By: Joe Pohoryles
Red Sox-Yankees. Ohio State-Michigan. Chestnut-Kobayashi. In every sport, rivalries enhance the viewing experience for sports fans. It can add stakes and bragging rights to otherwise inconsequential games. It bands a fanbase together against a common enemy. Rivals are the players/teams that you love to hate.
The Washington teams have plenty of rivals, whether it’s based on geography, recent playoff meetings or individual players. Fans will circle their calendars whenever these teams are scheduled to play each other, and they’ll pay close attention to their progress throughout the season, rooting for failure.
These teams come from cities of their own, and as a result, have become associated as a rival city. Some rival cities are based on just one team, and barely register as a true rival. Others are fully ingrained in the past, present and future of the team’s history.
Today, I will be listing the 10 most significant rival cities for Washington, D.C., from least to most intense.
Tier 5: Barely rivals, not that hostile
Teams associated with Washington: Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa is barely a rival city to Washington. Of Tampa Bay’s three major teams, only the Lightning have a somewhat contentious history with Washington. The Capitals and Lightning do not play in the same division, but they have run into each other in the playoffs several times since the Lightning entered the NHL in 1992.
With three playoff meetings, the first coming in 2003, the Lightning lead 2-1 all-time, but the Caps won most recently when the teams squared off in the back-and-forth, seven-game Eastern Conference Finals of 2018, en route to the Caps’ first Stanley Cup.
Both teams have, for the most part, been among the best teams in the league for much of recent history, which has led to some hostility in the playoffs, but once one or both teams fade into the basement of the league, the minimal animosity that exists between the two cities should fade entirely.
9. Carolina (Raleigh/Charlotte)
Teams associated with Washington: Carolina Hurricanes*, Charlotte Hornets*
*= division rival
While not exactly a city, the teams of North Carolina are within close proximity to the Washington teams, and as a result, two of the three teams that play in the Carolinas are in the same division as the Washington teams in those same leagues (NBA and NHL).
Despite the division rivalries, the animosity between the two regions has not exactly been heated in recent years. The Capitals and Hurricanes faced each other in the first round of the 2019 playoffs, but even then it just seemed more like a normal playoff matchup as opposed to two rivals going at each other.
Meanwhile in the NBA, Charlotte is one of the least successful franchises in league history, and the Wizards have not had much to hang their hat on in recent years either, so if there came a time when both teams became league powers, the story could be different, but otherwise, the fanbases have not had much to jaw each other about.
The Panthers, meanwhile, have been somewhat related to the Redskins in recent years, as the Skins lured Josh Norman, their First Team All-Pro corner, to Washington as a free agent in 2016, and they also brought on former head coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Kyle Allen this offseason. Enough to stoke the flames for a true rivalry? Hardly, but it’s an interesting connection nonetheless.
Tier 4: Hostile only if both sides are good
Teams associated with Washington: Boston Celtics, Boston Bruins
In football and baseball, the Washington and Boston teams play in different conferences/leagues without much significant history head-to-head, so the only real rivalry comes in basketball and hockey.
The Celtics and Wizards had much back-and-forth in the 2016-17 season, where both sides posed as threats to LeBron James’ Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. With scuffles and off-court smack talk, Wizards-Celtics quickly developed into a modern Eastern Conference rivalry. The teams met in the second round of the 2017 playoffs, where the Celtics ultimately topped the Wizards in seven games, and while the Celtics have since remained a top team in the East, the Wizards slowly sunk back out of the playoff picture, ending the hostility for the time being.
The Bruins and Capitals, meanwhile, have long been two major forces in the Eastern Conference. With the current playoff format and their recent standings in the league, the only time the teams would be able to meet in playoff hockey is the conference final, but every matchup between the two sides always brings excitement.
Once one or both teams fall out of contention, there won’t be much intensity. (Fun fact: the Redskins franchise began in Boston as the Boston Braves/Redskins from 1932-1936.)
Teams associated with Washington: Miami Marlins*, Miami Heat*, Miami Dolphins
The DC area has two division rivals in Miami, but with the recent struggles of the Marlins, and the lack of close competition between the Wizards and Heat, neither have established themselves as major rivals.
The Marlins have been in a miserable state for years, and continue to face a lengthy rebuild. The Nats, meanwhile, have won the NL East four times in the past eight seasons, and just won the World Series in 2019. The teams just have not been on the same competitive level for it to get tense. If both teams find themselves in a tight division race down the line, then things should get interesting, but that’s the only way.
