ESPN | Washington Commanders: Inside the NFL franchise's search for a new nickname and logo
Washington team president Jason Wright sat at his desk last summer, pondering the five letters from fans in front of him. To Wright, they represented the challenge the team faced as it entered its rebranding efforts in search of a nickname and logo.
One letter focused on the former nickname, explaining in a long essay why the brand shouldn't have been changed and how it devastated their family. Another was the opposite; the writer expressed pride in the franchise for finally moving on, allowing them to continue being a fan.
A young child, inspired by his father's regaling of the franchise's famed offensive line nicknamed The Hogs, drew in crayon a gray warthog wearing a gold sweater with a burgundy W. A Vietnam veteran said he liked the military tie-in. Finally, the last letter mentioned Doug Williams' role in franchise history as the first African American quarterback to start and win the Super Bowl and pitched the name Red Tails, combining the race and military connection.
"It showed at the core it's not about the name," Wright said. "It's about the opportunity we have to unify a set of people under a burgundy-and-gold banner.... People still love this team."
Understanding the passion of the fan base was part of the process that led the franchise to its new nickname -- Commanders. Here is a look at some key steps along the way after the team announced in July 2020 that it would retire its former controversial name.
Picking the name
Washington decided on Commanders without much internal fanfare. As the group involved in the process, including owner Dan Snyder, looked at logos and designs during the fall, they realized each had settled on this name.
It was so unceremonious that Wright couldn't recall whether it was late October or early November. There was no aha moment. Wright declined to say which names were the finalists. But it was widely known that others under consideration included Presidents, Brigade, Redhogs, Football Team, Armada, Defenders and Red Wolves. During Episode 3 of "Making the Brand" they showed several fans these names and multiple logos, including three that looked like a wolf.
But just to reach this point, starting shortly after he was hired in August 2020, Wright and his team had to sift through 40,000 submissions by fans that led to 1,200 name ideas. They received one from a 6-year-old in Alaska, another from a great-grandmother whose family had watched every game for decades. Then, in April, Wright sent a letter to fans asking for their input on 30 names.
The group scoured the internet daily, gauging fan interest. Group members had dozens of one-on-one sessions with fans. They performed quantitative and qualitative surveys. They did design research. They cold-called fans. Because so many involved in the process were new to the organization, they said the goal was to understand which name resonated most with fans.
In September, the team purchased a handful of domains and trademarks of names they knew would be finalists, including Commanders. They wanted to limit, or beat, trademark squatters. Still, they ended up buying a handful of names from squatters.
By this point, the franchise had close to a dozen fully designed brands covering the finalists. Each one had a logo, a wordmark, a manifesto, its own typeface and font and apparel and gear.
Among the names they researched heavily: The Washington, D.C. Football Club and the RedWolves. There were problems with both. The DCFC was heavily considered, and they even designed logos. They wanted to play off the temporary Football Team name. But during the trademark search, they discovered there was a professional soccer team in Michigan called the Detroit City Football Club -- DCFC -- that had the colors burgundy and gold, same as Washington.
"If we had gone with that without doing that check, not only the name would have been in jeopardy but the burgundy and gold would have been in jeopardy," Wright said. "They could have said we own the brand and the colors, you have to change both your name and the colors. That would have been the ultimate disaster."
With the RedWolves, a popular choice on social media, they kept running into roadblocks. Every time they would design a wolf logo, the trademark lawyers -- internal and external -- would warn of issues. Often it was because the logo looked too much like others already in use. Sometimes the angle of the profile was too close to another. Finding a way to make it distinct became difficult.
They did not want a situation like the Cleveland Guardians baseball team, which announced its name change last July and soon became embroiled in a lawsuit -- since settled -- with a roller derby team in the city that used the same name. That situation led Wright to fret over last-minute issues that could arise even after the announcement.
Another factor: There was already a Timberwolves in the NBA, and Arkansas State is known as the Red Wolves. Washington wanted to be unique and own its brand, not worrying about any potential future conflict if it decided to alter the logo or design in any way.
"When you think of wanting to build a brand for the next 90 years or more, you don't want to be boxed in," said Amina Bulman, Washington's senior vice president of corporate affairs and strategy. "You want to have room for your brand to grow and develop and not feel that around every corner you bump up with another team, whether that's on the logo or on a song or on a [marketing] campaign."
Wright said one difficult part was trying to marry the opinions of those on social media with those who aren't.
"You got very different perspectives on the mail-in set of fans than you do on Twitter poll set of fans," he said. "Very different perspectives."
Wright and his team wanted a name that reflected how they saw Washington, as a place where leaders work -- whether in government, nonprofits or the military. They wanted something that felt as if it could reflect the gravitas and weight of a franchise about to turn 90.
From the time the announcement about the name change was made in July 2020, it was agreed the colors would remain the same. But they weren't sure of other traditions, including the old fight song. Wright said Commanders will be folded into the old fight song, though with updated lyrics after fan input.
Alumni focus groups
Because Washington wants to cling to its past -- it won three Super Bowls between 1982 and '92 and has played in five -- it sought input from alumni. The organization's alumni director, Tim Hightower, a former NFL running back who played one season for Washington, held multiple focus groups via videoconference.
