clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Re-branding the Washington NFL franchise

New, comments

Snyder has had years to prepare for this, but you get the feeling it’s gonna be a rush job

Sooner rather than later

The tom toms have been beating and smoke signals rising — or at least Twitter has been a’twittering. The word on the street is that we’re about to get an announcement from Washington’s front office about the name change “review” less than two weeks after said review was announced.

The speed at which the organization has apparently moved worries me. After all, if they do it right, the new name should be with the franchise for the rest of the century and beyond. This is not the kind of decision you want to get wrong, which normally means that it’s not the kind of decision you want to rush.

Of course, Dan Snyder has had years to prepare for this moment, but he resisted it until resistance became futile, and then capitulation was rapid.

Proactive vs. Reactive

If I had been in Dan’s shoes for the past decade, I would have quietly put together a name-change contingency plan. I’d’ve engaged a professional firm to generate several ideas across a few categories (still associated with Native Americans, strong association with DC, linked to the burgundy & gold, a complete break with the past), and had them do things like focus group assessments and trial logo designs. By the time I arrived at the day when I announced a “name review”, I’d’ve had a rollout plan that had been years in development.

But Dan went on record publicly in 2013 with his “all caps... NEVER” proclamation, painting himself into a corner and limiting what he could do without creating a potentially embarrassing situation if reporters learned, for example, that he was testing potential new monikers on the QT.

This leads me to believe that we’ve probably ended up with Dan, Ron and a few other people working in a bunker-mentality under time pressure, social pressure, league pressure and fan pressure to make a great decision and make it right away. Once people know a name change is coming, they tire of the discussion quickly; they want to know the new name. The scheduled start of Training Camp is two weeks away. The season is scheduled to begin in 9 weeks. The timing couldn’t be much more rushed.

Like ripping off a bandage, faster is probably better in a lot of ways — just get it over with. But there are some potential problems. First and foremost is the rushed process of choosing the team name. One thing I’ve learned in recent months is that most NFL franchises have found it difficult to choose team names — often making one decision, then changing it a short time later. For example, the Dallas franchise was initially going to be the Steers until someone pointed out that the “no balls” joke (a steer is a castrated bull). The Steers became the Rangers, but almost at the last minute the nickname was changed to the Cowboys, apparently to avoid confusion with an AA baseball team named the Dallas Rangers. Oakland was initially announced as the Señors, but after nine days of bad jokes, the name was changed to the Raiders.

When the Tennessee franchise (which had relocated from Houston) wanted to change the name from Oilers, they were apparently leaning towards “Rebels”.

Then one day he got a phone call from a lady who said she was the ex-wife of James Earl Ray — the man who shot Martin Luther King Jr.

“She said, ‘That would have been a name [Ray] liked, and he’s a staunch racist and you can’t use that name,’” Reese said. “I said, ‘I’ve got it, ma’am.’”

You get the idea. Sometimes it takes a bit of public airing out to figure out the issues that come along with a team name.

Dan should have spent the last decade working all this out, but given his absolute refusal (prior to this off-season) to consider a name change, it’s hard to imagine him being proactive.

That leaves us with reactive, and that worries me.

Dan Snyder might make an outstanding decision under pressure in this case, but his history hasn’t led me to expect that from him.

Lots of housekeeping for the franchise

Changing the name sounds simple — pick a name, design a logo and slap it on the helmet and we’re good to go. It turns out that it’s actually more complicated than that.

Much more complicated.

I read two really good articles this week about the costs, benefits, process, hurdles, and possible fallout of changing the name of a professional sports team. The articles were not identical, but they covered many of the same points and, in fact, even used some of the same examples and quotes.

The information below is a summary of some of the key ideas I read in these two articles. What I learned from reading them is that the current Redskins franchise has a lot of work to do, and they seem to be trying to telescope work that usually takes a couple of years into a couple of months. It will be a challenge and mistakes will probably be made. We will almost certainly see the franchise, the league and associated organizations a year or two (or even longer) from now still scrambling to eliminate the Redskins name and logo from previously un-thought-of places like footers on websites or the corners of signage.

For the moment, “scrubbing” all vestiges of the Redskins from every corner of websites, the stadium, headquarters, office supplies and the practice facility will be a monumental task.

“It’s amazing how you go through a stadium and through a practice facility where that logo exists,” said Matt Williams, a former executive vice president with the NBA’s Washington Wizards. He was with the team when it dropped the name Bullets. “It’s everywhere. It’s a process to switch that over.”

Expensive, but worthwhile

Sportico estimates the cost to the organization in the millions of dollars, “with low estimates starting around $3 million.” Despite the high cost, the article says that it is worthwhile because of the revenue from sponsorship deals.

NFL teams earn a majority of their money from shared national deals, with TV contracts leading the way. Most merchandise revenue is also shared between teams, meaning that Washington doesn’t directly lose more than other franchises when fans eschew burgundy and gold goods on NFL.com.

However two other major revenue sources—gameday proceeds and team-specific sponsorships—are earned on the local level, and in both cases, the Redskins are hurting. Attendance at FedExField declined by more than 30 percent between 2008 and ’18. But it was recent pressure from sponsors that seems to have pushed owner Dan Snyder to action, with investors asking companies like FedEx, Nike and PepsiCo to stop doing business with the team until it rebrands.

“Sponsors are hugely critical, especially for NFL teams,” said Matt Hill, SVP of client consulting at GMR Marketing, who previously worked for the NFL. “Sponsorship is such a major portion of the revenue pie, particularly when it comes to those sponsors that have their names on the building and jersey. They carry even greater influence.”

Snyder doesn’t have to be reminded of the value sponsorships provide. Soon after buying the team in 1999, he built it into the first American sports franchise worth $1 billion by Forbes’ valuations. At the time, the team was generating nearly three times as much sponsorship and ad revenue as the league average.

Partly due to the Skins’ on-field struggles, Washington has since fallen to 7th in the NFL by Forbes’ calculations. With a new stadium likely around the corner and a new naming rights agreement coming with it, a mere five percent increase in that contract would likely cover all rebranding expenses.

Get it right

In creating the new identity, Sportico’s article makes the point that “Washington [should] establish a new, positive brand story that could last decades. “It shouldn’t be about running away from something....It should be about moving towards something better.”

“You have two choices,” Brand Positioning Doctors managing partner Darryl Cobbin said. “You can be proactive and give yourself an opportunity to be thoughtful and strategic, or you can be reactive and tactical and possibly make a blunder.”

A compressed timeline

Reading both articles (ESPN and Sportico), I’m seeing that a re-branding effort usually takes 18 - 24 months.

But the Redskins aren’t in the “usual” situation, having been driven into a corner by fast-moving societal events this summer, and now are faced with making substantive progress on the name change ahead of the looming 2020 preseason and regular season — each of which may or may not be played.

John Keim wrote:

Washington might end up doing it hastily because of more intense pressure than ever to ditch a name viewed as derogatory.

A number of sponsors, led by FedEx (which has naming rights to the team’s stadium under a $205 million deal that runs until 2025), Nike and PepsiCo have said they want the name changed. And numerous retailers, including Target, Walmart and Amazon, have stopped selling the team’s merchandise.

“Because of the pressure now, there’s more value in doing something sooner rather than later.”

When the Bullets announced they were changing their name, the process took two years to complete. And the process involves more than just renaming a team. Williams, who now is a senior strategist and vice president of media relations for Maroon PR, said there’s also time and energy devoted to logos and color schemes, the stationery and even business cards.

“There are so many tentacles to where a sports franchise’s name exists,” Williams said. “It’s quite an undertaking. ... It’s a lot more of an involved process than certainly the general public thinks. They think you can paint a new logo on the field and it’s done. You could do it that way, but it’s not the preferred way and there will be hiccups.”

League input

While the other NFL owners won’t pick the name, the league must approve the name before it becomes official. There have been multiple reports (including from Dan Snyder and Roger Goodell) that Washington’s owner has been in discussion with the league for weeks. The NFL reportedly has a number of team names that have been ‘vetted’, which may help ease the amount of background work to be done by the Redskins front office in the name selection process.

The logo

Said [Matt] Williams [of the Wizards] of the Redskins: “They’ll want to come up with a logo that resonates, and that’s not a short process. I could see them doing something like changing the name and do something generic with the logo — maybe it’s just a word this first year — and then unveiling a logo down the road. Or maybe there’s something they already like. Traditionally, what you try to do when changing the name or coming up with a name, you want to have it completely in place and everything set to go.”

