News & Politics

Washington Is No Longer a Football Town

How the Nationals won over the capital.

Illustration by Jason Schneider.

Washington is a football town, not a baseball town, for good reason. Since our pro football team moved here in 1937, two iterations of the Senators came and went, producing no titles and few lasting stars. Meanwhile, Sammy Baugh, Sonny Jurgensen, Art Monk, and John Riggins played their way into championship games and local lore. For 54 of the 78 years since football’s arrival, baseball wasn’t even an afterthought—it simply didn’t exist.

But as the division-champion Nationals start their tenth season in DC, hearts and minds are in play.

Less and less of our talk about football concerns what happens on the field. Instead, we reprise Dan Snyder’s impetuous stewardship, the revolving door of coaches, and how the team has managed to squander the once infinite hope of Robert Griffin III.

All this has made the crawl to Landover to occupy far-flung parking spots and $200 seats harder to endure. Attendance at FedExField has fallen by 18 percent in eight years, according to ESPN. Stands were 91 percent full on a given Sunday in 2014—and even that figure has been goosed in recent years by the removal of thousands of seats abandoned by former season-ticket holders—compared with 109 percent (counting standing room) in 2006. In that time, the Nationals gained 426,000 patrons. This year, single-game sales are up by 90 percent.

Behind the Nats’ appeal is a Lerner family whose patience in putting together a winning franchise has made them comfortably invisible—when these owners make news, it’s for investing in a stadium (within the city limits and with its own Metro station) or forking over for new stars like Max Scherzer. Amid the federal government’s inability to get things done, the Nationals are a refreshing example of efficiency—and a symbol for a resurgent Washington.

In fairness, it should be noted that the football team has the misfortune of playing in the NFL. Before Pete Carroll called for a goal-line pass at the Super Bowl, sports radio was dominated by Ray Rice’s elevator punch, the Dolphins’ racist hazing scandal, the stomach-turning concussion crisis, and the league’s silence in the face of Native Americans’ protests about the R-word.

Which brings us back home. The area’s attachment to the football team’s logo testifies to an abiding loyalty that won’t die soon. Despite the slur of a name, many African-Americans, especially, view the football team with hometown pride. But if the Nationals keep fielding winning teams, perhaps notch a World Series, and okay, come up with a fight song better than “Nuts About the Nats,” the city whose unofficial anthem has long been “Hail to the Redskins” may find itself singing another tune.

This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.