Or the time recently when a coach saw him running sprints across the Washington Football Team’s practice fields and asked, “Did we just sign another dude?”
“I don’t come from inside sports,” Wright said, “even though I played the game. It’s very different.”
Eleven months after he was hired as the Washington Football Team’s president, Wright still considers himself an outsider in the NFL even though he played seven seasons as a running back, was a team captain and was even a players’ union rep. He’s new, he insists, because he has never done this in the NFL. He has never tried to lead a team from the executive offices, never tried to remake a franchise that, for much of the past two decades, has been a stain on the NFL, with a litigious owner, a carousel of coaches, a controversial name, a lagging team and a workplace culture described as “toxic.”
Since he arrived in Ashburn, Wright has overhauled the franchise’s business operations and installed an executive team composed primarily of more NFL outsiders who, like him, believe they can create something once unimaginable: a model franchise. Wright said he wants Washington to “set a gold standard” and to evolve into a sports media and entertainment company.
“We want to be writing the playbook for others,” he said. “Not so we can beat our chests or to pat ourselves on the back but because we have a unique team that has been intentionally assembled to do that.”
But his task is fraught with challenges. Any vision Wright has for the team’s future is complicated by its past — a past fueling doubt that owner Daniel Snyder will allow Wright to fully realize his ambitions for the franchise.
After a year-long review of the team’s workplace culture, which stemmed from dozens of allegations of sexual misconduct by former employees, the NFL concluded this month that Snyder presided over a culture of fear, bullying, intimidation and sexual harassment. The league fined the team $10 million, and Beth Wilkinson, the attorney who led the investigation, issued recommendations to improve its workplace conditions.
Snyder was not suspended. Rather, the NFL said he will voluntarily cede control of the team’s day-to-day operations to his wife, Tanya, who was appointed co-CEO two days before the announcement.
“There’s that old saying ‘Actions speak louder than words,’ and I do believe that if Jason and [Coach Ron Rivera] are given the leeway to effectuate change, they will effectuate change,” said Amy Trask, the former CEO of the Oakland Raiders. “But only time is going to tell if the leeway it appears they are being given is true leeway and if it’s lasting leeway.”
In light of the NFL’s findings, Wright told The Washington Post this week that his autonomy to make business decisions hasn’t diminished — “I will continue to have that as we transform our business,” he said — and that the league’s acknowledgment of the improvements his staff made over the past 11 months was reassuring.
“That’s a credit to the team we built here, for seeing what needed to happen and starting to create the type of culture we need to proactively,” he said.
Creating a culture shift is just one of the items on Wright’s lengthy agenda, much of which he discussed in a recent interview with The Post at the team’s headquarters. Among the others: a full rebranding of the team, a process that started a year ago this week when it jettisoned its controversial old name, and the team’s new venue.
A team of outsiders
The first piece to Washington’s reformation was Julie Donaldson, who was named senior vice president of media and content last summer to oversee the team’s broadcast operations. Before Tanya Snyder’s appointment as co-CEO, Donaldson was the team’s highest-ranking woman.
As the only woman to be a full-time member of an NFL team’s radio booth, Donaldson is the team’s primary link to its fan base.
“I wasn’t under false pretenses when I came in, and I think that that helped in the transition because I could understand what the people were going through and what they wanted,” Donaldson said. “Jason came in, and he acted quickly.”
Wright came aboard a month later and has since assembled a 13-person executive leadership team that includes three holdovers from the previous regime as well as a handful of recently hired vice presidents and staff members who are integral to the team’s larger ambitions.
To find them, Wright searched beyond the bounds of the NFL to find a chief of staff who helped launch the Obama Foundation, a chief legal officer who helped the Washington Nationals secure Nationals Park, a CFO who worked for Jay-Z’s Roc Nation and a vice president of business intelligence and analytics — the first position of its kind in Washington — from Spanish soccer power Real Madrid. Washington’s new leadership group is not a collection of football lifers but rather a mix of people with experience in fashion, media, travel, politics and various sports.
The only new executive member with prior NFL experience is David Baldwin, the chief ticketing officer who worked for the Miami Dolphins.
The staff, intentionally diverse and inclusive, didn’t come cheap. To some, the investment is indicative of the freedom Daniel Snyder has provided Wright to change the organization.
“The whole orchestration of this team has been different, but I think it’s for the good,” said Doug Williams, the former Super Bowl MVP who last year crossed over from football personnel to become an adviser to Wright. “Jason gave his plan — what we want to do, what we need to do, what we have to do — and I think over the last  months, Dan has really given Jason a green light to make it work.”
Wright describes his hiring choices in practical terms. He wants to create a business around “data-driven” and “fact-based” decision-making. He wants a staff that will “move the needle” with varying viewpoints. He wants innovation.
“Those that have leadership teams that were the most gender diverse were 25 percent more likely to be top performers in the long run than companies that weren’t,” he said, citing studies from McKinsey, the consulting firm where he spent seven years. “Those that were the most ethnically diverse in their leadership teams were 33 percent more likely to be top performers in their long-term performance. Diversity empirically gets us to better decisions.”
Wright approached his job in Washington through the lens of a consultant. For much of his first four months in Ashburn, his time was devoted to talking to every employee via Zoom and reviewing the team’s previous operations. The good. The bad. The could-be-improved. The must-change-now.
He turned to a network of mentors that includes Dolphins CEO Tom Garfinkel and United Negro College Fund President and CEO Michael Lomax. The organization has relied on multiple consulting firms, including McKinsey and Vestry Laight, to assess its business structure and implement new practices.
