The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fans slowly embrace Commanders after two-year rebrand

The upper seats are sparsely populated during the first preseason game for the Washington Commanders. (Robb Hill/for The Washington Post)

Midway through the fourth quarter of Saturday’s preseason opener, the speakers at FedEx Field blared a song that hadn’t been played here in more than two years. It sounded jazzier than before — more trumpet, less drum — and the crowd was a little slow to react. Eventually, recognizing the moment, fans sang along.

It was arguably then, in Washington’s first home game as the Commanders, that the franchise emerged from cultural purgatory. The two years of planning, and the fraught six months of rolling out, had finally built to a collision between past and present, and as the beat climbed, some tried the new lyrics on the video board — “Fight for our Commanders!” — but many instead hollered the old lyrics, which came naturally.

Minutes before the game, the team had introduced two versions of the new song. One was slower and long-form, the other punchier, for singing after touchdowns. Those renditions received both polite applause and loud boos. But once there were points on the scoreboard, the crowd seemed to be feeling it, and by the end, fans united to belt out the lyrics that hadn’t changed: “Fight for old D.C.!”

“I didn’t even hear it,” running back and lifelong Washington fan Jaret Patterson said after the 23-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers. “I’m a homegrown kid. I’m used to the old one. But once I hear the new one, I’ll probably fall in love with it, like I did when I was a kid.”

For most of the afternoon, FedEx Field felt as it had for the last decade. The stands were sparsely filled as the home team played from behind. Even the time of day — early afternoon, unusual for any preseason game — felt normal. Since 2019, the Commanders have played 20 of 24 home games in the Sunday 1 p.m. window, tied for the second-most in the NFL, according to TruMedia.

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But in the fourth quarter, as the team rallied behind rookie quarterback Sam Howell, it was possible to glimpse the vision optimistic business executives had laid out before the game. Team president Jason Wright and vice president of guest experience Joey Colby-Begovich said they were committed to improving the fan experience despite challenges posed by the team’s recent performance and the aging stadium.

Wright spoke glowingly about the front office’s progress — more tickets sold this year already than all of last year, suite sales up 30 percent, highest sponsorship revenue since 2005 — but declined to share specific figures.

“I don’t want to get ahead of my team being able to tell their story,” he said. “We’re not quite there yet. We’re not going to have a full stadium every game this year. I don’t want to get ahead of our team being able to tell the real story of the resurgence of the fan base, which is still probably another year or so out.”

On the walk into the stadium Sunday, the place looked largely the same. The new logo was visible on lamp posts, directional signs and burgundy trash bins. There were a few banners on the south side of the building, alongside those for corporate partners — though there were glimpses of the past. One advertisement for United Airlines read: “Proud to fly for the Washington Football Team.”

In a sea of tailgate tents, Will Sowell, 57, had one of the only ones with the “W” logo. He bought it because he was excited about the new era. Sowell said even though he loved the old name he didn’t have a hard time getting over the change because he was born at Georgetown Hospital and still lives in Prince George’s County. He wouldn’t forsake his hometown team because it changed names or had an embarrassing owner.

“That’d be like me going to my high school and saying I’m not going to root for my high school because I don’t like the principal,” he said.

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Inside the stadium, the Commanders had remade what they could. They put up more than a dozen works by local artists from their initiative “Command the Canvas.” They input new technology to speed up the concession stands, including a program in the upper bowl to order ahead on the Grubhub app. They expanded the local food and beverage offerings, and because they’re apparently still without a beer sponsor they offered an array of alcoholic drinks, including craft beer and hard seltzers.

After kickoff, new quarterback Carson Wentz took the field to a tepid round of applause. Fans seemed cautious to embrace him, and until the fourth-quarter comeback, the loudest cheers were reserved for wide receiver Terry McLaurin.

During breaks in the action, the team debuted the Command Force, its 44-person entertainment team with tumblers, gymnasts and cheerleaders, and reintroduced the marching band. The team also included “Beat Ya Feet” dancers, who represented a style that originated in the District in the 1960s alongside go-go music. In the first quarter, the team also prompted fans to vote on one of four categories — hog, dog, historical figure or superhero — to help narrow the choices for the mascot the Commanders will unveil at home in Week 17.

The new name was everywhere. The video board played themed segments, including “Command the Season,” in which players picked games they were most looking forward to, and “Command the Drip,” which featured Wentz’s teammates rating his introductory news conference outfit, a gold jacket and a red shirt. Veteran tight end Logan Thomas gave it a score of 3 of 10; second-year tight end John Bates gave his quarterback an 8.

Despite the barrage, the past few days have served as a reminder that even as the team implements two years of hard work, it still has a lot of hard work left.

On Friday, at a practice at Joint Base Andrews, the Commanders introduced their new name to the military personnel it was meant to honor, and a few fans seemed split. Some didn’t like the name because, really, what had the team commanded in the last two decades?

But Rhonda Killmon, a retired Coast Guard officer, argued history was more important.

“It’s been my team since I was a little girl,” she said. “I’m not giving up now because they changed the name. Just like in the military, you have to adapt and overcome.”

At the stadium Saturday, Colby-Begovich, the vice president of guest experience, said he hoped fans would recognize his team’s work despite the things it couldn’t control, such as the play on the field and the confines of the stadium. He wanted fans to imagine innovation the team could implement at a new venue in the future, and as Washington seized a brief lead late in the fourth quarter, fans delivered a strong second rendition of “Hail to the Commanders.”

The game ended as many have at FedEx over the years — with disappointed fans headed for the exits — but with upgrades on and off the field, it’s possible, at least for now, they had a little more hope.