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How transient is Washington?

With a talented new quarterback and a baseball team in the major league playoffs for the first time since 1933, Washington sports are getting a lot of attention recently. In commenting on the state of Washington sports culture, a lot of writers assert that DC is apathetic towards its team because the population is so transient. But how transient is DC?

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

The Census Census Bureau's American Community Survey shows that in some ways the conventional wisdom is correct, but there's not necessarily a correlation between a transient population and a lack of local fervor.

According to the Census ACS's 2011 one-year estimate, 9.1% of DC's population lived in another state the year before. How does that compare with other sports towns?

Boston (Suffolk County)5.9%
Baltimore City3.0%
New York City2.8%
... Manhattan6.2%

Of these cities, DC is far and away the highest. However, this is not necessarily an apples-to-apples analysis. If someone moved from Arlington to DC, they would count in this tally, whereas if someone were to move from Buffalo to Broadway, it wouldn't.

That caveat aside, it's surprising to see what cities are higher on that list. Boston has the second highest, yet many would call the Hub the most parochial town on the list (or at least a close second to Chicago). Notice also how much higher Manhattan's numbers are compare with NYC as a whole. Not surprisingly, the most urban part of New York has the most new residents.

Now, consider the same cities but also include residents who moved from a different county within the same state. The numbers (with the obvious exception of DC's) jump up:

New York City4.9%
... Manhattan9.1%

This demonstrates that these other cities are often the destination of regional migrants. Sports-wise, these new arrivals probably already rooted for their new home team. But if the criticism of DC is that too many residents have only just arrived to the city itself, it's got plenty of company.

When you look just at 25-34 year olds—the prime ages of migration—the respective positions are similar, but the numbers are much higher:

New York City9.2%
... Manhattan14.6%

By middle age, however, DC residents are positively planted. Here are the numbers for 35-44 year olds:

New York City5.3%
... Manhattan5.1%

So, in general, it is correct to say that DC has a higher transplanted population than other cities. But as the example of Boston demonstrates, there's not necessarily a correlation between transplants and a lack of a parochial esprit de corps. If in fact DC lacks such cohesion, don't blame it on the new residents.

Topher Mathews has lived in the DC area since 1999. He created the Georgetown Metropolitan in 2008 to report on news and events for the neighborhood and to advocate for changes that will enhance its urban form and function. A native of Wilton, CT, he lives with his wife and daughter in Georgetown.  


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No, clearly blame it on crappy sports teams for the past 15 years.

Although the caps seem to attract carpetbaggers....

by charlie on Oct 5, 2012 10:17 am • linkreport

I have been here for 15 years since graduating HS! that's not transient right?

by matt on Oct 5, 2012 10:21 am • linkreport

Interesting, but FYI -- the ACS one-year estimates are the least accurate. Would be more interesting to see what three- and five-year estimates say.

by Caitlin on Oct 5, 2012 10:44 am • linkreport

From a sports perspective, a city like Boston with a high transient population but also has a number of sports teams with success which can attract fans all over the country especially those who don't have a local team to root for. Why not root for the patriots if you grew up in Las Vegas?

I know in Richmond (where I'm from, but I live in Arlington still) most football fans my age (mid to late 20's) are either Dallas fans (their 90's success and America's team and all that) or Washington fans (proximity plus the 92 superbowl win and all that. There are plenty of people who pick a favorite team as a kid for myriad reasons and end up sticking with it through their life.

by drumz on Oct 5, 2012 10:49 am • linkreport

The teams haven't been great, sure. But, the DC region is not one where people are basically brought up to take a lot of pride in it, relatively speaking. It's not particularly cool or hip and it's very white-collar and political. And the white-collar temperament is usually more reserved and less into boisterous camaraderie. Despite the area being fairly diverse, it's not as defined by certain immigrant groups as certain other places.

by Vik on Oct 5, 2012 10:53 am • linkreport


Good point, and you're right that using the five year estimates may have been a better source, but it's worth noting that the margins of error for this data set are generally pretty small (mostly less than one percentage point). So it's unlikely that the 5 year would be that different.

by Topher Mathews on Oct 5, 2012 10:57 am • linkreport

I think that Boston's numbers are largely effected by the student population.