“There were a lot of things that needed attention immediately, things that couldn’t wait for us to be able to take care of,” Donaldson said. “In my first conversation with Jason, it was like: ‘Hi, nice to meet you. I know if your life is sort of like mine, you only have 15 minutes. I’m not going to waste that time. Here are 10 things we have to take care of yesterday.’ And we went right through them.”
Wright said nearly all of Wilkinson’s recommendations — which included expanding the team’s human resources and legal departments, developing compensation and performance review systems, and creating formal protocols for reporting employee misconduct — had been implemented when the investigation concluded.
Andre Chambers, who was previously the head of HR for the Oakland Athletics, was hired in November to lead Washington’s recast “People Operations,” which includes a half-dozen employees and possibly more to come. Washington also has created a new employee handbook, conducted employee performance and compensation reviews, implemented a new reporting structure for misconduct, and provided mental health resources to employees.
As part of the reorganization, though, nearly three dozen employees across the business operations were laid off, according to people familiar with the matter. Others voluntarily left. Others were placed in new roles, such as Chanelle Reynolds, a former ticket sales director who helped launch the team’s Black Engagement Network. She now leads the team’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Programs.
“It’s such a priority for us across multiple dimensions that it just required a full-time role,” Wright said.
Wright has sought more communication with employees, fans and stakeholders, a sharp contrast to the style of the previous regime, led by former team president Bruce Allen.
Multiple former employees, who were hired before Wright’s arrival and left in recent months for various reasons, acknowledged that communication had improved across departments. They described an organization headed in the right direction under new leadership but expressed lingering frustration over Daniel Snyder’s lack of transparency about the past.
When the NFL announced the $10 million fine resulting from Wilkinson’s review, Wright sent a note to all employees and included Daniel Snyder’s statement, in which the owner expressed contrition and vowed change. The next week, Wright addressed additional concerns from employees during his one-hour “Ask Me Anything” Zoom meeting with the staff that he holds on Fridays to discuss organizational changes and answer any questions.
“We want to flatten the hierarchy and be accessible so that people understand the decisions that are being made,” he said.
A future vision
When Wright interviewed with Daniel and Tanya Snyder last year, he pitched them on the idea of not only remaking the inner workings of the organization but altering the business entirely to make it about more than football. Within the next decade, he told them, Washington should have other non-football businesses that are tangentially related to the franchise.
“That model franchise of the future is where we want to be, and it’s much more expansive than just selling tickets and playing games,” Wright said. “Everything that we want to do takes our brand much further.”
Wright envisions something similar to the Dallas Cowboys or San Francisco 49ers. In Dallas, owner Jerry Jones built a state-of-the-art stadium with retail and hospitality, its own pro shop and investments in other ventures, such as esports and a stadium management company. The 49ers have an ownership interest in an English Premier League soccer team and their own entertainment and consulting firm, run by the team president.
“Many try and not all are successful,” said Joe Favorito, a communication and branding consultant. “You can’t just check the boxes and say, ‘I want to go get an esports team.’ You have to find out the ones that fit into your business without ever compromising what your main goal is. Sitting in the diverse global capital that Washington is in and as the NFL tries to expand outside of its markets and continues to build ancillary media businesses and with the value that an NFL franchise has, I don’t see why that couldn’t be possible — if they pick the right businesses.”
Washington’s rebranding is expected to be a catalyst for any commercial expansion, and it starts with a new name. The team hired Code and Theory, a digital creative agency, to guide it through the rebranding process, which has included 40,000 submissions from fans, multiple focus groups, surveys and a digital rollout (at washingtonjourney.com) to give fans insight into the process.
The new name and logo will be revealed in early 2022, Wright said, and will retain the traditional burgundy and gold colors that are entrenched in the team’s history.
Five years later, when the team’s lease at FedEx Field expires, Wright expects the team to move into a new stadium. Where, exactly, remains to be seen, but in recent months, a subset of his executive leadership team has embarked on tours and visits of seven stadiums (with more scheduled) to get an idea of what it wants — and doesn’t want.
Damon Jones, the team’s chief legal officer who helped develop Nationals Park during his 13 years with the local MLB team, has taken the lead, alongside Daniel Snyder, in developing plans for a new venue.
Washington’s vision for a new stadium is centered around the idea of creating a year-round entertainment venue to host concerts and other events. It also includes a surrounding economic development project with retail, work and living space, restaurants and perhaps even a community element to create “social good that outlasts any of us,” such as creating green space that can double as a parking lot.
Basically: a stadium that is more than just a stadium.
“First and foremost, it’s an economic development engine,” Wright said. “And my background at McKinsey, when I thought about big mega projects like this, especially through the lens of equity and what it means for developing an equitable economy are major. Because it’s a lot of money that goes into the development of this, and it’s a lot of jobs that are created. … It can be generationally changing for an area.”
But the challenges there are lengthy, too, especially for a team that, according to ESPN, ranked at or near the bottom of the NFL in home attendance for nine of the 10 seasons before Rivera and Wright arrived.
For the past 11 months, Washington’s business operations — and its football team — have shown signs of change. But whether Wright and his team of outsiders can create a new product or merely a new facade will depend on the top.
“I’ve been very outspoken over many years, going back to my years in the league, about changes that needed to be made in that organization,” said Trask, the former Raiders CEO. “If these two are given the opportunity to right some of the wrongs that were effectuated by those in place before them, we will see that.
“Time will tell.”