Commanders put in the work to welcome newly energized fan base

For the first time since 2015, the team said Saturday, the Washington Commanders hosted 10,000 fans at a training camp practice. The line in Ashburn formed before 7 a.m., and for the next two hours, people streamed in — up through the metal detectors, down the wooden stairs, across a field full of booths for photos and corporate partners, past a video board and a sizable team store and down a slope to the field — for their chance to witness the dawn of a new era.

Looking at the line at one point, a team staffer said, “This is insane!”

By the start of practice two hours later, the stands were near capacity (about 2,500), and the roped-off area behind the end zone was several rows deep (about 3,000). The surrounding grassy patches held the other 4,500 or so fans. The transformation of the park — built in the early 1990s with only football personnel in mind — took months of planning and cost about $2 million, said Joey Colby-Begovich, the Commanders’ vice president of guest experience.

“We’re pretty jazzed about the way it all turned out,” Colby-Begovich said, adding that the setup was a reflection of fan feedback from last year’s camp.

For decades, Washington had packed practices. In 2014, ahead of Robert Griffin III’s third season, the team welcomed more than 10,000 fans in Richmond for three days, according to a team spokesperson. In 2015, ahead of Kirk Cousins’s first full season as the starting quarterback, the team surpassed that number one last time under Daniel Snyder.

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For this practice, held on what the NFL promoted as “Back Together Saturday,” the fans seemed to energize the players, who have spoken glowingly about the increased turnout. All day, the crowd waited to erupt for a highlight-reel catch by Terry McLaurin or a long touchdown throw by Sam Howell, but those moments were rare. The defense dominated, and on the second play of an 11-on-11 scrimmage, rookie cornerback Emmanuel Forbes undercut a Howell pass to McLaurin and ran it back the other way.

It was a showcase for a group that safety Kam Curl said can be one of the league’s five best. The unit is experimenting with fronts featuring five down linemen, which it used occasionally last season against run-heavy opponents, as well as a bevy of defensive back combos. Benjamin St-Juste has played wide cornerback and in the slot; rookie Quan Martin has played in the slot and at safety; and Curl and fellow safety Darrick Forrest have played pretty much everywhere.

Halfway through practice, the Commanders gave four field goal attempts apiece to competing kickers Joey Slye and Michael Badgley. Coach Ron Rivera asked a PA announcer and defensive end Chase Young to rile up the crowd, simulating a game environment. Young waved his arms, playing maestro, as Slye hit all four kicks and Badgley made three.

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Howell continued to miss receivers in the next period. After one throw, which landed far from his target, one fan reminded the young passer of how fickle fans can be: “Howell, you’re trash, bro! What the hell was that?”

Last year, fan attendance at Commanders camp was sparse. The feedback gathered then by Colby-Begovich and his staff included seating and more merchandise, he said. They researched and consulted co-workers — including football, marketing and facility operations — to develop a plan. In February and March, Colby-Begovich said, they budgeted roughly $2 million for camp. He acknowledged it was a complex process, with the Commanders in limbo as Snyder considered selling the team.

“We had a business to run,” Colby-Begovich said. “I’m charged [with] and accountable for the fan experience, so I had to push forward with that regardless of the transaction. It’s my hope that we’re making our new owners proud — and I think that we are.”

In April, Washington started soliciting proposals for new structures. It contracted InProduction for the stands and Select Event Group for a sea of white tents for operations and VIPs. For parking, the team has a gravel lot and two grass fields, so it partnered with Dulles Town Center down the road for 1,800 more spots while adding a shuttle bus system. The first day of construction was July 5, and as the structures went up, the guest experience team arrived with linens, branding and flags. Colby-Begovich said the end result is a testament to a strong partnership with facility operations, led by director Jon Radke.

“He bakes the cake, and we put on all the frosting,” Colby-Begovich said.

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Early on, Colby-Begovich added, there has been trial and error. After realizing there was not enough directional signage at the facility, Colby-Begovich said, his group spent Thursday night making more. On the first day, the lines were long for three shuttle buses, so the next day the Commanders added three more. On Saturday, the team nearly tripled that total to 17 buses.

On Saturday, players and coaches gushed about the new energy. In terms of how excited he has seen the fan base, Rivera said this practice was “right near the top.” Walking off the field, he took the microphone, thanked the fans for coming out and quoted “Gladiator”: “Are you not entertained?!”

Notably, this practice was the first major Commanders event at which the enthusiasm wasn’t explicitly linked to ownership. New owner Josh Harris was not there; the crowd did not chant “F— Dan Snyder!” or “Thank you, Josh!” Instead, the fans roared for their favorite players, including McLaurin and Young and Howell and Jonathan Allen. They celebrated good plays and grumbled about bad ones. They were focused on football.

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