Also, it seems (from observation alone, I'm not sure how you'd try to get numbers on this) that the people who migrate or settle in Boston as young adults tend to be from New England (which, as a region, supports the Boston teams), whereas the young adults who settle in NY and DC tend to be from all over.

by Catherine on Oct 5, 2012 10:58 am • linkreport

"Transient" doesn't just mean new-to-town, right? It also implies that they'll leave soon, too. So, to really get a sense of how transient things are, you'd have to look at out-migration as well as in-migration.

My gut would be that metro DC's out-migration isn't nearly as transient as the reputation.

However, for the purposes of sports fandom, many of those allegiances are formed at early ages and through family ties (I know most of mine were), so this is still a very interesting analysis.

by Alex B. on Oct 5, 2012 10:59 am • linkreport

Two questions here:
1. Is DC becoming more of a sports town? Well, it's definitely becoming more of a Nats town for sure - more people at games, more excitement and enthusiasm at games, and more people with Nats hats on everywhere. The last few seasons you used to go to games and wonder if people even knew how baseball worked.

2. Is DC more apathetic about its teams than other cities? Yes and No. There are plenty of 'Skins fans, but the team is now 20 years removed from its really good days and has been pretty much horrible for the last 6 years, save for 2007 when they backslid into the playoffs when the NFC was absolutely terrible. Certainly there was some excitement that year come playoffs, but during the season they were mediocre so people didn't care as much.

As for baseball fans, well DC has only had a baseball team for 8 years and it has been a losing (and badly losing) team for most of those. There's no carryover of enthusiasm to be expected from the fact that DC had a baseball team 40+ years ago.

The Capitals have had a series of winning seasons (after a series of absolutely horrible ones) but hockey is also more of a niche sport with fewer fans. Basketball is also niche and the Wizards have been mostly bad (and TERRIBLE) with a few playoff years. Also playoffs in Hockey/Basketball mean less because SO many teams (half the league in each case) make the playoffs.

But who are people really comparing DC to when they complain about how it's "not a sports town"? Boston and New York? Really the totally rabid Sox enthusiasm (and Sox-Yankees rivalry) in Boston is a recent (last 20 years) phenomenon: back in the bad old days when they were horrible there were plenty of fans but the enthusiasm wasn't there. Same thing with the Yankees back in the days when they weren't winning - people were not all gung-ho about the Yankees in the Mattingly era when they were mediocre. And the Patriots didn't have a rabid fanbase until they became a "dynasty." Teams with storied histories carry fan bases better though.

by MLD on Oct 5, 2012 11:59 am • linkreport

That's interesting, I've lived here my whole life and most of the people I know are from here too. Of course there are the people that relocate.. but I don't think it's as transient as stated.

by Sara on Oct 5, 2012 12:15 pm • linkreport

The ACS numbers for Boston probably reflect the university populations, the stats for sports team support (however you can measure that) probably reflect the population of New England. Using demographics of the city of Boston to make a point about the attitude towards its sports teams is misleading because those teams are supported by the whole region of New England, not just the city of Boston, not to mention that winners attract bandwagoneers from away.

by Paul on Oct 5, 2012 12:45 pm • linkreport

I pretty much agree with everything MLD said. Unfortunately I had to step away before posting. Fortunately, I hit refresh. Wilbon has never cared about DC (the city he built his career on while plugging his home Chicago and living in Arizona). DC is a good sports town. It's a diverse city with great fans for all of the sports (whether Mystics, Kastles, Caps, Skins, or United). Unfortunately, many of the teams have been horrible for significant periods of time. That people still attend events after years of ineptitude is a testament to the fans. DC is a basketball city while Washington is a football region. It is becoming a hockey region and baseball is finally being welcomed back.

People always say places like Boston are great sports towns. That's revisionist/recent history. Fenway wasn't home to lovable losers that everyone packed in to see. There were bids for a new stadium and drastic renovations before they got hot and won a Series and everyone remembered the "good ol' days." It was the same with the Celtics and the Garden when they were an afterthought in the 90s and Pats before Belichick. Likewise, college sports never consume the region since it is so divided. People tend to define a good sports town as one that is winning and ignore actual fan support. Many of the labels come from the Post constantly hiring sports people with little knowledge of the region and little desire to understand the fans. I appreciate a lot of what Dan Steinberg does. He's not necessarily a sports reporter, but his acknowledgement of fans has come from actually interacting with fans and not just other media members, celebrities and stars.


by selxic on Oct 5, 2012 12:53 pm • linkreport

Can we please have a link-back to the data?

by John M on Oct 5, 2012 1:33 pm • linkreport

One year migration statistics probably have little correlation with sports team loyalties.

