DC Mythbusting: The Sports Curse

Photo courtesy of
‘Strasburg – Coming Spring 2012’
courtesy of ‘afagen’

We all know about the Sports Illustrated cover curse.  And we know the story of the Madden NFL cover curse.  But is the worst curse of all just being part of the Washington sports scene?  That’s what ESPN claims, saying, “A star-destroying black hole of unimaginable proportions, the Washington curse goes beyond sports, touching everything from reality TV (worst seasons ever for “The Real World,” “Top Chef” and “The Real Housewives”) to politics (the reputation of any popular pol who stays in town long enough).”  Ouch.  But does the DC area really have a sports curse?

Photo courtesy of
‘Teddy #176’
courtesy of ‘Chris Rief aka Spodie Odie’

Well, before we can figure out if there is a curse, let’s look into the history of the DC sports scene.  The city hasn’t brought home a national championship since 1992 when the Redskins won the Super Bowl.  Here are some of the oft-mentioned elements of the DC sports curse:

  • First, the Redskins.  While they haven’t been terrible (well, last year’s 4-12 record was pretty terrible), they have “suffered nearly 20 years of mediocrity” and have only seen post-season play four times since their 1991 Super Bowl win.
  • Next, the Capitals.  They’ve never won the Stanley Cup in their entire thirty-six year franchise history.  They made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998, and last year they won the Presidents’ Trophy (and got really close, but blew a 2-0 lead in the playoffs), but still… no Stanley Cup.  Ever.
  • Then there’s the Wizards.  With “possibly the worst draft luck in NBA history“, the Wizards haven’t won an NBA title since 1978.  The Wizards have had a history of injury-plagued seasons, and they’ve got a curse of their own to deal with.
  • On the women’s side, the Washington Mystics have also never won a championship and have reverted to celebrating attendance championships instead.  The team has gone through 10 coaches in 11 years, and even though they made it to the first round of the playoffs last year (with a losing record), they were knocked out in the first round.  Still no championships there.
  • And there’s the Nationals.  Even though they started out with a season at .500, they’ve had losing seasons ever since, and they’ve finished last in their division in all but one year since they came to the city in 2005.  And just when things were looking up with the signing of the most-hyped pitcher ever, Stephen Strasburg got injured after just a month and will now be missing a whole season of baseball.
  • DC United was the area’s most successful sports team, and the most successful club in Major League Soccer, but they’re currently in the middle of their worst season in franchise history.  Has the curse finally gotten to them too?

When you put it all together like that, it seems pretty bad.  I asked my friend CJ, who works for ESPN and is an expert on all things sports-related, what he thought of a so-called curse, and here’s what he said: “I really didn’t want to say DC is cursed as a sports town but when you add up widespread mismanagement (Redskins), heartbreaking playoff exits (Capitals) and general poor luck (Sean Taylor’s shocking death in 2007, Gilbert Arenas’ knee injury in 2007, Stephen Strasburg’s arm injury in 2010, the entire Kwame Brown era) it kinda starts to feel like the area is cursed.”

But how does DC compare to other cities?  Do we really have it that much worse?

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

As it turns out, we’re not at the bottom of the barrel.  Cleveland is worse off than DC, as the last time they’ve won a national title was 1964.  ESPN calls them the most tortured sports city in America, and their three teams (Cavaliers, Indians, and Browns) have really suffered through a drought of national championships for over almost fifty years. CJ says, “Now Cleveland, there’s a cursed town. Cleveland’s sports history is built on being the team bad things happen to: Jordan over Ehlo in the 1989 NBA PlayoffsJohn Elway’s “The Drive” in the 1986 NFL PlayoffsErnest Byner’s “The Fumble” in the 1987 NFL Playoffs, the existence of the Baltimore Ravens, the Cleveland Indians starring in Major League, and everything LeBron James did this summer.”

