Washington is a weak sports town. I’m getting my arms around that concept in a year when I’ve attended more sporting events here than at any time in my 17 years of residence — but I often feel like I’m attending a church service, based on the noise level and number of empty seats at a typical game.
You can tell Washington is a lousy sports town for two reasons: First, with the exception of the Redskins and arguably the Wizards, the pro teams draw small crowds. Second, the crowds that the teams do draw often contain a large number of fans disguised as empty seats — all pro franchises count attendance in terms of tickets sold (including season tickets), not in terms of the number of people who actually come through the turnstiles. In Washington, it seems almost fashionable to buy season tickets and not bother to show up for the actual games.
The Nats’ attendance for the year is in, and it fell below 2 million this year. That’s compared to the 2.7 million who attended just two years ago, when the new team was a novelty, and there are also a lot of fans disguised as empty seats at RFK — trust me. Only Oakland, Pittsburgh, KC, Tampa Bay and Florida tanked it up worse than the Nats at the gate — and Pittsburgh may have the coolest park in the majors, which is worth keeping in mind for fans who think the new Nats park will make the franchise take off.
It’s not just the Nats. The Caps are among the bottom-dwellers in NHL attendance; the Wizards were 12th last year, which isn’t bad until you remember the size of this market; and actually, D.C. United is among the leaders in soccer (which tells you something right there about this area).
For a guy like me who grew up rooting for teams in sports-mad St. Louis, this is sad. Sports fans unite a community. Look at Red Sox Nation, or Cards fans (the Cards still out-draw the Cubs, I love to note) or Cowboys rooters. These teams become a rallying point for an entire area — and expatriates often keep their loyalty to their old club. In Washington we have the Redskins, I guess, but ticket prices are turning the team into a lobbyist’s weekend hobby and they play in one of the ugliest stadiums in all of sports. I’ve never been a fan.
Washington would be a better place to live if it had better sports fans. Of course, considering the transitory nature of so many residents here, that may be wishful thinking…but the benefits of fan-dom would be wonderful.