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Monday, June 24, 2024

To Fix The Commanders, Josh Harris Must Win Back Washington

  • Dan Snyder’s departure, and the $6.05 billion arrival of a new ownership group led by Josh Harris, offers a fresh start in Washington.
  • Keeping the honeymoon alive requires shoring up the current fan base and attracting a new generation to replace those who defected.
Commanders tight end Logan Thomas (82) celebrates with fans after a game.
Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

LANDOVER, Md. — FedEx Field has not magically transformed into a football paradise, but the freshly mowed turf hinted at new beginnings that the Washington Commanders hope can breathe a few more years of life into the often-ridiculed venue.

Dan Snyder’s departure, and the arrival of a new ownership group led by Josh Harris, offers a fresh start in Washington. But for the first few years, that new wine will be poured into old wineskins, a formidable challenge for the Harris group.

Since the record $6.05 billion purchase of the Commanders was approved by NFL owners on Thursday, Harris and many of his 20 limited partners are saying all the right things when it comes to rekindling the love for the once-storied franchise. The deal officially closed on Friday. 

“It belongs to the fans,” Harris told Front Office Sports. “And after winning on the field, our highest priority is reconnecting with Washington fans. I feel a great responsibility to make fans feel welcome and to make a positive impact on this city and in the community. Along with my partners, we want this to be the start of something really special.”

An early target date for opening a new stadium is the end of the decade, an acknowledgement that the red tape around one preferred site — where RFK Stadium stands now — will take years to remove. That leaves about seven years during which the Commanders will have to make the most of what they’ve got.

“This is all going to take time,” Harris said, adding, “Believe me, I’m sweating this more than anyone else out there. But it’s going to take a little bit of time.”

Special to FOS

Fan Interest Ratchets Up

Washington team president Jason Wright thinks progress can be made as soon as the upcoming season.

“Week 1 is trending to be a sellout,” Wright said on Friday. “So if you haven’t bought yet, you should buy. But importantly, it means that the fan base is rallying around these guys, and that’s going to make a difference for these guys on the field. It is going to make a difference for coach [Ron Rivera] as he leads us on the field. This month has been many months in the making.”

FedEx was a happy place on Friday, as the team gave out free drinks and snacks, a day after Harris bought free beers for fans at two celebratory parties in the region. While the festivities after Thursday’s vote included a chant that included a certain four-letter word aimed at Snyder, the FedEx event had “Thank you, Josh!” shoutouts.  

“The energy in the city right now is incredible,” Harris told FOS. 

Keeping this honeymoon going will be a two-front battle for Harris and Co., who need to shore up the current fan base and begin attracting a new generation to take the place of those who have defected.

The loss of community is one of the biggest messes Snyder leaves behind. 

  • Over Snyder’s 24 seasons as owner, the team managed just six playoff appearances, and two wins. The last: a victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January 2006. 
  • Nielsen research last year found 29% of D.C. area residents identified as fans of the team, down from 51% in 2004. 
  • Over the last three years, the Commanders have been the target of seven investigations. The findings of one of those was released Thursday right after Harris’ deal was approved, one that led to a record $60 million fine of Snyder. 

Since former team president Brian LaFemina acknowledged in 2018 there was no season-ticket waiting list, fans have bailed in droves, making FedEx Field the least-attended NFL stadium in 2021 and 31st last season. 

Even deep into the Snyder tenure, the season-ticket base held on, hoping for a return of the glory days. In 2015, the team ranked sixth in the NFL in attendance. But with little star power and little hope on the horizon, the “emperor has no clothes” moment arrived quickly. 

The team had been propping up numbers by flooding the market with cheap tickets — that ended in 2018, and the team finished that season ranked 27th in attendance.

Special to FOS

Winning Back Deserters  

With the rise of two teams that have eaten into Washington’s traditional fan territory (Baltimore and Carolina), it’s fair to wonder if the team will ever be able to fully replenish the season-ticket base.

Last year’s Team Marketing Report Fan Cost Index ranked the Commanders the 19th most expensive team to watch, a surprising number given the cost of living in the D.C. market.

Wright, a former McKinsey partner, doesn’t see a path where the team can cut its way to success.

“Tickets go for as cheap as $400 for the entire season on the upper level,” Wright said in March. “We need to think about how to get people to buy into what’s already a very low price point. It’s hard to think that further drops in price, when we’re already in a wealthy market and we’re bottom of the league in prices, (is beneficial).”

Wright noted that exit surveys compiled by the NFL place the team in the second quartile of fan experiences when Commanders fans leave after wins. After losses, of course, the stadium ranks near the very bottom.

“We compare very favorably to other stadium experiences when we win,” he said.

The Commanders have already surpassed total revenue for tickets and suites compared to all of 2022, according to data provided by the Commanders. Year-over year, ticket sales are up 52%, and suite sales are on pace to double last year’s figure.

Since news of the tentative deal between Harris and Snyder hit in the middle of April, the team has sold 3.500 season ticket memberships, according to the team .

Harris alluded to past high-profile issues at the stadium when asked what the early priorities will be.

“We’re gonna throw a party every other Sunday, and when you have guests in your house, you treat them well,” he said at Friday’s introductory news conference. “You don’t have couches that are broken, you don’t have TVs that aren’t working, so we’ve got to get after all that, and that’s what we’re focused on right now.”

While some former fans — and Gen Zers who grew up not knowing only Snyder’s dysfunction — might never come back, there are some opportunities for the new group to make inroads.

Wright has often spoken about further connecting the team to the community at large, including the area around the stadium in Prince George’s County, which is predominantly Black. The team was the last in the NFL to integrate, but has chipped away at that deficit in recent years.

Harris has been outspoken on issues of race and equality in the past, and having Magic Johnson, who has previously invested in inner city businesses in Washington, on the team will undoubtedly provide a big boost.

“I invest to win,” Johnson said. “And we want to change everything that has happened to this franchise. We see [Washington legends] in the front row. Not only did they win Super Bowls, they also made the community great. And we want to invite the community to be a part of what we’re building here.”

Courtesy of 106.7 The Fan

‘I Totally Have Hope’

Female fans are another potential target market, as the Harris group works to undo the damage done by years of negative headlines under Snyder, including Thursday’s Mary Jo White report, which substantiated allegations of sexual harassment against Snyder.

Three years ago, The Washington Post exposed the toxic workplace that existed under Snyder as several former employees went on the record to describe their experiences. 

Melanie Coburn, a former cheerleader who also worked as the cheerleading marketing director, had been among the most outspoken former employees in recent years. On Thursday, she joined the “Burgundy and Sold” party at a massive D.C. outdoor bar organized by four area radio stations. 

Mixing among the masses was Mark Ein, one of the Commanders’ new co-owners. 

“My only closure [of the Dan Snyder era] was a three-minute embrace of Mark,” Coburn said. “I was sobbing. I thanked Mark, and he replied, ‘Thank you. You’re the brave ones.’ I was literally shaking and bawling. He choked up a little bit. 

“Mark and the other owners have integrity. I do believe in this ownership group. They’re real people. I totally have hope.”

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