The team held four focus groups with alumni, usually having 10 to 15 people on a call. They included players from the 1970s through 2019. Nothing was unanimous.
On these calls, Hightower would show names and logos, leave them on the screen for a minute, and ask for input. Former Washington defensive end Charles Mann said he was on a 45-minute videoconference four months ago that included several names, including Commanders.
"They showed us the logo, color scheme, everything," he said. "They were trying to see what our take was. I told him I don't know if I liked any of them. I didn't like them, but I didn't hate them. ... But I was impressed that they did that for us, like our voice mattered."
Former cornerback Fred Smoot, who also was on one of the sessions, was a proponent of RedWolves, which he said started as a joke then took hold.
"I don't like the name," Smoot said of Commanders. "There ain't too many names I'm really into. RedWolves was the one name I could ride with."
During one call, Hightower said that former linebacker London Fletcher said of the name, "It really doesn't matter; we've got to win."
"It was very opinionated, but it showed the pride they had and making sure the color schemes and logos and slogans and brand reflected not just where we're going but where they've been," Hightower said. "They were very honest. You don't have to worry about anyone biting their tongue."
Native American outreach
Because of the previous name, Wright said it was important to speak with Native Americans during the process. Team representatives met with a handful of Native American leaders, leading Wright to say last July that there would be no Native American imagery whatsoever, ruling out a name such as Warriors.
Snyder had tried to trademark that name in the early 2000s for a potential Arena Football League team. It was a rumored name shortly after the franchise announced its intentions on July 3, 2020, to retire the former name.
"It is important to prioritize the views of those who have been hurt by our historical use of Native American language, iconography and imagery," Wright said on the team website in July.
Washington met with multiple tribal leaders -- government officials, former officials and advocacy groups. They met or spoke with them individually; they held videoconferences in which participants didn't always agree that the name should have been changed. It often broke down along generational lines -- the older they were, the more likely they were against the change.
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During a one-hour meeting in May 2021, Crystal Echo Hawk, the executive director of IllumiNative, and Leah Selgudo, the organization's chief impact officer, added their perspective. They met with Joe Maloney, the team's vice president of public affairs, and Julie Jensen, then the team's senior vice president of external engagement and communications, about the harm done by the past name.
Echo Hawk said they told the team representatives, for example, that hate speech increased during times when teams with Native American imagery reached the Super Bowl or World Series. They also told the team they did not like the way some activists had been disparaged over the years.
"They listened to what we had to say and acknowledged it," Echo Hawk said. "For once the team kept their word. ... It was a really candid and open conversation. We didn't hold back about the level of harm perpetuated for far too long with native peoples.
"There's still a lot of hypocrisy [in sports], but you can tell Native American people are fired up and see the movement and non-Native American people are beginning to understand that [sports] mascots are harmful."
Ray Halbritter, the nation representative of the Oneida Indian Nation and the CEO of its enterprises, said he had not been contacted. Like Echo Hawk, he said Washington's responsibility doesn't end with the name change. Echo Hawk said she has had discussions with the team about having a Native American museum at the site of the new stadium, which could possibly open in 2028.
And while some Native Americans wanted the team to drop its color scheme, Halbritter said that didn't bother him.
"We wanted the name to change, and they're doing that," he said. "I don't think of colors as being a racial slur."
The final steps
Washington was in contact with the league office throughout the search, touching base once a week over the past four months. The franchise partnered with Code and Theory to design a logo.
Once the team settled on a name, Nike's Best in Class design team worked on the uniform. The team received three uniform designs and plans to add a fourth in 2024, with fan involvement, Wright said.
"One thing Nike does is they focus on the young consumer," said Marc Reeves, a former head of brand at Nike who is now with Relo Metrics. "All the research I've ever seen [on] the younger generation says it's more than just a sport. ... People take this seriously. It's incredibly important to a community. As polarizing as Washington is, sports is one of the rare things that unifies. It's critically important to get this right."
Coach Ron Rivera was among those weighing in on the logos and uniforms. Washington co-CEO Tanya Snyder was more involved in the uniform process, owing to her days in fashion as a former model and clothing representative, among other roles. It took two months to come up with uniforms they liked. To prevent leaks of designs, they worked with a small number of vendors on merchandise. They wanted merchandise immediately ready so they could parade alumni through town handing out gear and have it for sale.
They will now incorporate more vendors to make key chains, mouse pads and other gear associated with the new brand.
Wright declined to give a ballpark figure on how much the rebranding effort cost the team, noting that there isn't an exact breakdown, in part because the effort included the personnel budget as well. He added that "it wasn't expensive."
According to NPR, sports economists say the rebranding could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Snyder and the team.
Finally, the launch. Cleveland announced its name change by posting a three-minute video to its Twitter account on a Friday morning in July. Washington rolled out its name and uniform reveal on the "Today" show and held a media gathering at its stadium, where merchandise is available.
"We know no matter what the name, it would not be unanimously celebrated," Wright said. "We felt the franchise and fan base deserved a momentous rollout."