The roar of the crowd could be heard for blocks, the champagne could be tasted for miles and the sea of red was endless in Washington on Monday night. It was not the same red Washington is used to seeing in celebration though — it was Washington Nationals red. And suddenl,y the team who originally “rocked the red,” is an afterthought.
It has been an almost banner year for Washington in terms of major sports. The Nationals have the best record in baseball and are serious World Series contenders. Another shade of red, burgundy to be exact, is worn by the Washington Redskins. They drafted Robert Griffin III, who has them back on a path to success and the Washington Capitals, for the most part, over achieved despite failing to make the Eastern Conference Finals again.
Despite their recent sustained success though, the third team listed, the Caps, are suddenly on the bottom of the pile even though they were the city’s most consistent team for the last half decade. In almost no time at all, it is as if the Verizon Center and all the memories of the past five years have faded into the dark ether of a third-rate sports organization. It’s not to say the Caps are third-rate, they are actually one of the best run clubs in the DC area right now. But as Nats fans sang “Take on Me” and jumped around in celebration, the Verizon Center lay dark like an old house with no one to care for it.
Of course, it is not all Washington’s fault. There is this pesky thing called the NHL Lockout going on right now preventing the team from training and having a preseason. The labor strike will not go on forever and the hockey-first crowd in Washington should be legitimately concerned where the team sits in order of importance when it does end. It took nearly a year after the team rejuvenated itself with new jerseys, a new coach and a new look for them to garner the front page of the Washington Post consistently. The Nationals did it in about a month of being relevant and the Redskins do it every Monday.
With only so many front pages to go around, who do you think is going to see it more next year? Right now, it’s probably not a good idea to bet on the Caps.
Obviously it is comparing apples to oranges to pineapples, but the Capitals do have to face the reality they are never going to be able to separate themselves from the Nats and Redskins in terms of attracting the casual fan. Look around your social media networks and look at the sheer number of people who you’ve probably never heard talk about the Nats or Redskins discuss Teddy winning on Wednesday, or how awesome RGIII looks. Sure, the Caps generated buzz, but never to the volume both of Washington’s other big clubs are.
Perhaps even more concerning, is now the Caps are fighting with a fan they never thought they’d go head-to-head with, the Baltimore Orioles fan. O’s fans have been deprived of success for so long it is hard to fathom any of them would pass up a chance to see their team make a run at a World Series at the expense of the NHL. Even an unnamed member of the Caps faithful, who you have probably never heard talk about baseball before, is trumpeting his orange and black this fall, perhaps a true sign of where the Caps fall in the greater scheme of things.
Owner Ted Leonsis is now facing a nightmare scenario where his Caps are forgotten in the fall and may not even return to the ice again to recapture Washington’s attention until after baseball crowns a champion and the NFL is in its annual playoff frenzy. If, as some have predicted, the NHL season manag4ed to get underway with the Winter Classic, the Caps will return to the Verizon Center ice just two months before Spring Training gets into full swing and the Redskins will be in NFL Draft hype mode, or challenging for a postseason bid. Not the best circumstances for a team trying to fill an arena they just figured out how to sell out on a nightly basis a few years ago.
It is not all doom and gloom for the Caps. They have an easy solution to winning back fans: win hockey games.
Maybe it is the Capitals’ inability to win in the playoffs that has partially led them down this path. It has been season after season of disappointment for the Caps faithful. A seven game series loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2008 was the team’s first postseason birth in years and was deemed successful, despite losing. Even an excruciating seven game series loss the next year to the eventually Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round was viewed as a step forward.
A seven game loss in the first round to the Montreal Canadiens, a team many picked Washington to sweep, the next year, followed by a second round sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning the year after, might have led some fans to turn away. All of the pain and disappointment culminated in an ugly 2011-12 regular season that led to yet another second round loss, this time to the New York Rangers, and left Washington wondering if the team would ever win.
With all that in mind, it’s not hard to understand why some of Washington jumped ship to join the winners and up-and-comers.
It’s great for the Nationals and Redskins to start to see success again and to turn a barren football and baseball landscape into a place of promise and success. The Washington team on skates probably wishes they were enjoying the same success, even though there is currently almost no way for that to happen until the owners and players play nice.
It’s all about winning in sports, something that is new to the Nationals, Orioles and Redskins and it is exciting for the District and Baltimore. Those three franchises’ success comes at a cost though, as people only have so much capacity to support teams, and right now that cost is the popularity of many residents’ beloved Capitals.
Andrew Tomlinson is a Contributor to District Sports Page. He is a graduate of The American University and has experience covering the NCAA, WNBA, NFL, MLB and NHL. A life-long Detroiter at heart, he is one of the staff writers at the Detroit Sports Site where he primarily covers the Detroit Tigers. Andrew is a former staff writer for On Frozen Blog, where he spent three years covering the ups-and-downs of the Washington Capitals. You can follow him on Twitter @drew_tomlinson.