1. It's difficult to disentangle "transience" with the fact that the Washington area has experienced (unlike most other large metro areas in the northeast quadrant of the USA) significant domestic in-migration over the past 70 years.

2. This metro area, unlike many others, probably receives a higher share of domestic migrants from outside its immediate hinterland. The 1990 census, for example, found that 57.6% of New York area residents were born in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut; 60.5% of Chicagoans were born in Illinois, Indiana, or Wisconsin; and only 34.5% of residents were born within D.C., Maryland, or Virginia.

3. The relative "newness" of the city as a major metro coincides with the relative novelty of its sports teams. It's worth noting that of the big four teams, the Redskins have been based here for almost twice as long as any other team (75 years, vs. 38-39 for the Caps and Wizards), and to have been anchored locally during the area's great 1930-1960 boom. (Population grew 50%+ every decade from 1930-1960; it took two decades, 1960-1980, to grow another 50%, and then three, 1980-2010 for the next 50% increase.) Sports team loyalties don't shift much over time, so older teams have a lot of inertia behind them.

4. Vik correctly points out that employment mix probably plays a role. People with white collar jobs are more likely to enjoy participatory sports, as opposed to spectator sports.

by Payton on Oct 5, 2012 1:40 pm • linkreport

In this analysis, the term transience is loosely being used as a way to describe or measure how people identify with a city and its sports team. That being said, the fan base for pro sports tends to be regional, so maybe it makes sense to look at migration patterns differently. Using the same dataset (ACS 2011), I looked at migration to a city from outside its metro area. In this case, DC is nothing special compared to places like Manhattan, Atlanta, and Boston.

% of population that lived outside the corresponding metro area the year before:

DC - 6.0%
Boston - 7.2%
Atlanta - 5.9%
Chicago - 3.4%
Philadelphia - 3.4%
Baltimore - 3.6%
New York City - 2.7%
Manhattan - 5.9%

by Rob on Oct 5, 2012 2:56 pm • linkreport

I've always thought the local rabid devotion to the Redskins is the primary evidence against the 'Washington is not a sports town' idea, though I would concede that it's a football town first and foremost, and the other sports trail far behind. This is reinforced by the ability of the Skins to continue to draw all sports atention to their slightest move, even though they have been so bad in recent years. The Caps and Nationals are making inroads on that and I certainly hope in the near future all three have equally looyal fans.

by DCer on Oct 5, 2012 3:18 pm • linkreport

People from actual football towns often don't adopt the Deadskins. The much discussed shortage of Deadskins season tickets probably has more to do with their being held by trade associations, lobbying firms, etc. If you ask around, it's often easy to get Deadskins tickets. The Os acquired the loyalty of many American league natives during DC's non-baseball years. It still remains to be seen whether the Nats will turn into a third incarnation of the Senators (perennial bottom dwellers) in the long run. For a while, the Wizards seemed to be the closest thing to a team with local fans, but that ended with their winning. The Caps also seem to have fair weather fans--itwasn't long ago that they were known as the Crapitals and game nights did not fill the Metro.

Atlanta whose metro is similar in transience suffers from a lack of pro team popularity, esp. for football. The locals get more excited about UGA and Ga Tech than the Falcons. And out of town boosters clubs are huge--the Browns and Bills clubs were the biggest of their type. The DC equivalents are probably also very large. Of all ATL's teams, only the Braves have a truly devoted following, despite a crappy stadium.

by Rich on Oct 5, 2012 4:13 pm • linkreport

From my personal experience, when I lived in the DC area [1979-84], I never stopped rooting for my Philly teams [case in point; when the Phillies won the World Series in 1980, I took my leave, rode a 2am bus, watched the Parade, partied with friends, took another 2am bus back to DC , was back at work quite hung over the next morning]. Thanks to the availability of out-of-town papers, I followed my teams as if I was back home [now it is very much easier thanks to the Internet],I only took a very casual interest in the Redskins, and completely ignored the other teams [especially baseball because it was non-existent back in my day - I always wondered why anyone would go to Baltimore to see a baseball game]. Even when the teams turned crappy, I never stopped rooting for them either here in Philly, or in DC. Rooting for the hometown [Philly] team was ingrained in my blood, no matter where my body was at.

by Mark DeLatch on Oct 5, 2012 8:43 pm • linkreport

What about people over 45?

by Jazzy on Oct 6, 2012 3:34 pm • linkreport

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