The Washington Post | Becoming the Commanders: How Washington's NFL team found its new name
Originally published in The Washington Post
They’d gathered outside the giant football stadium as early as 3 a.m. but didn’t seem to mind the cold. The frigid and faithful few had waited 18 months for this, what was a few more hours?
At promptly 8:59 a.m. Wednesday, the doors to the team store at FedEx Field swung open and some two dozen fans, most dressed in a custom burgundy and gold outfits, rushed inside to check out the new merchandise.
“Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!” yelled one, as he weaved through racks of T-shirts.
Washington’s NFL team unveiled its new name — the Commanders — and a fresh look Wednesday morning. It was a much-anticipated spectacle that included a nationally-televised announcement and a full-on media blitz. The public event at FedEx Field featured comments by the team’s owners and appearances by players past and present.
But the road to Wednesday’s announcement was 1½ years in the making, with most decisions under a shroud of secrecy. The exhaustive process involved input ranging from fans’ suggestions on names to co-CEO Tanya Snyder’s opinions on uniform design, suggestions from former players and even those of current players who shared their thoughts on potential names and logos.
Defensive tackle Jonathan Allen and defensive end Chase Young were among those who took part in focus groups.
“He did not like it at first,” Allen said of Young. “But once you see the finished product and everything come together, it’s hard not to like it.”
Team officials whittled a group of 40,000 fan submissions and “thousands” of others sent in by snail mail, according to president Jason Wright, to 1,200 potential names. From there, Wright and his team, composed of a small group of executives from the team’s marketing, legal and fan experience departments, worked with the digital creative company Code & Theory as well as designers from Nike and the NFL, to narrow the list to three finalists, each of which was put through an extensive vetting process before the final decision was made.
Letters were sometimes accompanied with children’s drawings of potential mascots, or a family’s generational history of attending Washington games. Some pleaded with team executives to scrap the whole project and reinstate the controversial former name. Others shared memories of watching quarterback Doug Williams, now a senior adviser to Wright.
“Oh my God, we were on the Zoom one night and everybody was giving their opinions," Williams recalled Wednesday. “I’m the oldest guy on there, so I said, ‘Look, guys, this is only my opinion...'I said I wanted the Washington Football Team because I think it can stand for anything.' And they were throwing out the RedWolves, the Wolves, the Hogs, everything. I just stood on there and listened. But it was amazing to know that everybody is not on the same page — which is good — and now we’re here."
Focus groups consumed many of the early months, with Wright sometimes participating in five a day to hear from fans. He even cold-called ticket-holders — something he has continued to do, those familiar with the process said — and was regaled with personal stories of fans’ connection to the team. Some shared similar experiences of attending games at RFK Stadium, where it would get so loud that the seats would shake, and where they remembered seeing players walk to the stadium with young fans. Eventually, Wright and his team came away from the meetings with some shared ideals they felt a new name should convey: resilience and grit, tradition and unity.
“We set a precedent that that process was going to be open and engaging,” Wright said. “This wasn’t something we were going to go in a back room and decide. ...It’s something that broadly resonated with our fans in this process, and it’s something that embodies the values of service and leadership that really characterize the DMV."
While gathering public opinion, the team sought legal clearance for potential names, relying on in-house counsel, as well as outside attorneys.
Doing so often yielded clarity. Wright said in January that the name RedWolves was vetoed because the trademark was unavailable. Such was the case for another name Washington considered: D.C.F.C., for Washington D.C. Football Club. That mark is owned by the USL Championship soccer team Detroit City FC, whose colors are also burgundy and gold. Wright said early in the process that the team would keep its signature colors.
“If you talked about a new name and new colors, I don’t know that they’d still be marching there on the Mall,” Williams said. “You couldn’t get rid of the burgundy and gold.”
As Washington delved deeper into the legal weeds, finding a name that was a sharp departure from conventional sports terms became a priority, to avoid not only immediate legal issues, but also future conflict should the franchise seek to use the name to expand its business ventures. Wright said last year that the franchise intends to use this rebranding as “a catalyst” to create new businesses, much like the Dallas Cowboys have.
Washington officials also closely monitored the efforts of the Cleveland Guardians, the Major League Baseball team that unveiled its new name and logo last summer. The two teams stayed in touch during early in their processes until it became clear they had very different strategies. Cleveland wanted a quick rollout. Washington wanted more fan input, which required more time.
Keeping the name a secret required legal maneuvering. One potential route could have involved filing overseas trademark applications with countries that were a part of the Paris Convention for the Protection of Intellectual Property. The trademark applications of some participating countries can’t be searched online, and marks can be transferred within a certain period to other countries participating in the convention. Another possible strategy: requiring contractors and employees involved in the process to sign nondisclosure agreements.
“Once the name was chosen, the big concern was that it would get out before it needed to be out,” Coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday. “Trying to get things prepared and get new uniforms made — because that’s a huge process — that was again once of the concerns because somewhere along the line it would get leaked, and we were trying to prevent that.”
The team declined to reveal the finalists, but once its list was pared down to three, the vetting became even more extensive. With the help of Code & Theory, logos, helmets and uniforms were designed for each finalist and tested in every way imaginable: how they would appear on a TV screen crawl, or in a lineup with other NFL logos, or in a social media avatar.
Commanders was chosen last fall and a meticulous design phase quickly followed. Code & Theory, a company the team used first for its switch to the temporary name Washington Football Team, designed the Commanders logo, and Nike handled the uniform helmet designs. Tanya Snyder, the wife of owner Daniel Snyder who was appointed the team’s co-CEO last summer and has a background in the fashion industry, was said to be heavily involved in the uniform design.
With all of this taking place during the coronavirus pandemic, the majority of the collaboration was done virtually, or in small in-person meetings. Even now, the pandemic is influencing the rollout. Fans can preorder burgundy Commanders jerseys, but because of global supply chain issues, shipments likely won’t arrive for months.
Changing the signage at FedEx Field and the team’s headquarters in Ashburn will be another task. By the start of the season, in September, the team hopes the rebranding will be largely complete.
Wright acknowledged Wednesday that the team knows not every fan will embrace the change. Letters from many of them in recent months stated as much. But Wednesday’s launch was the first step, less away from a controversial past and more toward something tangible they hope will represent a collectively celebrated future.
“I’m pretty excited about it," Rivera said. "There’s a lot that it stands for, a lot that it means. ... I think it’ll be a good representation for who we hope to be.”