No skin in the game: Name review of Washington Commanders

Commanders took the field after nearly two years and plenty of competition. Is the new name more winning than its team?
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Well it’s official. After two seasons of speculation, the Washington Football Team—which was known as the Redskins for the preceding 87 years—is now the Washington Commanders. “One legacy. One unified future. We are the Washington Commanders,” the DC-based NFL franchise announced yesterday over Twitter.

The team dropped the name Redskins in July 2020 after decades of complaints about its racist connotations toward Native Americans. A few weeks later it began operating under the name Washington Football Team, stating that the placeholder was needed while the organization worked on the permanent name.

Citing the DC area’s military and political ties as well as the focus groups and 40,000+ name submissions by fans, team president Jason Wright said the name “is something that broadly resonated with our fans, … something that we believe embodies the values of service and leadership that really define the DMV [the District, Maryland, and Virginia].”

Speculation and debate about the new name was hot and heavy since they dumped Redskins, and the team owners and officials fed the buzz with periodic, sometimes conflicting, announcements.

About eight names appear to have been finalists for the franchise, many also with military associations, including Armada, Defenders, Brigade, Admirals, Generals, Presidents, Red Tails, Red Hogs, and Football Team (keeping the generic name has a hipster meta quality while expressing single-minded devotion to the game). Warriors had been considered (nice alliteration with Washington) but was rejected as too closely associated with Native American culture. Red Wolves, a fan favorite, was also a leading contender until the team revealed the trademark conflicts were too great.

There are, of course, already some haters for the rebrand, some more thoughtfully critical, and some boosters. New names are almost always ridiculed initially—remember the brutal derision met by iPad? If companies worry about every wise-ass comment their name might receive, they’ll be paralyzed. The right approach to renaming balances the now and the future, keeps brand positioning and target audiences front of mind, and requires courage and faith in your brand.

Ok, enough branding education, what do we think of Commanders?

First of all, we want to acknowledge that developing a name for this team was a particularly challenging undertaking. Trademark issues, historic and cultural associations, domain name and social handle availability, and more undoubtedly narrowed the field of candidates dramatically. Add to that the turmoil surrounding the team’s name change (the owner had adamantly refused to drop the offensive Redskins name until the team sponsors threatened to walk) and other scandals (multiple former cheerleaders said that the team culture was rife with sexual harassment, and at times virtually treated the women as sex workers), and you have a PR nightmare that requires a very considered, sensitive, and strategic approach.

Commander is a general term for someone who directs or exercises control over a group of people as well as a naval rank (immediately below captain) and a designation in some military-esque organizations such as NASA and some police departments.

What works

The name references the commanders at the Pentagon and the Commander-in-Chief, linking it nicely with Washington. It’s a strong, well, commanding word and suggests greater proactivity than Defenders, Generals, or Presidents.

As an agentive (a word that expresses the doer of an action) plural, it connotes a team and reinforces the active, in-control tone. It’s easy to say and spell, whether English is your native language or not.

Commanders is very unlikely to offend. And given the storm the team leadership has tried to weather the past few years, a safe, unobjectionable name is understandable, if not what we’d recommend.

Most importantly, the name suggests commanding the field. It’s uber-alpha, and no sport is more alpha dog than football. (It seems to be purely aspirational at this point, however, given the team’s weak play and beleaguered reputation.)

What doesn’t

On the down side, Commanders is a mouthful, especially when paired with Washington, which usually is not a good choice for a brand name. On the face of it this isn’t a problem, though, with a couple of NFL names weighing in at three syllables (Buccaneers, Patriots) and quite a few at six syllables when paired with the place name (Cincinnati Bengals, Minnesota Vikings).

However, because the name is long, it’s likely to be shortened by fans, and Coms just isn’t as sexy a nickname as Bucs, Niners, or some of the other DC teams’ shortened forms, Caps, Nats. The nickname Commies was proposed in some angry polemics online, but this political commentary will likely fade quickly. Fans will surely get used to Coms, but for most folks now that word solely means “communications” (comms is commonly used in that way, particularly in the military).

Initially, it seems a bit odd for a city with no port to choose a name so closely associated with the navy, but the Naval Academy in Annapolis is only about a half hour from FedEx Field. Plenty of up-and-coming commanders there to root for the team.

The biggest con is that the name is kinda boring and old-fashioned. Although commanders are smart, powerful people, they don’t sound physically tough in the way that Raiders and Vikings do. As we noted above, Commanders is safe, it takes no risks—to quote our title, it has no skin in the game—and that type of name will never grab your audience.

Commanders doesn’t suggest a story or pique curiosity, in contrast with names like Red Wolves (What is a red wolf? Is it a real animal?) and Red Tails (as the nickname for the Tuskegee Airmen, Red Tails suggests a compelling story of bravery, distinction, and pride, plus red tail hawks are fierce hunters, beautiful and cool).

In fairness, most NFL team names, by themselves, don’t tell a rich story. Broadly speaking, you’ve got fierce & tough animals (Bears, Lions, Bengals, Panthers, Broncos, Jaguars, Rams, Bills), fast & agile animals (Eagles, Seahawks, Falcons, Ravens, Dolphins, Colts), fierce & strong mythical beings (Titans, Giants), tough people (Cowboys, Raiders, Vikings, Packers, Steelers, 49ers, Buccaneers, Patriots, Chiefs), and a few others that suggest speed (Jets), energy (Chargers, though that term can also mean a warhorse), pride and team history (Cardinals, Browns), or evoke a place (Texans, Saints). It isn’t until the names are paired with the logo, colors, uniforms, and all the other marketing that they really come to life. (Want to know how these teams got their names? ESPN published a great roundup of name origins for every current NFL team.)

As the Commanders, the team will need to work harder to tells its brand story. The Buccaneers have a 100-foot-long pirate ship with cannons that fire confetti with a boom after each Bucs touchdown. We’re spitballing here, but the Commanders could do something similar, or have the cheerleader uniform pick up on the sailor motif, or they could lean into the Commander-in-Chief aspect, with “Hail to the Chief.”

At the end of the day, the name is just okay, which is more than we can say for the team’s performance the past few years. Commanders will be enriched or weakened by the branding they roll out. They’ve had almost two years to get that branding right and appear to be off to a good start (keeping the burgundy and gold was smart, and the team leadership is saying the right things, finally). Most fans will accept the name, maybe even grow to love it, especially if the team does well.

Final Grade:

C

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