Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mike Wise on Sports Towns: "I'd Take DC Over L.A., Miami, Seattle, Denver and yes, Dallas"

New 106.7 The Fan radio host and super tall Washington Post columnist Mike Wise answered a few questions at Mr. Irrelevant today about his new gig. He's excited, nervous, hopeful, blah blah etc. The most interesting part, to me, came in his assessment of DC as a sports town:

"The idea that D.C. is a lousy sports town is what I’ve heard since I got to town five years ago. Measured against the passion of Philly, Pittsburgh, Boston, New York or Chicago, yeah, I agree. Beyond the football team, it doesn’t have as many zealots or characters or crackling passion for the games and the people that play them as those cities. I would still take D.C. over L.A., Miami, Seattle, Denver and, yes, Dallas."
I've lived in DC, Denver, Philly and New York. I've seen "zealots", "characters," "crackling passion" at pro and college games in each city, listened to local radio, watched local TV, followed local sports coverage in all of these places. And I can say with unequivocal honesty that ranking sports cities based on fan "passion" is complete and utter baloney.

I might be alone on this. It just irks me when I hear DC called a "bandwagon" sports town, and then as soon as the Knicks drop below .500 in New York it's like they don't exist. I get steamed when DC fans are labeled "average," meanwhile the Philadelphia airwaves are filled with people lambasting their players 24/7. No one in New York City gives a hoot about the Rangers anymore; most bartenders at sports bars never knew a Rangers game was on. In Manhattan. During the playoffs.

The strength of a city's fanbase comes down to three basic things in my view: 1.) winning; 2.) heritage; 3.) The Star. One of the three, and any city can go bonkers for its team. Take it all away, and a place like Chicago can become a sports siberia. Just look at the Blackhawks. They lost their stars in 1995, they started to lose, and they fell off the face of the earth. Now they're good again, have the stars again, and Chicagoans are pretending they were there all along. But no one's calling them bandwagon fans. Huh.

Most of the fanbases Wise puts ahead of DC also are blessed with heritage that comes from having been around for so damn long. Throughout the 20th century, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Chicago were vibrant cities with blue collar people. Sports were affordable and a subway ride away at most. The teams became embedded in the culture and civic identities were formed around what felt like the neighborhood squad. Having been around so long, with so few other teams in each league, also brought multiple championships and multiple generations of followers. Fandom in those cities is passed down from father to son pretty easily.

That's just impossible to have in an expansion city - meanwhile those very same places, especially in the South - go buckwild rabid for their college teams. Because there's heritage there. DC has had one team around more than 35 years: the Redskins. And you see the passion there. You think that's a coincidence?

Passionate Pittsburgh fans displaying their loyalty at a Pirates game. Image via Fedje Baseball Tour.

Here's the bottom line: every city has great sports fans, zealots, characters, and every city has fickle, fair-weather morons. How many there are is mostly tied to heritage, and how passionate they are at any given time depends on how successful they are currently or whether the star player is still around (see Iverson, Ripken Jr., Sakic). And a lot of it is just plain luck. Wilbon lauds Pittsburgh fans like his morning jelly doughnut, meanwhile the Pirates have been awful and no one has been going to their games for like 18 years, even with their shiny new stadium.

Give it 20 more years. Let Ovechkin have a few victory parades, the Zorn Star to deliver a Super Bowl or two, the Nats to win more than 90 games, and the Wizards to shed The Curse 'O Lez Boulez just once, and DC will be an orgy of sports passion. It will happen. And I can't wait.

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