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During the Washington Nationals’ World Series championship rally on Nov. 2, 2019, Mayor Muriel Bowser stood on a stage on Pennsylvania Avenue NW and leaned in to the microphone with a declaration: “It is true. We are the District of Champions!” By then, that phrase had become ubiquitous. The unofficial slogan appeared on T-shirts, hats, towels, and posters. Local professional sports teams and fans used the phrase as a social media hashtag with genuine pride.
The Capitals started the streak off by winning their first Stanley Cup title on June 7, 2018. The following year, on Oct. 10, 2019, the Mystics won their first WNBA championship, and the Nats followed weeks after that, lifting a championship trophy of their own on Oct. 30. For a 17-month span, D.C. sports fans embraced being certified winners in a town that spent nearly three decades experiencing letdowns and disappointment.
“I was not cynical at all,” says Chris Williams, a 40-year-old Northern Virginia native and Navy Yard resident who describes his D.C. sports fandom as “at the very top of [the] scale as far as daily interest and enthusiasm.” Williams is the general manager of Public Bar Live, a sports bar in Dupont Circle and attends about 40 to 50 Nationals games every season. He also owns a red T-shirt purchased in 2019 with an outline of the D.C. map with the words District of Champions in large, bold letters. “It was certainly an accurate statement,” Williams says. “D.C. was the District of Champions for a snapshot in time.”
But, he adds, it would be tough for him to wear that shirt these days—at least unironically. After the euphoria of 2018 and 2019, most professional D.C. sports teams struggled through a pandemic altered 2020 season, and both the Capitals and Wizards collapsed in the first round of the playoffs earlier this year. The Nationals are last in the National League East, and the Mystics are working through a new roster as former MVP Elena Delle Donne continues to recover from a pair of back surgeries. The Washington Football Team was pleasantly surprising last season, winning the historically bad NFC East with a 7-9 record, and could repeat the feat this season, but Dan Snyder is still the team’s owner.
“Some of the afterglow of 2018 and 2019 is beginning to fade,” Williams says. “The status of our current teams, I gotta be honest, I feel like all the teams are trending down, except strangely, the Washington Football Team.”
D.C.’s downward trend is another reminder of how hard it is to win professional sports championships. It’s an experience that only a few cities can claim with any regularity, and dynastic teams such as the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, and the NFL’s New England Patriots, are celebrated and well known largely because those accomplishments are so rare. The last D.C. organization playing in one of the country’s big four leagues—the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL—to achieve that level of sustained success was the Washington Football Team of the first Joe Gibbs era, which won Super Bowls in 1983, 1988, and 1992. D.C. United won four Major League Soccer Cups between 1996 and 2004, when the league was in its infancy.
Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault understands how much has to go right in order for a team to consistently contend for championships. Before guiding the Mystics to the WNBA Finals in 2018 and a WNBA championship in 2019, he was a scout and assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers from 1980 to 1982. In the 1980s, the Lakers, led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, won five NBA titles and reached the NBA Finals eight times.
“I think the first thing is that, at the end of every year, the simple mathematics say only one team gets to win,” Thibault says. “And in pro sports, no matter what league you’re in, there’s always multiple really good teams. So just because you win one year, you might’ve gotten the right bounce, the right break, or you stay healthy or whatever, but there are always good teams every year.”
The health of players is a huge factor in teams being able to remain consistent title threats, according to Thibault. Winning championships, he adds, also puts a target on the team’s back; opponents will tailor their rosters to beat the defending champion. Then there’s the mental aspect.
“It’s understanding that you’re gonna get everybody’s best shot every night and there’s a mental grind that goes with that, and kind of from both a player and coaching standpoint in balancing out the emotional or mental part of being a defending champion is tough,” Thibault says.
Thibault doesn’t remember when he first heard the phrase District of Champions, but to him it means that all the professional sports teams in D.C. push and support each other. “I think that it helps the pride in the city,” he says. Asked if the District of Champions era is over, Thibault replies with a laugh: “I know we’re doing our best to extend it.”
The origin of District of Champions is not completely clear. The earliest Washington Post article with the phrase comes from a July 28, 2018, piece by Mark Selig with the headline “District of Champions? Ted Leonsis’s Washington Valor win ArenaBowl after 2-10 season” about the now defunct team winning the 2018 Arena Football League championship game. Selig tells City Paper that he “probably” wrote the headline but does not take credit for coining or popularizing the slogan. “Seems like that phrase was going around a lot at the time and I probably did tongue in cheek (as if a pretty fraudulent AFL title qualified for civic pride),” he writes in a direct message.
Search for District of Champions on Twitter and you’ll get countless results, including one from the official Washington Capitals account from June 23, 2018. City Paper reached out to the Capitals and Monumental Sports & Entertainment to ask if either organization played a role in coining or popularizing the slogan, but did not receive an answer in time for publication.
Regardless of who came up with the slogan, District of Champions became a vocal statement of pride every time a D.C. sports team did well. “District of Champions to me meant an opportunity to celebrate what we’ve accomplished in sports as a city between the Capitals and the Nationals and the Mystics and the Valor,” says Grant Paulsen, the cohost of the “Grant and Danny Show” on 106.7 The Fan. “I think people were more celebrating the accomplishment than they were projecting the titles to come. Now if they do, then add them to the pile … They don’t take those titles away. The flags still fly forever. This is still the District of Champions, because those teams are still championship clubs that we’ll never forget.”
Paulsen, a 33-year-old native of King George County, Virginia, and longtime D.C. sports fan who has worked at The Fan since 2009, feels more optimistic about the direction of local sports teams than fans like Williams do. “I feel like we’re in a healthy place,” Paulsen says. “There aren’t that many markets that can claim recent championships in multiple sports, and we’ve got a bunch of teams that are still somewhat in the honeymoon period.”
For reference, Paulsen mentions that, despite the disappointing first round playoffs exit for the Capitals, the team had another stellar regular season in which they finished second in the East Division. The focus this off-season will be whether or not the team re-signs Alex Ovechkin and general manager Brian MacLellan has said that it is one of the team’s priorities to have Ovechkin end his Hall of Fame career with the Capitals. Paulsen also believes that from a “big picture standpoint,” the Wizards have a nationally relevant player in Russell Westbrook and that if Bradley Beal stays on the roster, they’ll be a team “that’s on national TV a lot next year that people in the East [will] be paying close attention to.” The Nationals are the only team whose near-term future he says he worries about due to the thinning of their minor league system.
“Bottom line being I think there is plenty to be excited about in every sport for a sports fan in this town in a way that maybe hasn’t been the case for a long time,” Paulsen says.
But for fans like Williams, the honeymoon period is over. “I think that period is done now and now we’re in the throes of marriage and one partner has been asked repeatedly to clean up the dishes in the sink and that partner just keeps doing it,” he says. “Now both of them are cynical [about] each other.” Instead of District of Champions, Williams suggests that D.C. pro sports these days should be referred to as a “district of cautious optimism.”
But the memories of those triumphant 17 months still linger. The District of Champions era may be in the past, but at least it happened. “It was all worth it,” Williams says. “Like all the crap, all the snark, all the jokes at our expense, it’s all worth it when you win.”
This article has been updated to reflect that the Capitals finished the 2020-2021 regular season second in the East Division, not first.