As of Thursday, we’ve had a full year to digest the reality of the Washington Commanders.
I was plenty critical of the Commanders brand rollout on Feb. 2, last year, and a full year later, there is still a significant list of gripes (including, but not limited to, a jersey that made the infamous Jim Zorn gaffe a reality).
But team president Jason Wright — the public face of the Commanders rebrand — seemed prepared for those criticisms in an interview with WTOP.
Wright said he and his team “realized this was not a marketing effort, wasn’t really a rebranding — it was an emotional journey for our fans.”
That’s why Wright said he’s glad he took the two years between the old moniker and the new one — during which time the team held a generic placeholder Washington Football Team — to “allow us all to go on a grieving process to deal with the old name being gone.”
During that process, Wright said careful canvassing of fans helped his team land on Commanders, which he felt captured the essence of the positive associations under the old name.
“We had to get real with ourselves, too, and recognized that it was not going to be a resounding embrace of the new name right away,” he said.
“So my hope was that we would get to neutral sentiment within a year’s time.”
Though not scientific, WTOP posed the question on social media, and the response was far below neutral. Only a small percentage of respondents said they liked the name and the vast majority of those who responded either supported the old name or wished away owner Daniel Snyder.
A year later, how do you feel about the Commanders name/uniforms?
— WTOP (@WTOP) February 1, 2023
Even the generic Washington Football Team moniker fared better than the current branding among respondents on Instagram.
“We’d be naive to think that it would be a triumphant parade around the new name and brand after something that was so old and so meaningful and so deep for people,” Wright said. “So we’re on the journey we expected to be on … and on that journey, some are further along on that journey than others.”
Like it or not, the old name isn’t coming back — nor should it. But what about those who stopped supporting the team because of the racist association with the old name?
“Yeah, I think with winning and with better business processes, we’ve started to recapture those folks,” Wright said, adding that the Commanders “had a record year in merchandise sales” and “were No. 3 in new suite sales in the NFL this last year.”
There was a positive, but somewhat predictable, initial surge. Wright said in August, the Commanders’ overall renewal rate on season tickets was up 15% and the renewal rate on suites increased by almost 30%. In Week 1, Washington set a franchise game day record for merchandise sales.
As NFL crowds grew in 2022, Washington had the third-best jump in home attendance (10.2%) from 2021, when they ranked second-to-last in attendance. Even still, the average crowd of just over 58,000 was the smallest in the league in 2022, and the Commanders were the only NFL team to fill below 92% of its stadium capacity.
Wright acknowledged a key to the growth was FedEx Field staying incident-free following 2021 embarrassments like the railing collapse and pipe burst, as well as the franchise honoring past legends like Sonny Jurgenson and the late Sean Taylor (the latter, Wright admitted, could have been achieved better than the initial installation that generated fan outrage).
But Snyder remains the owner of the team, and although his tenure appears to be drawing to a close, it still serves as a deterrent from a full embrace of the Commanders brand.
“I tell everybody when you’re supporting the team — when you’re showing up to games, when you’re buying gear and being proud to be a Commanders fan — it goes well beyond ownership,” Wright said. “That money that we make as a healthy business. It goes right back into (head coach) Ron (Rivera) and the football team.”
And if Snyder isn’t the owner moving forward?
“We just continue to work in the same way we always have,” Wright said.
Part of that work is in being more transparent and more present in the community than the franchise has been prior to Wright’s arrival in 2020.
“I wouldn’t say that we’ve done that consistently over the last decade,” he said, adding that the current approach is to “get out of our ivory tower in Ashburn and be present everywhere else in the area” — part of the rationale behind moving business operations to FedEx Field in Landover.
“We need to get out and get back to where our people are and where our fans are,” Wright said.
Wright added that he’s seeing a “generational transfer of fandom” in which older fans still show up in the old jerseys but with their kids in Commanders gear — a reward for being intentional about celebrating the team’s history while also seeing fans organically create new traditions not necessarily pushed by the franchise.
Wright said the three most consistent responses he’s received about the new branding from fans is: “‘It’s growing on me,'” the military community loves it, and people like it when the team is winning, as the Commanders did toward the middle of the 2022 season.
What to expect in 2023 and beyond
No matter what happens with ownership, Wright exhibits confidence in the organizational values he says he and Ron Rivera have instilled.
Operating under the acronym F.I.G.H.T. — family, impact, growth, honor and trust — Wright said he’s ready to see the Washington Commanders take the next step after assembling “high talent folks” that make up “the most diverse leadership team in the NFL.”
“(The values don’t) change, no matter what’s going on, and for us, it has always been about being a reliable, healthy business that our fans deserve,” he said.
Wright was tight-lipped about the franchise’s ongoing effort to build a new state-of-the-art stadium but is “really proud of the work that was done on (FedEx Field in the) last year (that) goes unsung.”
Get this, my fellow football fashionistas: There’s potential for gold pants as soon as 2024, Wright said, and he’s seeking fan input on whether a fourth uniform will include a gold rush theme (i.e. — an all gold uniform), a cherry blossom theme (like the Wizards and Nationals debuted recently) or another theme more specific to the D.C. area.
The fact is, the old name was so controversial. Its legacy was tied into so many conflicting things — most prominently, racism — largely because of both the old moniker and being the last NFL team to integrate, but also the glory of three Super Bowls and a 12-year span of excellence that was the envy of the NFL in the 1980s and early 90s.
The Commanders brand has no chance of truly succeeding without the latter — and Wright knows it.
“We’ve transformed the culture here,” he said. “We’ve got good people (and good) processes. It’s time to win now.”
“It’s time to win.”
So this brand’s salvation is twofold: Winning on the field and Snyder detaching his name from it.
Washington deserves both. Here’s hoping the Commanders can provide it.