Commanders president Jason Wright talked about being the first Black team president in NFL history and a possible ownership change.
Flanked by a pair of team PR staffers, Washington Commanders President Jason Wright strode down radio row at Super Bowl LVII in Phoenix earlier this month. He checked in with Boardroom to discuss the strides his organization has made since he was hired in August 2020 as the first Black team president in NFL history.
It’s been the most trying period to begin a team president’s tenure in any sport in quite some time. A month before Wright’s hiring, ownership and management announced it would give up its divisive team name after 87 years. Three days after that announcement, 15 former team employees said they were sexually harassed during their time with the organization. Allegations later emerged that then-majority stakeholder and now full stakeholder Daniel Snyder was directly involved. Just after that, the team temporarily became known as the Washington Football Team.
In July 2021, a league-sanctioned investigation that was never released publicly found Washington’s workplace to be toxic, especially for women. The NFL fined WFT $10 million and Snyder stepped away from the team’s day-to-day operations. On Feb. 2, 2022, the team officially rebooted under the Commanders name. The next day a former team employee said Snyder himself sexually harassed Snyder her, which Snyder denied.
As the team looks for a new stadium, Congress’s House Oversight Committee told the Federal Trade Commission last April that evidence shows the team engaged in deceptive business practices for more than a decade, including withholding ticket revenue from road teams and refundable ticket deposits from fans, which the Commanders denied. In November, Snyder and the Commanders announced that he would take steps toward a potential sale of the team.
“We were in crisis mode,” Wright told Boardroom upon taking the job. “We had real ish we had to deal with right out of the gate.”
Along with head coach Ron Rivera, Wright was able to establish a different, more diverse working culture within the organization. Wright estimated that 80% of team employees have turned over since his arrival and that 47% of Commanders executives are people of color, nearly three times the league average. That diverse group with a shared vision allowed Wright to overhaul the business side and help build a better on-field product.
Wright had roughly 18 months to help decide on a new team name, branding, and identity in the first NFL team name change since the Houston Oilers moved to Nashville and became the Tennessee Titans more than 20 years ago.
“It was much more challenging than any of us knew coming in because most of our fans didn’t want that to change,” the 40-year-old Wright said. “It had to change, but our fans felt a certain way about it. And that was across demographics.”
Wright, a former McKinsey partner, had to lead the team through a transition. He called it a grieving process for many fans, and tried to allow the team to keep memories of the old name. He had to be transparent about the franchise’s direction and help fans gain a measure of acceptance.
“We’ve been at neutral deposited sentiment since the launch, and that’s much more than I could have asked for,” Wright said.
Sports Business Journal called Wright’s hiring the best of 2020, while Black Enterprise named Wright to its “top 40 under 40” list in 2021. Since Wright’s appointment, four more teams have hired Black presidents. Close allies and friends around the league like Kevin Warren, Al Guido, Tom Garfinkel, Andrew Miller, Burke Nihill, Kevin Demoff, Mark Murphy, and Hymie Elhai have provided advice, comfort, and collaboration along the way.
Wright cited two pieces of advice that have been instrumental in steering the Commanders through troubled waters. The first is from Vivian Riefberg, a former McKinsey partner and now a professor at University of Virginia’s business school.
“She said ‘Jason, when you know somebody’s not right, you got to move on. Don’t second guess your gut. Don’t dilly-dally when it comes to people. It’s better to move on quickly than not,'” Wright said. “As many changes as we did very quickly, I would’ve done them more quickly if I could go back.”
The second is from Warren, now the Chicago Bears’ president after serving as Big Ten commissioner. His advice was simple, yet powerful: Always be above reproach.
“Whatever the rules are, go a step beyond those rules,” Wright said. “Because as you’re navigating crises and a situation with high public scrutiny, you and the team need to be above reproach. Everybody knows that we have a highly professionalized organization with people who deal in honesty and integrity. And that’s a major shift in how people viewed this organization for a long time.”
For 2023, Wright and Rivera are excited to continue to improve on the Commanders’ core values, including:
- Making an impact on and off the field
- Being innovative and unafraid to take risks, like using analytics to determine going for it on 4th down more often
- Treating the team’s tradition and past with appropriate reverence
- Having integrity in dealing with people and earning people’s trust
“It’s those values that have empowered a business growth that’s allowed us to invest in football and allowed us, even despite all the negative headlines and things that swirl around us, a year of really good momentum on the field, one that should have made the damn playoffs but made big steps forward,” Wright said. “It’s a big year for Ron and the football side; it’s a big year for us in the business with more transition maybe coming on the horizon.”
This year may not only bring a sale of the Commanders for a team valued by Forbes at $5.6 billion, but also the possibility of a site for a new stadium to replace the aging, outdated FedEx Field. Wright said there was an update on the stadium process, but one he couldn’t provide at the time. Wherever the Commanders land, he said, it will be a state-of-the-art, year-round development with 90-plus events a year that also facilitates local commerce, retail, hospitality, restaurants, green space, and investments in the community.
While Wright was unsure when a sale would happen, he speculated on if an ownership change would improve the franchise’s long-term growth prospects.
“It’s hard to say, but I know that for us, there’s real momentum for it right now,” Wright said. “And I don’t see any transition that could be a negative to that momentum. I think it’s only positive.”
Even if Snyder doesn’t sell the team, Wright noted that the Commanders’ business momentum wasn’t built on rumors.
“We built it on treating people with integrity, staffing up in the right ways, getting pricing right in the bowl, all the blocking and tackling fundamentals,” Wright said. “And Ron did the same thing by bringing in the right kind of players with the right kind of values and work ethic, thinking about long-term roster sustainability with the salary cap. There shouldn’t be steps back either way.”
In 30 months, Jason Wright has made a compelling case to retain his role, regardless of who owns the team.
“The reason this is an attractive conversation for investors and the sports marketplace is because of how well we’ve done with the business. We reversed the historical trajectory of the business of Washington football,” Wright said. “And now as the Commanders, we have a very lucrative future ahead of us off the field, which allows us to invest in a championship franchise on the field. That’s why there’s so much conversation and so much energy and attention around this. We righted the ship, and now that ship is ready to go on a championship voyage.”
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