The same situation can be found in the NBA, except the Heat have been the superior team. Through the Dwyane Wade and LeBron years, plus the resurgent Jimmy Butler-led Heat, Miami has been competitive in most years over the past 15 seasons. The Wizards, meanwhile, have had a few strong seasons, but otherwise remained squarely out of finals contention.
The Redskins and Dolphins don’t have much relation these days, but they faced each other in the Super Bowl twice, first in Super Bowl VII, where the Dolphins completed their perfect season in 1972, and again in Super Bowl XVII, where the Redskins got revenge to win their first Super bowl in the 1982 season.
Tier 3: Consistently heated
Teams associated with Washington: Baltimore Ravens, Baltimore Orioles
Unlike most of the cities on this list, neither of the Baltimore teams share a division or even a conference with the Washington teams, but the shear proximity of the two cities brings natural animosity.
The Ravens and Redskins play each other just once every four years, so while the head-to-head matchups are rare, the fanbases definitely exchange barbs throughout the season. There are some Redskins fans who consider the Ravens their AFC team, and vice versa, and there are even some disgruntled Redskins fans who are switching sides entirely, so while the geography can put the two sides at odds, it’s not nearly as hostile as other rivalries.
The Orioles and Nationals, meanwhile, get to face off at least four teams every season in “The Beltway Series.” The Orioles hold the all-time lead, but the teams have been on opposite sides of the major league standings in recent years. Given the more consistent meetings, a secondary rivalry has been cultivated, but only that goes so far.
When Washington was without a baseball team from 1972-2004, many Washingtonians turned to the Orioles as their baseball team, so the Nats’ arrival has created a plethora of fans who root for the Nats in the NL and the O’s in the AL.
There is certainly a love/hate dynamic when it comes to Baltimore and Washington, so while it may not be among the most intense city rivalries, it certainly holds a significance in Washington.
Teams associated with Washington: Atlanta Hawks*, Atlanta Braves*
Atlanta, much like Miami, shares two division rivals with the city of Washington, except in recent years, the Washington and Atlanta teams have been zigging and zagging at the same time. In other words, these teams have been good and bad around the same time in recent years.
For example, when the Nationals arrived in 2005, and stumbled around in last place for a few years, the Braves didn’t finish any better than third in the division from 2006-2009. When the Nats won the division for the first time in 2012, the Braves finished second, and when the Braves won in 2013, the Nats were second.
The Braves had a few down years from 2015-2017, where the Nats won the division twice in that span, but in the past two seasons, both teams were back at the top of the division again, nearly meeting in the NLCS in 2019.
There has not been any playoff history between these two sides, but both teams have been in the thick of the division races for the better part of a decade, so there is certainly a fair amount of disdain between both teams.
The Hawks and Wizards, meanwhile, have met a couple times in the playoffs, and have largely followed the same trend when it came to winning and losing seasons. The Wizards peaked in the John Wall era from 2013-2018, making the playoffs four times across five seasons. The Hawks, while making 10 consecutive playoff appearances from 2008-2017, didn’t become a true powerhouse until 2014-15, where they won 60 games and made it to the conference finals, knocking off the Wizards in the process. Nowadays, both teams are toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference, and are trying to build back into playoff contenders.
The relationship between Atlanta and Washington is not the most contentious, but it’s certainly among the top five rival cities.
Tier 2: Strong hatred in just one league
Teams associated with Washington: Pittsburgh Penguins*
Although the Steelers and Pirates have no real connection with their Washington counterparts, the Penguins are the most hated team hockey team in Washington. With a long history of postseason exits at the hands of the Penguins and the individual rivalry of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, (although Ovechkin and fellow Russian Evgeni Malkin had more of a direct dislike for each other), the rivalry between the Caps and Penguins alone is enough to vault the city of Pittsburgh over the other teams on this list.
Entering the 2018 playoffs, the Capitals were 1-9 against the Penguins in playoff series all-time, and the two previous seasons saw Pittsburgh knock off the top-seeded Capitals en route to a Stanley Cup championship. Ovechkin’s Capitals finally beat the Penguins in the playoffs in six games, and went on to win the team’s first Cup of its own, so the Caps have the last laugh so far. Still, with just a 2-9 postseason record against Pittsburgh, the mutual hatred persists.
