Washington Football Team officially became the Washington Commanders Wednesday. The rebranding occurs after yet another disappointing season for the team. Home attendance has cratered, an investigation into its workplace culture has metastasized into a matter of interest to the US Congress, and two defensive tackles got into a sideline fight on TV while Dallas cleaned the team’s clock. Jokes about Washington Football Team have by necessity become increasingly brutal to get noticed.
So, could another new name turn things around? Paul Lukas is an expert in sports branding whose blog Uni Watch is a must-read for people who obsess over teams’ visual identities. Lukas decided to take a day to marinate in the team’s new visual identity before writing about it himself, but agreed to share some early thoughts with Washingtonian by phone Wednesday morning.
Some reactions to Washingtonian’s Instagram story about the name change Wednesday.
When we spoke with Lukas in 2020, he said a military-adjacent name would be a “non sequitur.” Which is exactly what they went for. “I’m not a fan of military team names,” he said Wednesday. “In any case, here we are.” Nor does the team appear to have considered how “Commanders” might be shortened. “I see ‘Go, commies’ is already trending on Twitter. That was one of my first thoughts, too.”
In terms of the new uniforms, Lukas wasn’t crazy about the matchy-matchy pants and jerseys the team showed off Wednesday—he prefers some contrast, thanks. And though the team claims to have stuck with its venerable burgundy-and-gold color scheme, Lukas notes that the color it’s using now is a lot closer to yellow. Don’t even get him started on the black uniform: a “rote, pathetic cliché,” he says. “When you’re changing the team name, and you’ve been through all the wrenching changes this team has been through, your color scheme is a throughline” for fans, something that connects them to the team’s history. The team’s Washington Football team era, Lukas contends, did a better job of connecting visually to that history.
The Twitter account NFL Fashion Advice spent part of Wednesday slow-roasting the new uniforms. Here’s a representative critique:
Didn’t think it could get much worse after the leaks last night. Then I saw this helmet. They really went for a front helmet logo. These uniforms already feature every disastrous modern uniform trope. Nice to see they introduced a new one just for themselves. pic.twitter.com/RK3gAX0vCT
— NFL Fashion Advice (@fashion_nfl) February 2, 2022
George Perry is a professor at George Mason University who studies sports and entertainment marketing. He even worked for the team as a vice president of strategic marketing during the era when the head coach job went from Joe Gibbs to Jim Zorn. Back then, he says, “the attitude was if we lose a fan, there’s ten fans in line waiting for season tickets. That’s changed now.” Some fans’ anger about the new name, Perry says, reflects the fact that “They’re just angry with the organization in general about how they’ve been treated over these many years.”
Choose your complaint: A crumbling stadium. A trying, expensive game-day experience where out-of-town fans frequently appear to outnumber home fans. Not to mention its unrelenting crummy-to-mediocre record under owner Dan Snyder. “Short of winning the Super Bowl,” Perry says, “they’re going to have to show how they’re different now.” That could mean using the Commanders name as a springboard into military communities around the region or showcasing the front office’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. (Having former quarterback Doug Williams make the official announcement Wednesday morning was a step in that direction, he says.)
“Fans want to be part of something that they’re proud of,” he says. “And I think a lot of fans have lost that pride.” Now, the Washington Commanders have to coax them back—and winning is only a piece of that. “Anybody can market a winning sports team,” Perry says. “But the best marketers are the ones that are able to acquire and retain loyal fans even when the team is losing.”