Over the past few years, when Chase Hughes’ out-of-town friends would visit D.C., they’d ask him about attending a Nationals game. Their reason was simple. They wanted to see Bryce Harper.
“He was like a tourist attraction,” says Hughes, a sportswriter for NBC Sports Washington.
But D.C. is no longer home to that particular attraction. During the off-season, Harper signed with the Philadelphia Phillies, the Nats’ National League East rivals, and fans booed him mercilessly when he returned to Nationals Park earlier this month.
His absence leaves a void when it comes to local pro athletes with undeniable, transcendent star power. Harper’s combination of talent, bravado, and propensity to generate online content with a bat flip, hair accessory, or offhanded quip made him an athlete whose persona resonated beyond baseball and his city. In 2015, Harper won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award, cementing his stature in the sport.
Now that attention will likely spread among other D.C. stars. While these athletes might not fill the space Harper has left, D.C. is still home to several big name pro athletes, and moving forward, the spotlight on them will be even brighter.
“Bryce Harper leaving is a reminder to D.C. sports fans to look around and see what they still have,” says Hughes, who grew up in northern Virginia and has covered the Nationals, Wizards, and Capitals for NBC Sports Washington (formerly known as CSN Mid-Atlantic) since 2009. “You have these really good players [that] a lot of towns would love to see.”
Ryan Zimmerman remembers a vastly different sports town when he arrived in 2005 as the Nats’ first-round draft pick. Baseball had just returned to the city, and the Washington football team dominated the conversation.
Since then, Zimmerman has provided some of the most memorable moments in the franchise’s history. His 11 walk-off home runs have earned him the nickname “Mr. Walk-Off,” and Zimmerman has seen the team go from one of the worst in the MLB to a regular postseason contender.
His first season with the Nats coincided with the arrival of another now-familiar face: a 20-year-old from Russia named Alexander Ovechkin.
“I think for the most part it used to be just kind of … an NFL town,” says Zimmerman, a 34-year-old from Virginia Beach. “The Caps really gained a following. Ovi brought a lot of that here with him being drafted, and people like to go watch guys score goals, and that’s what he does. He’s kind of transformed that.”
Ovechkin, now 33, is a popular choice when discussing which athletes fill the Bryce canyon. He’s spent his entire NHL career with the Capitals, is a three-time winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy (the NHL’s MVP award), and last year led the team to its first Stanley Cup title. D.C. had not won a title in the four major professional sports since 1992.
The triumphs have overshadowed the more polarizing aspects of Ovechkin’s personality, like his embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin and excitement over visiting Donald Trump at the White House. He remains one of the few D.C. players even pro athletes like Zimmerman and sports journalists would pay to see. Ovechkin recently scored 50 goals in a season for the eighth time in his career, becoming just the fourth player to score at least 50 at his age or older.
“Ovechkin is clearly a tourist attraction,” says 106.7 The Fan on-air personality Pete Medhurst, borrowing a term used by Hughes. “You’re going to watch that guy play still. He defies the odds.”
During a recent radio segment, Medhurst, who also does play-by-play work for the Naval Academy sports teams, commented on how even without Harper, the Nationals have one of the best players in the sport in pitcher Max Scherzer. While Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, only pitches every fifth day, dedicated baseball fans tune in when he’s on the mound.
“You know he aspires to perfection every day,” says Medhurst, “and if you can’t appreciate that as a media member or fan—I mean, we simply ask athletes to give [us] what we’re paying for, and he does that and more.”
ESPN’s 2019 World Fame rankings only include two D.C. pro athletes: Soccer star Wayne Rooney (No. 40) and the oft-injured Wizards center Dwight Howard (No. 84). Harper is the only baseball player on the list at No. 99.
The 33-year-old Rooney joined D.C. United mid-way through last season and his presence pushed the middling team into the playoffs. 17 million people follow him on Twitter. For comparison’s sake, 6.71 million users follow Howard and 1.06 million follow Harper.
Like Harper, Rooney, a former Premier League star regularly featured in British tabloids, can start a conversation by sheer force of his play and personality. His recent arrest at Dulles Airport made headlines around the globe.
“I want to go to a D.C. United game,” says Mystics guard Natasha Cloud. “Wayne Rooney was a huge pickup for us, for the city. United has a good fan base already, but I think bringing in a high-caliber and well known player was a great move. I’m really excited to see them.”
Cloud knows what it’s like to play with a superstar. Her teammate Elena Delle Donne, a former WNBA MVP, is one of the biggest names in women’s basketball and led the Mystics to the WNBA Finals last year. For the past four seasons, Cloud has played a vocal role with the Mystics and has made it a goal this year to attend at least one game of each of D.C.’s pro teams. “I’ve been to the Wizards, Caps, and just want to be more involved,” she says.
From her vantage point, Ovechkin, Delle Donne, John Wall, and more recently, Bradley Beal, are among the most popular D.C. pro athletes. Last week Beal became the first Wizards player to finish a season with at least 2,000 points, 400 rebounds, and 400 assists.
“I think the main person, right here, right now, that I would pay a lot of money for is Brad,” Cloud says. “I think Brad has done a phenomenal job and I don’t think people give him enough credit, whether it was last year when John went out or this year when John went out … He leaves his heart out on the court, and he loves this city. I don’t think still till this day he gets enough credit.”
In today’s digital world, a social media presence is critical to an athlete’s clout. The three measurements in ESPN’s World Fame index are “Search Score,” “Endorsements,” and “Social Following.”
To Zimmerman, that’s a young person’s game. Some athletes, like Harper, enjoy it, while others find it too time consuming or burdensome.
Zimmmerman believes that players like 20-year-old Juan Soto and 25-year-old Trea Turner of the Nats have the talent and affinity for social media to partially fill the void that Harper leaves. Mallory Pugh, a 20-year-old soccer phenom playing for the Washington Spirit, is also an up-and-coming local athlete who has a large social media following (nearly 300,000 on Instagram, and over 70,000 on Twitter), in addition to endorsement deals with Nike and Gatorade.
Noticeably absent from people’s lists are players from the local team in the country’s most popular sports league—Dan Snyder’s football team. There isn’t one figure, like former quarterback Robert Griffin III, that serves as a lightning rod or a player fans can rally around.
“They don’t have that player that will galvanize and make someone go, ‘I have to go watch that guy,’” says Medhurst. “They have 20-to-25,000 empty seats in the stadium … If they draft a quarterback that will change the nature of the franchise, that player has a chance to do it, but that player doesn’t exist right now.”
Instead, Medhurst encourages D.C. sports fans to focus on the greatness already here. With Harper gone, it’ll be easier to appreciate those who have stayed.