Saturday, April 4, 2009

DC Sports and Recreation

J and I first met because of our mutual fanaticism for sports, so it is natural that we have actively sought out local sports-related activities. In some ways we were looking to recreate our passion for our West Coast teams, but like many others in this city, we were also seeking a connection to our new home. Sports, for both the fan and the weekend warrior, bring people together and have proven to be something that J and I share as a couple and something that has fostered many new friendships.

As discussed, Washington, D.C. is a town that is made up of many people who have come here from many different places. This is seldom felt more prominently, for better and worse, than in the sports and recreation scene. If you've spent any time in the District, you'll know that networking functions, particularly happy hours and power lunches, are a dime a dozen. Some of this is because of the political and legal industries that dominate much of downtown, but it is also a result of the many transplants that are new in town looking to find their professional or social niche. Therefore, it is not a surprise that newcomers look for something familiar through their sports teams. Alumni groups gather to support their college team, while many bars cater to particular fan groups from all around the country. If that's what you're looking for, you're only a Google search away from finding fellow UCLA basketball fans, Longhorn football fans, or diehard Cubbies fans, to name a few.

This phenomenon also carries over to many of the professional sports teams. While the Redskins and DC United enjoy relatively loyal fan bases due to their sustained history of high-level play over the years, other organizations struggle to maintain a consistent following during their down years. Not surprisingly, this transient support hurts the teams' economic bottomline and therefore, competitiveness.

Washington Redskins. Let me first get this off my chest. I don't understand how the Nation's Capitol, home of historic civil rights marches and a population that is 70% minority, still has a very popular football team named the Red Skins. This boggles my mind. I understand the history and marketing challenges but really, Red Skins? Could this happen to any other ethnic population? Can you imagine hearing this on SportsCenter, "The San Francisco Slanty Eyes defeated the Atlanta Black Faces by a score of 24-20 as San Francisco's fans rang their gongs and threw fortune cookies at opposing fans, many covered in black face paint." How is this any different?

OK, off the soapbox. Washington's football team might be the one that enjoys a true home field advantage. However, you'll have to know someone who is either very wealthy, very well connected, or been a fan for a very long time, if you want to get a seat (much less a decent seat) at FedEx Field. However, once inside, the unity and passion of the fans is palpable. This loyalty and passion is the benchmark for all other DC based franchises.

For those left on the outside looking in on gameday, host a cookout or hit the bars, all while sporting as much team paraphernalia as possible (car flags included). Just be wary that the team's big rival, the Dallas Cowboys, seem to have a very strong, if not vocal, fan base here too.

Washington Nationals. Retro is in and the Nats are bringing back old memories of the historically bad Washington Senators… The team got a brand new ballpark in 2008 and promptly went out and lost 102 games. Still, the ballpark is a wonderful place to spend a warm summer night or lazy Sunday afternoon, although it is not particularly distinctive. It is a shame that a city that is so iconic has a stadium that gets lost in the long list of modern baseball stadiums. This isn't to say it isn't nice because it is, but there's no warehouse like in Baltimore's Camden Yards or a great view like those that are prominently featured in San Francisco, Colorado, or Pittsburgh.

What it does have, however, it has in spades. Nationals Park features food that is much better than standard stadium fare since it is mostly from local establishments. Highlights include Ben's Chili Bowl half-smokes, Five Guys burgers, Noah's Pretzels W-shaped pretzels, Red, Hot & Blue barbecue, and Giffords ice cream. Another plus is the scoreboard which is 4800+ square feet of HD beauty. The highlight however, for better or worse, of most games is the President's Race in the 4th inning. 12-foot mascots, representing the four presidents on Mt. Rushmore (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt), race across the field. Ever since this race started, Teddy has never won and has become the crowd favorite and lovable loser. Which segues nicely into the Nationals team itself... I'm always hopeful but let's just say that you shouldn't be too surprised when the cheers for the opposing team dwarf those for the home team. For more details on the Washington Nationals, read our post here.

Washington Capitals. With young, flashy stars that play an emotional and high-energy style, the Caps are seeing a surge in support. While hockey is still a fringe "major" sport in the U.S., this is the team to learn by. Even for those who don't know a blue line from a line change, the Caps offer a very nice product that can be enjoyed by any level of fan. The Verizon Center, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year, is a standard modern arena that benefits from its own Metro station and a growing number of restaurants and bars nearby. The Capitals are on such a high right now that the Washington Post dared to ask the question of its readers, "Can the Capitals become more popular than the Redskins?" In this football-crazed town, the question alone speaks very well for hockey's future in DC.

DC United. Currently in a battle for a new stadium, the United is one of MLS' most popular and successful teams. Their fan club, the Screaming Eagles, set the tone for the games that feature all that is great about soccer. On the field, the team is usually very skilled, in part due to their dedication to obtaining stars from South America. In the stands, the passion for MLS is, in a word, fanatical and is refreshingly far from the typical American blase towards the sport. This is a good thing.

Washington Wizards. Formerly the Bullets (somehow this was the local team name that was deemed so inappropriate for DC that it had to be changed...), the Wizards are positioning themselves for a very high lottery pick in this year's lackluster draft. Here's hoping they strike gold and finally find a core group that can sustain success and warrant a decent following. Until then, the biggest attraction may be the opposing team's stars.

Washington Mystics. In my limited experience, the WNBA faces similar issues in most of their cities. The Mystics are no exception.

Baltimore. Can't find what you're looking for in DC? Don't forget that Baltimore is less than an hour away and features the Ravens and the Orioles.

Collegiate sports. The local teams, Maryland and Georgetown, both feature strong basketball histories and consequently, enjoy a pretty good following. Maryland’s football team is also relatively strong of late.

As discussed, there are a variety of reasons that DC lacks (mostly) the loyal fans that span generations and anchor franchises in other cities. However, the same factors that challenge the building of consistently large fan bases also creates a very healthy recreation environment. As mentioned before in an earlier post, there are plenty of options for running, biking, and hiking in and around the District. But the area that really excels is the multitude of sports leagues that includes every major sport, as well as large leagues for less mainstream sports like ultimate frisbee, kickball, and bocce, among others. In addition to groups of friends, teams are commonly formed by industries, companies, alumni groups, neighborhoods, and perfect strangers.

For field sports, you can almost always find people playing some sort of game on the National Mall or the surrounding areas. There is something majestic about playing on the front lawn (more or less) of the White House or in the shadow of the Washington Monument...

If the weather is good, chances are you’ll find me on a field with a frisbee in hand. Ultimate is coordinated through the Washington Area Frisbee Club (WAFC), which is one of the oldest Ultimate clubs in the country. In my humble opinion, you’ll be hard pressed to find this many good natured young people in one place with such disparate personal and professional backgrounds.

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