- The Washington Times
Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Getting rid of the “Commanders” and starting fresh with a new name for Washington’s NFL team would help wipe the slate clean after years of controversy and scandal, sports marketing experts say.

With the troubled franchise up for sale and expected to fetch as much as $7 billion, new ownership may feel that there is too much baggage associated with the “Commanders” brand unveiled earlier this year, said Brand Federation founding partner Kelly O’Keefe.

“If [the Commanders] had a great reputation, if the existing owner was going out on a high, cheered and praised by all for their admirable leadership, then keep the name,” said Mr. O’Keefe, who helped oversee the University of North Dakota’s transition from the Fighting Sioux to the Fighting Hawks. “But in this case, they have a legacy that the new leadership will want to walk away from.

“They’ll want to say, ‘Hey this is a new day for this team.’”

Fan reaction to the new name has been lukewarm at best, even with the team in playoff contention going into Sunday’s home game against the Atlanta Falcons.

Owner Dan Snyder said this month he would consider selling the team, and interested buyers reportedly include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and media mogul Byron Allen.

NFL bylaws don’t specifically prohibit Washington from seeking permission from the league for another name change, even though the franchise has already gone through two rebrandings — from the Redskins to the Washington Football Team to the Commanders — since 2020.

A similar move unfolded in the NBA when the late Tom Benson bought the New Orleans Hornets in 2012. The owner announced he would change the name to “something that means New Orleans” — eventually settling on the Pelicans, which is Louisiana’s state bird. 

Mr. O’Keefe said another rebranding process could “reopen the wound” for fans who want to move on, but he suggests that pursuing a new name under new owners would differ from the “angst-ridden process” the team had previously.

George Perry, a sports business professor at George Mason University, said any new owner could gauge the appetite for another name change by commissioning a market research study to find out how the area feels about the Commanders nickname. 

A Washington Post poll found that nearly half of local fans had a negative view of the rebranded name, as 32% of respondents said they disliked the new moniker, while another 17% voted they hated it. The poll was taken over the first two weeks after the team announced the change.

Mr. Perry, who worked for Washington as a marketing executive in the late 2000s, wondered how many of those who dislike the Commanders name were actually influenced by their negative opinion of Mr. Snyder. He called the team’s brand “toxic,” citing the investigations into Mr. Snyder and the team’s workplace misconduct.

“It’s not necessarily easy to change a brand, it’s costly,” Mr. Perry said. “But if you’re buying a team for $7 billion, then I guess you can afford a couple million to change the branding all over the place. … If [new owners] want a fresh start, and they truly want the community to feel like it’s a fresh start, then changing the brand may be a possibility.” 

The longer Washington’s new name remains in place, experts say, the more fans will likely warm up to it — especially if the team, which has won five of its last six games, can become a legitimate playoff contender year in and year out. 

That has already happened for someone like Woodrow Sellers. Like many around the District, the 58-year-old Maryland resident said he didn’t care for the name at all when he learned of the change.

That was before he wrote the unofficial anthem of the Commanders — before he rapped for fans to put their left hands up. Mr. Sellers, also known as DJ Woody “OH Goody,” is behind the viral rap song with the lyrics: “Left hand up! Who are we? The Commanders!”

The catchy tune, which has spread over social media, has arguably helped give the name more of an identity. When a few Commanders players were shown on the video board at a Wizards game this month, the arena DJ played Mr. Sellers’ anthem rather than the team’s reworked fight song to introduce them. 

“What it meant to me when I first heard [the name],” Mr. Sellers said, “and how I feel about it now is complete opposites.”

Mr. Sellers is such a fan of the Commanders’ nickname now that he hopes the moniker sticks even if — or when — the team is sold. In fact, he hopes Mr. Snyder puts language in the contract that would prevent new ownership from changing the name.

A team spokesperson declined to comment when asked if Mr. Snyder had any thoughts about a new owner rebranding the franchise if he sells the team.

In August, team President Jason Wright told reporters: “Overall, the rebrand has been much more successful than we could have imagined.” He said he thought it would take up to a year for the new name to reach “neutral sentiment” within the fanbase, but added the team’s internal polling showed it reached that within three weeks.

Joe Favorito, a former communications executive for the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers, said he would be surprised if a new ownership group would want to rebrand the Commanders given the significant cost involved. A rebrand is “not just something that can be done in a flip of a switch” and that could be off-putting for any new owners — and the NFL.

“You have three brands that people have purchased and invested in,” Mr. Favorito said, noting how fans also still embrace “Redskins” and “Washington Football Team.”

According to the NFL, any team that wants to change its uniforms, helmets, trademarks or trade names must give notice to the league office before March 1 of the year prior to which it wishes to make the switch and must obtain approval by Dec. 1. 

Asked if there was a minimum amount of time in which a team was required to stay with its brand, an NFL spokesman declined to comment. 

Though the league would have to approve any change, George Washington University sports management associate professor Lisa Delpy Neirotti said the NFL likely wouldn’t stand in the way of a new owner who wanted to rebrand the Commanders. 

Mr. Perry agreed, saying it would be a “bad business decision” to deny a new owner from changing the name after he or she paid what could be as much as $7 billion. Forbes estimated the Commanders’ value at $5.6 billion in August, but multiple reports indicate the team will be sold for more than that.

“I also think the league is so anxious to get a new ownership in this market that … if that’s a condition of buying the team — that they want to change the name — then at the appropriate time, they’ll approve it,” Mr. Perry said.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC.