WASHINGTON BRIDGE: The Washington Commanders, shown here in a preseason game Aug. 26 at FedEx Field, are starting to renovate the stadium under new team owner Josh Harris. (Getty Images)

Fan feedback steers improvements

FedEx Field is going through much-needed upgrades to stadium infrastructure and technology under the direction of new ownership as the Washington Commanders start to rebuild both the facility and relationships with longtime fans.

Six weeks after a group led by Josh Harris purchased the Commanders and the stadium for $6.05 billion, a record sum for a North American franchise, officials with the NFL team announced they’ve invested $40 million to install new videoboards, a new sound system, repairs to the seating bowl and concourses, and repurposing premium spaces into three themed group suites.

Those renovations are in place for the 2023 season.

It’s the initial phase of a multiyear makeover to the 27-year-old stadium that the Commanders have committed to bringing up to speed with other NFL venues after years of neglect under former owner Dan Snyder.

A big piece of the overhaul is simply restoring goodwill between the Commanders and their fan base, according to Trista Langdon, the team’s senior vice president of operations and guest experience.

Early in the process, it’s working well. Sunday’s regular season home opener against Arizona is sold out for the first time in several years.

As of early September, 50 suites have come back online with new buyers as demand returns for premium seat products, Langdon said. FedEx Field has 257 total suites.

Last season, Washington finished last in home attendance among the NFL’s 32 teams, drawing an average of 58,106 fans at a building that’s fluctuated in capacity over the past 20 years.

FedEx Field opened in 1996 with about 80,000 seats. The building reached a high of 91,704 seats from 2005-2010 before steadily reducing capacity to where it stands now, about 63,000, in part to mask empty seats after thousands of fans refused to attend Commanders games as scandals mounted over the past decade under Snyder’s tenure.

“A lot of them decided they weren’t coming to FedEx Field, for many reasons, but one of them was they didn’t feel like they were getting value and that the experience was not what it needed to be,” Langdon said.

Now, there’s a fresh start as the Commanders extend an olive branch to what historically has been a loyal fan base before Snyder tore it apart.

The team surveyed fans and other stakeholders to see what they felt was needed to improve the game day experience. To date, the results can be seen in the new boards and audio system, among other improvements.

“We made sure that we all had a common goal, to operate in a professional manner to get the Commanders fan base, which is such a rabid group and who want to love this team, back into the building,” Langdon said.

“We’re using the term renovation, but some of it was the basics of cleaning up and bringing things back structurally sound; making people feel valued so when they come to their seats, they’re clean and not broken,” she said. “We want everyone to have a great experience and flush out some of the negativity we were hearing about FedEx Field.”

SKIN IT BACK: Josh Harris, the Washington Commanders’ new owner, high-fives fans during a July 21 pep rally. (AP Photo)

To her surprise, she discovered that a lot of other Commanders employees felt that way and were committed to turning things around in the Washington market.

Langdon has been with the Commanders since December 2021 after spending about 17 years in Charlotte, working at Spectrum Center for the NBA Bobcats, which became the Hornets after a team rebrand eight years ago.

The Commanders went through a rebrand in 2022 and there’s still a lot of work to get done, she said. The team is making strides in the right direction, she said, including updating FedEx Field, while keeping an eye on potentially building a new stadium in the future.

“I’m interacting with season-ticket holders that have been here for 20 to 30 years, that have so much pride in this team,” Langdon said. “I’ve developed some good relationships, to the point where they’re emailing me after every game, telling me what they saw and what they think we can improve. We listen and try to give them what they’re asking for.”

Working with Anthony James Partners, owner’s representative for the tech upgrades, the Commanders selected ANC as the integrator for the new 8-millimeter videoboards in both end zones with higher resolution than the old screens. Washington Professional Systems, a local sound company, worked on the new audio system installation.

Apart from technology and infrastructure, the Commanders are focusing on upgrading food service with Levy, the same concessionaire used by the Hornets. There are a dozen new food vendors and brands in place for the 2023 season, most of them local flavors such as DC Half Smokes, Hill Country BBQ and Paisano’s Pizza.

In addition, Sire Spirits, a line of hard liquors owned by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, has branded a few stadium lounges for Bronson Cognac. Sire Spirits has similar deals at other big league venues across the country.

The trio of themed suites, marketed to groups of up to 40 people, are tied to arcade games such as air hockey, PacMan and Madden ’23; Washington pro football legends, decked out with lockers, benches, artificial turf and images commemorating team history; and the military, celebrating all six branches with custom artwork.

Next year, the Commanders will work with architects for more extensive renovations, Langdon said.

Since Langdon took the job in Washington, she’s toured other NFL stadiums to get ideas for what could be done to further improve FedEx Field. She plans to accompany the Commanders on road trips to Empower Field in Denver and Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Last year, she toured SoFi Stadium and Levi’s Stadium.

In July, Langdon returned to Charlotte to attend a Luke Combs concert at Bank of America Stadium. She hung out with AEG promoters backstage and got to see event-level premium retrofits for the NFL Carolina Panthers and MLS Charlotte FC. Bank of America Stadium opened in 1996, the same year as FedEx Field, and has a similar design, so it provides a good comparison in that respect, she said.

“We’re excited now,” Langdon said “There’s new energy with fans coming back and the team’s looking good. We’re looking forward to the season and creating new memories for our fans.”