Commanders hope a new era and renewed public relations will bring back burned fans

It was just five years ago when Washington’s unofficial 50-year sell-off streak collapsed. The announced crowd of 57,013 spectators – the lowest for a Washington opener in FedEx Field’s then 21-year history – booed as the team relied solely on its kicker in the dreadful 21-9 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, to get points.

“It was terrible,” Tony Kornheiser told Michael Wilbon days later in “Pardon the Interruption.” “For 50 years they owned Washington, DC…Mike, this is starting to feel like the beginning of a revolution.”

On Sunday, as the Commanders open their season against the Arizona Cardinals, the team’s new owner said he expected FedEx Field to be sold out again, potentially signaling the start of a new streak.

“Sunday will be a very emotional day,” owner Josh Harris said Friday evening before attending the team’s season-opening party with fans at Franklin Park in downtown Washington. “It will feel like a playoff game to me.”

From November, when former owner Daniel Snyder announced he was exploring a sale of the team, to the end of July, when the team was officially sold to Harris’ group for a record $6.05 billion, the Commanders experienced great success a resurgence in fan and sponsorship interest.

It is still early. But for a franchise trying to emerge from more than two decades of controversy and loss, it’s a start.

“The return of fans was a signal to sponsors that this promise can now be better fulfilled,” said team president Jason Wright. “So we have the energy to bring people back.”

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The team announced six corporate sponsorships and partnerships in recent weeks, including multiyear deals with Verizon and Anheuser-Busch, the beer company that cut ties with Washington about 18 months earlier.

“For everyone we’ve lost over the years, there was an unspoken understanding that if ownership or something changed, there might be another conversation,” Wright said.

The team also worked with Sire Spirits, owned by rapper and entrepreneur Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, and the US Air Force.

Wright said discussions about many of the recent deals began when it became clear that Harris and his group of 20 limited partners were on track to win the team.

At that point, Wright also gave the green light to major investments in FedEx Field, the team’s 26-year-old stadium that often looks years older than its age.

The Commanders invested $40 million in major repairs at FedEx — things like painting and structural repairs — and upgrades to improve the fan experience on game days. The video and sound boards are new, as are some signage and 12 food vendors.

Because Harris’ team completed the sale just days before training camp, some improvements will be made later in the season, such as during a stretch in October in which the team does not play at FedEx for three weeks.

“It’s such an important community and region overall, not only as the capital of this country, but as a global center,” said NFL Executive Vice President Peter O’Reilly. “So a strong Washington team is great for the league for all the reasons you would expect – the size of this market, the tradition and history of this fan base. … A rapid effect occurs in just a short period of time.”

Wright declined to give round numbers on season ticket sales and revenue, but said the team’s overall ticket sales were up 20 percent. True to their “welcome home” motto, the new owners have made a point of reaching out and engaging former players, many of whom will be on the field before Sunday’s game.

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Immediately after NFL owners approved the sale, Harris reached out to former stars Art Monk and Darrell Green. On Wednesday night, former running back John Riggins sat with limited partner Mitch Rales at a dinner for the Economic Club of Washington, DC. The two will sit together on Sunday.

Rales also had his private plane flown to Florida to pick up Sonny Jurgensen, Billy Kilmer, Jim Hart and their spouses so they could attend. Jurgensen’s medical condition prohibits him from flying commercially, but Rales wanted him to be able to attend along with many other Washington legends, including Joe Theismann, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien.

Champ Bailey will also return after years of avoiding FedEx and serve as an honorary captain.

The owners spent time with the players and held roundtable discussions with some of the team’s current veteran leaders. The players were sincere, Rales said, and many of their requests — a viewing area for family and friends during training camp, a clock in the athletic training room, additional hot tubs, a water station — were taken into account.

“Our job is to make their lives easier,” said Harris, who also owns shares in the Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Devils and Crystal Palace FC in the English Premier League. “I’ve seen professional athletes in several sports now and everyone thinks it’s glamorous. …But what professional players and what the Commanders players need to incorporate into their training program [to keep] When they’re healthy and focused, it’s a lot of stress for them.”

The gesture seemed to be well received by the players.

“The only way to get better is honesty, and they were very open to feedback,” wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. “…We had a few people there who weren’t afraid to ask tough questions, but also gave our honest opinions. I feel like they’re going to open the door for that.”

Added second-year quarterback Sam Howell: “It feels completely different. Obviously ownership is a big deal and I think the fans are really excited about it. It really is like a new beginning. But as players we also got involved in it. We are fed up with the way things have been here over the last few years. I mean, we want it to be about winning. We want the product on the field to be the most important thing and what everyone is talking about. So it’s kind of up to us.” Commanders hope a new era and renewed public relations will bring back burned fans

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