Additionally, any Ravens supporters from Washington will strongly dislike the Steelers, as they are a major rival of the Ravens, but looking strictly at Washington teams, it’s the Penguins alone that put Pittsburgh in this tier.
Teams associated with Washington: Dallas Cowboys*
The Redskins-Cowboys rivalry is one of the biggest rivalries in league history, although the Redskins’ past 20 years of struggles have weakened it on the national landscape. While the Cowboys’ national following among bandwagon fans and the constant delusion that pervades the fanbase makes the team widely disliked on a national scale, their NFC East rivals have even more reason to dislike them.
Much like Pittsburgh, none of the other Dallas teams have any sort of rivalry with Washington, as the Mavericks and Stars play in the Western Conference in their respective leagues, and the Rangers play in the AL. That said, the Rangers arrived in Arlington (in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area) from Washington, when the second version of the Washington Senators relocated after the 1971 season, so there could be some valid gripes with the Rangers among DC baseball fans.
Both the Cowboys and Redskins have meddling owners, play in large stadiums and are among the handful of teams with three or more Super Bowls, but neither have won one since the 1990s, and yet despite the similarities, the hatred between these two teams is as strong as ever before. It’s better for the rivalry when both teams are competitive, and yet either fanbase would ideally want the other team to finish 0-16 every season.
Tier 1: Strong hatred in multiple leagues
2. New York
Teams associated with Washington: New York Giants*, New York Rangers*, New York Mets*, New York Islanders*
The Redskins and Giants are two of the oldest franchises in the NFL, and while their rivalry is not as strong as it is with the Eagles and Cowboys, there is still plenty of smack and bragging rights at stake when both sides face off twice every year.
The Capitals, meanwhile, have two division rivals from New York, but the recent playoff history with the Rangers has put them right behind Pittsburgh when it comes to the most hated hockey teams in Washington.
The Caps met the Islanders numerous times during the playoffs in the 1980s and ’90s, but the two sides have not met in a series since 2015. The Caps’ former head coach, Barry Trotz, went to the Islanders after winning the Stanley Cup, adding a little notch in the intrigue between the teams, but there is still much more animosity with the Rangers’ fanbase than there is with the Islanders’.
The Mets are yet another division rival for a Washington team, and the their up-and-down performances in recent years has either put them squarely in the playoff race or way out of it; no matter the results, the rivalry is fierce. After showing out for the Mets in the 2015 NLCS, Daniel Murphy signed with the Nationals during the following offseason and became a key offensive piece in DC, wreaking extra havoc anytime they faced the Mets.
With strong rivalries across multiple leagues, there is no doubt that New York is arguably the biggest rival city for Washington, but I believe the next one takes the cake…
Teams associated with Washington: Philadelphia Eagles*, Philadelphia Phillies*, Philadelphia Flyers*
Of the most volatile fanbases nationwide, Philly likely tops all lists. The Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field is a hostile environment for every opposing fan, but the intensity multiplies for any division rival. The general nastiness leads to endless trash-talking and sometimes physical altercations. That spans across all sports.
The Flyers are not as big a rival to the Capitals as the Penguins and Rangers, but the teams have recent playoff meetings, including the 2016 playoffs, when the game was halted after fans threw tribute bracelets for Ed Snyder — the longtime team owner who had recently died — after the Caps had taken a large lead.
The Phillies are a major division rival that became more hated in Washington after the Nats’ 2010 first overall pick and former Rookie of the Year/MVP Bryce Harper left the team to sign a 13-year/$330 million deal with the Phillies after 2018. The once-adored star in Washington quickly became a traitor, and every matchup since has become a must-watch event.
As it becomes more familiar seeing Harper in a Phillies uniform, that excitement will fade, and no doubt the Nationals’ World Series title will likely lessen the fans’ resentment, but the rivalry will never fade as long as the two sides play in the same division.
If the Wizards and 76ers ever become top teams in the Eastern Conference at the same time, that will no doubt turn into a fierce rivalry on and off the court, but for now, the teams play in separate divisions, and have not been good at the same time in recent years.
Even without the Sixers, the three Philly teams combine to form the biggest rival city for the Washington teams.
What do you think about this list? Let me know in the comments or tweet me @Joe_Poho.