Several other cities don’t have it easy, either.  Seattle hasn’t had a major national title since 1979, and the Mariners and Seahawks have never won a national championship, ever.   It seems like Buffalo is cursed too, as they’ve never won a Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, or NBA Championship in their history.  And San Diego is the largest city in the US that has never won a modern major league sports championship.  So there are plenty of other suffering cities out there, too.

While DC has seen its share of bad luck, there are plenty of other cities out there that have gone longer without any national championships.  Still, it’s hard to keep up the positive mindset when DC’s sports teams get so close to throw it all away (ahem, Capitals last season) or get their hopes up on a miracle pitcher and have him taken away.  But, as CJ notes, at least we’re not all dispirited sports fanatics here: “Most of DC doesn’t live and die by the area’s sports teams. Obviously there are die hard fans of the Caps and Wizards but DC is a Redskins town that flirts with whatever other teams happen to be winning. And the winningest D.C. team over the last 15 years can’t even get its own stadium — D.C. United.”  So DC sports fans, if you want to break the ‘curse’, just learn to love soccer and head out to a DC United game.

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at) WeLoveDC.com!

9 thoughts on “DC Mythbusting: The Sports Curse

  1. Of cities with teams in the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA, D.C. has gone the second longest (by several months) without a championship (’91 Redskins). The Twin Cities is #1 — ’91 Twins. However, both cities did not have teams in every league for the duration of that span — no baseball until ’05 for D.C., no hockey until ’99 for TC.

  2. The Twin Cities actually had a hockey gap from 1993 (North Stars move to Dallas) and 2000 (Wild begin play). They’re also could be seen as slightly better off as the Vikings have made 3 NFC Championship games (1998, 2000, 2009), the Wild made it to the Western Conference Finals once, and the Twins are regularly in the post-season.

    Of course, the Twins have had 3 straight postseason sweeps and are 1-6 in postseason play since 2002, the Vikings got hosed in 2 of those NFC Championship games, and the Wild nowadays aren’t doing so hot. Add in the Timberwolves doing nothing with Kevin Garnett, then trading him to Boston where he won a championship his first there and it might not be as great.

    Some cities with “lesser” streaks aren’t that well off either. Look at Dallas and Atlanta, for example.

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  4. As a Met fan, there is no more a DC area curse than there is a curse on the Mets.

    Though a Mets curse is more likely.

  5. @Hobbes: Just one Mets curse? Just one? Which one? I think there are multiple curses: Trading Nolan Ryan, Brooklyn Dodgers worship, all the events around CitiField’s construction, etc.

    What would be easier to find is a city, besides the Big 3, with 4 teams that has had no real drought or misfortune to go with it. Okay, Philly at least tried during the ’83 Sixers and the ’08 Phillies.

  6. DC fans trying to act like they are poor suffers are a bit ridiculous and laughable

    The Skins are solid and usually are
    Caps are great regular season teams
    Wizards blow

  7. So I guess D.C. United’s national (MLS) championships in 1996, 1997, 1999, & 2004 don’t count?

    You mention that DC United has been the area’s winningist team until lately, but you completely forgot (dismissed?) their 4 league championships, double the number of championships of any other team in the league.

  8. As much as MLS has made strides over the past decade toward being a proper soccer league, it’s hard to take them seriously in comparison to professional leagues across the pond or south of the border. I don’t like to make attendance the benchmark for what I consider to be a professional sport, but United’s less than 30% capacity average for RFK doesn’t do them any favors. The Caps, Wizards, Redskins, and even Nationals are averaging well over 50% capacity for their respective venues, which makes it harder.

    Has DCU done well? Absolutely. Have they done well lately? Not so much.

  9. All I’m saying is make up your mind. Either include DC United and the championships they’ve won, or don’t. The MLS may not stack up to the other leagues around the world, but a league championship, especially that many and that many more than any other team, is still a significant achievement.

    Oh and are those capacity numbers for DCU based on the total seating in RFK or based on the regular seating for DCU games? I know most of the time they don’t even sell tickets for the upper deck, just curious if those seats are counted for that capacity #.