With Commanders, the Washington NFL franchise moves past old name
By Ken Belson
Washington, meet the Commanders. Nearly two years after dropping its longtime name and logo under pressure, the Washington Football Team announced it would rebrand as the Commanders, in a nod to the region’s links to the armed forces.
The name, announced on NBC’s “Today” show on Wednesday, was chosen after the team received more than 40,000 submissions from fans online and through the mail. The team then boiled a list of 1,200 unique names down to 50, and those were tested in market research groups filled with fans, season ticket holders, former season ticket holders, politicians and many other groups.
Jason Wright, the team’s president, said that the team’s fans come from a diverse set of backgrounds, which made it a challenge to find a name that might appeal to them all.
“Our task was less of a marketing endeavor and more about finding a cross section of unity,” he said. The team’s fans across the spectrum, he said, believed the new name should reflect concepts like resilience, grit, tradition and family.
The team’s primary logo will be a “W” for Washington and the slanted elements of the stripes bordering the letter “are inspired by military rank insignia.” The franchise now shares a name with President Joe Biden’s dog, Commander, which he introduced in December.
All along, the team said it would keep its traditional burgundy and gold colors, which are unique in the NFL. Scrapping them was a “non-starter,” Wright said.
Ed O’Hara is the creative lead at Pet Turtle Branding, which develops brands for sports and entertainment groups, and who helped several colleges that had previously used Native American imagery adopt new names. He said that name changes often elicit negative reactions from fans, but Washington keeping its team colors would provide a sense of continuity.
“Color is a powerful measure of loyalty and indicator of a brand,” O’Hara said. The team’s colors are “unique, and it’s who they are,” he said.
He said the name Commanders dovetails with the significant military presence in and around Washington, D.C., though O’Hara said the name sounded a bit generic and perhaps had too many syllables.
“It works with the region,” he said. “But it feels worn out, not fresh.”
Some names were eliminated because they were used by other teams, or because there were concerns they might violate trademarks.
Ultimately, four finalists went through a full design process, which included seeing how they looked on television, in print, on social media and on uniforms and helmets.
The alternative names included the RedWolves, Admirals, Generals, Armada and Presidents, names floated in social media announcements and statements from Wright, who eliminated some names from contention because they conflicted with trademarks held by other teams, including both variations of the RedWolves name.
Teams are sometimes renamed or rebranded when they move to different cities or are sold to new owners. The Rams kept their name and colors but changed their logo and uniforms when they moved to Los Angeles from St. Louis before the 2016 season. In Major League Baseball, the Marlins replaced Florida with Miami in their name when they moved to a stadium in city limits. The current Cleveland Browns are a reactivated version of the team after Art Modell moved his version to Baltimore and it became the Ravens.
In Washington’s case, the team for years faced calls from fans, sponsors and Native American groups to drop the previous franchise name, which had long been considered a racial slur of Native Americans. The team’s owner, Daniel Snyder, resisted that pressure and fended off legal challenges aimed at stripping the team of its trademarks.
But in July 2020, following the murder of George Floyd by the police, and a national debate that followed over the treatment of nonwhite people, Snyder relented and discarded the name “Redskins,” which had stood for 87 years.
Unlike prior calls to change the name, Snyder also faced pressure from sponsors like Nike, Pepsi and FedEx, which threatened to remove its corporate name from the team’s stadium in Maryland if no action was taken.
During that time, the Cleveland MLB franchise dropped its longtime name, which also included Native American imagery, and changed it to the Guardians.
In some ways, developing a new name and logo has been a welcome distraction for a club dogged by negative news. Through most of 2020 and 2021, Snyder was involved in a contentious fight with three longtime limited partners in the franchise. After several rounds of mudslinging and court battles, the league’s owners agreed to let Snyder buy out his former partners for $875 million and fully consolidate his ownership of the team.
At the same time, the league took over an investigation into reports of widespread harassment of women who worked for the team, allegations that dated back nearly two decades. In July, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell fined the franchise a record $10 million and ordered Snyder to stay away from the team’s facilities for several months.
He was, however, allowed to continue the team’s search for a new name and logo, as well as a new stadium to replace FedEx Field, which opened in 1997.
On Thursday, some of the women who accused the team and its executives of harassment will speak at a congressional roundtable in Washington.
The team has not done much better on the field. The team has had only five winning seasons this century and has not won a playoff game since the 2005 season.