enough to climb the DC sports hierarchy? What would it take? Winning games? Playoffs? Championship contention? One championship? Multiple championships like the Redskins in the 1980s and 1990s?
Does the federal government's presence in DC--the real headline-maker for the city--prevent sports in general from being appreciated? Besides headlines, the federal government brings a transient nature to the city's population. People often relate more to their hometowns than to the city where they've only lived a few years and only plan to live a few years longer. Does all of that make sports in DC a perennial sideshow? If sports are on the periphery, then there's no room for the poorly performing teams, right? (On a personal note, I've lived in DC long enough to attend a few Wizards playoff games. This surprises many people.)
John Wall's arrival in DC was supposed to help bring in a new era of winning and fandom. So far, it hasn't done much of either. Through a combination of faith and reasonable expectations based on roster makeup, I believe the Wizards will get better this year and be in contention for a lower playoff seed. If they do get better this season and build on that momentum in the seasons to come, will DC ever be the Wizards' city?
What do you think? Sound off in the comments, and if nothing else, we can use our collective Wizards fandom as proof that some people in this town always keep the Wizards in that conversation.
Oh, and Mystics and United fans, you are welcome to join our support group.