Let me start off with this statement. I want all of Washington’s sports teams to succeed. I want to see their crowds fill the stands. No team’s fan base is mutually exclusive from one another, especially within the same city. That said, some teams are declining in popularity when they should otherwise be trending up. The Wizards unfortunately are in that very position. So let’s begin.
As most locals in the Washington, D.C. area can attest, the Wizards are clearly in fourth place among the “Big Four” professional sports teams in Washington.
The NFL’s Washington Redskins are the most popular team in D.C. even though they haven’t contended for a Super Bowl in nearly 30 years. Meanwhile, the NHL’s Capitals are the Defending Stanley Cup Champions and in a solid second place among local sports fans. The MLB’s Nationals have won four National League East Division titles since 2012. The Wizards had some playoff success in the 2010s and won the Southeast Division in 2017. But they’ve never been in the championship conversation while the Redskins, Capitals and Nationals have at some point in the last 30 years.
Americans generally assume that the Big Four sports leagues will be the NFL, NBA, NFL and MLB for perpetuity. But nothing can last forever. Other sports are gaining popularity in the United States, most notably soccer.
Historically, the United States was best known in soccer for the women’s game. The women’s national team won three World Cups and they’re still the best in the world. But the American men’s national team has been a consistent World Cup team, 2018 aside, and Major League Soccer is in its 24th season with 24 clubs.
D.C. United, the local MLS franchise won four MLS Cups for winning the playoffs and four Supporters’ Shields for having the best regular season. They were also the first American team to win the CONCACAF Champions League in 1998. The Black and Red are one of the best clubs in MLS history, though their best days were back in the late 1990s.
In 2017, D.C. United missed the MLS Playoffs and started poorly in 2018 with a 2-7-5 record before Audi Field, their new stadium finally opened. At that time, English soccer star Wayne Rooney signed with the team.
Once he came to town, Rooney quickly became D.C.’s team captain. In 20 games, he scored 12 goals, dished 7 assists and guided D.C. back to the MLS Cup Playoffs. There were many games where fans in D.C. saw Rooney play like he did during his heyday with Manchester United or Everton.
Last Sunday, D.C. United hosted their home opener against Atlanta United to a crowd of 16,942 people on a cold rainy day and won 2-0. At the same time, the Wizards hosted their game against the Timberwolves in front of 17,869 people. The Wizards had more paid attendance, but their crowd wasn’t as rowdy early on until the game was clearly in hand.
Rooney isn’t the first soccer superstar to play in Washington. In 1979-80, legendary Ajax Amsterdam and F.C. Barcelona midfielder Johan Cruijff (also spelled Cruyff) played for the Washington Diplomats in the now-defunct North American Soccer League. The late Dutchman led the Diplomats to the NASL playoffs during his stay in the nation’s capital though it was ultimately a footnote in his career.
For those of you who are skeptical about whether soccer and MLS can be a “major league sport” in the United States, things have changed quite a bit since Cruijff spurned the picturesque canals, the Rijksmuseum and the Artis Zoo in Amsterdam for the Smithsonian museums at the National Mall and the National Zoo in D.C.
Back in 1979, soccer was not popular in the U.S. at all. Cruijff would have been noticed anywhere in Amsterdam or Barcelona and he got accustomed to that. But in D.C., he walked to the Giant Food or People’s Drug (that was the drugstore in town before it became CVS) like an average joe. Coincidentally, 1979 was the last time the Wizards, then the Bullets, were NBA championship contenders.
But things have changed in the last 40 years. Today, soccer is a much more popular sport to watch, especially among younger Americans between ages 18 and 34 than it was when Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes were dancing and singing to “Stayin’ Alive” and “I Will Survive” on the local hit radio station. American football remains king, but it is not quite as dominant as before. So Rooney will get recognized when he goes shopping at a retail store.
And as mentioned before, the MLS has stayed in operation for 24 years and is a growing league. Average attendance was at 21,873 in 2018. Since D.C. United now plays in a new stadium, a well-known superstar who can still play well and a promising future ahead, I have full confidence that the Black and Red won’t just do well on the field and the box office. I believe that D.C. United and the rest of the MLS can be a big revenue major league sports league like the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB are already.
There are some of you who will be quick to point out that MLS is not a superstar and transfer market-driven league like the Premier League in England, La Liga in Spain, the Bundesliga in Germany or Serie A in Italy. But the MLS is growing. In fact, the average American club generates more revenue than the average team does in the Netherlands’ Eredivisie and Mexico’s Liga MX. The Netherlands and Mexico also have strong soccer leagues though they are not at the level of England or Spain. In other words, MLS is a strong soccer league that is growing and Americans should be proud of that.
So let’s bring this back to basketball. It remains very popular in the USA and worldwide. In December 2017, NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a column on The Guardian about the sport’s rise among American youth. He cited an ESPN study that basketball is the most popular sport that boys and girls play today. Meanwhile, football is the third most popular sport for boys. In addition, Abdul-Jabbar cited the NBA’s higher ratings which continue today for the most part.
Unfortunately, the NBA’s rising popularity in the United States and the world doesn’t apply to Washington, D.C. The Wizards are on shaky ground in large part due to front office mismanagement.
They will give up half of their salary cap to two players (John Wall and Ian Mahinmi) who don’t figure to contribute much next year because of injury (Wall) or ineffectiveness (Mahinmi). Washington will also be in salary cap prison until Wall’s contract is off the books in 2023. That said, Wall’s cap hit may not be as painful if he can regain much of his 2016-17 form. Regardless, Washington seems to be more content building the team around veterans with limited upside when they should focus more on younger players instead.
When mediocre-at-best teams seem to be content with the status quo, it hurts attendance. The Wizards have always remained in the bottom third of the NBA’s paid attendance rankings based on arena utilization, but they are 23rd this season at 85.7 percent utilization, down from 88.6 percent last season. Washington is 19th in absolute number of seats filled per game at 17,375.
In regard to TV ratings, the Wizards saw a big spike in the first half of the 2017-18 season in part because of their Southeast Division winning season a year before. There aren’t reports of ratings this season but based on a Sports Business Daily report from last February, I’d imagine the Wizards’ TV ratings are down significantly due to their lackluster play.
As fans, we want to see our favorite teams do well on the court, in the box office and on television or streaming. However, the Wizards are failing in all of these categories in a league that is gaining popularity worldwide. Meanwhile, D.C. United is improving in a league that is also gaining popularity and respect in the United States and soccer worldwide.
The Capitals have become more popular than the Wizards even though the NHL is not as popular as the NBA is, whether in the United States or worldwide. Give credit to Ted Leonsis and Monumental Sports & Entertainment for that. Washington is now a legitimate hockey town. You can see Capitals jerseys and logos almost anywhere in the D.C. area. And I don’t see interest dying off completely when it’s time for them to rebuild again.
There are always plenty of Redskins and Nationals logos and gear around town, but I notice more D.C. United marks as well. That’s because of soccer’s improving footprint if nothing else. But the Wizards just don’t have that spark.
The Wizards will always be a major sports team in the Washington area because they play in the NBA which is America’s most popular sports league beyond its borders. In fact, the NBA could be the most popular sports league in the United States sometime in the future.
But it remains to be seen how that will play out in the Washington area. Locally, it shouldn’t surprise many to see D.C. United take over the Wizards in the “pecking order” of the men’s sports hierarchy very soon. If the Wizards continue to be mediocre at best over the next few years and if D.C. United can make the most out of Rooney’s time in Washington, it certainly seems likely if not inevitable.