Early last week, I was thinking this first option was a real possibility — the team could, perhaps just strip out the logo and play the 2020 season as the Washington Burgundy (or whatever), then come back this time next year with the full re-brand.

At this point, I’d be shocked if that happened. The fans have certainly grabbed the name change with both hands and run with it in social media and online platforms. There are a number of fans who declare that they will no longer follow the team when it is no longer called the Redskins, but those who plan to remain seem highly energized by the opportunity to create a new identity.

Watching specific name options wax and wane in popularity has been akin (in my mind) to watching the process of presidential primaries and general election compressed into several days, as ideas are floated and either gain traction or not, with some rising while others fall. It helps put into perspective the hazards of a small group of people making an early commitment to a single name concept.

Will fans get a say in choosing the name?

Many (if not most) expansion teams or a team that change names in conjunction with a move to a new city or change in ownership involve the fans in the process of choosing the team name. It seems like Dan Snyder doesn’t plan to do that — there have been no reports of naming contests or the like.

This may be a function of the short timetable that the organization faces, or it might be a sign that Dan had his mind made up early. Ron Rivera last week said that he had been talking to his boss about it.

Rivera, who is on vacation, said Snyder has called him to discuss names.

Rivera did not share any of the possible team names he has discussed with Snyder.

“We came up with a couple of names,” Rivera said. “Two of them I really like.”

The most important criteria for a new name is that it respects Native American culture and traditions and also serves as a tribute to the military, Rivera said. Rivera is the son of an Army officer who grew up on military bases.

“We want to do this in a positive way,” Rivera said, adding they want to ensure the name won’t be “a joke.”

There was a lot in these comments by Rivera that concerned me. First was that the discussions about the name sounded very limited and private; it didn’t sound as though they were reflecting on names that had been recommended by anyone with professional marketing and branding credentials or that the consideration involved a broad group of individuals.

Second was that just a couple of days after announcing that a formal review would be undertaken, Rivera had already zeroed in on “two of them”. I get concerned when it sounds like the head coach and the guy who drove Six Flags into bankruptcy are two days into the process and already talking about personal favorites.

I was further puzzled by Rivera’s comments in the initial announcement of the name review that it would be a priority to honor the military. I don’t know where that came from, aside from the well-known fact that Rivera grew up in a military family, and nothing public has been added since to clarify it. It seemed, however, that it might’ve pointed to a direction for the team name having already been decided upon. Of course, in the same breath, Rivera also spoke about “honoring Native Americans”, and that has since been reported to be off the table, so perhaps the name discussion was still fairly fluid last week.

In this age of instant-access social media, fan contests may be an outdated concept anyway. In this particular case of re-naming the Redskins, fans did not wait to be asked, but immeditately lept at the opportunity to express opinions, run polls and write blogs about the name. Perhaps that was because the possibility of a name change has been around for Redskins fans to discuss for a long time; perhaps a different fan base that hadn’t had the discussion would have reacted more slowly, but I think that the way that fan bases connect and communicate in the 21st century is the real explanation. Some Redskins fans proclaimed that the team should have stood strong with the Redskins name. Others embraced Redtails, Warriors, Hogs, Warthogs, War Hawks, Pigskins, Red Wolves, Wolves, Werewolves, Senators, Firebirds, Monuments, Americans, Natives or any of a hundred other ideas.

After a week of discussion, a few names have emerged as “favorites”. I won’t enumerate them here — you know what they are.

The real question at this point is whether Dan Snyder will be swayed by the very vocal public opinion, or whether his process has been more insulated and internal. Whatever name the franchise announces will be met with disapproval and disappointment by anyone who championed a different one, but the test will come in how quickly and enthusiastically those who are disappointed overcome that disappointment and embrace the new moniker — if they ever embrace it at all.

Stadium and Super Bowl?

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of disagreement that if the team were able to (re)relocate (back) to the site of RFK stadium, that would be the most ideal outcome. The Redskins name has been an impediment to that outcome for a long time. Changing the name opens doors to making that outcome tangible.

The current lease on the stadium in Landover runs through 2027. While the pressure isn’t on, we’re getting close to the time when decisions will have to be made, designs drawn, contracts signed, and ground broken. To have a new stadium ready for the 2028 season would probably require groundbreaking in 2026; you can work back from there. Moving away from the Redskins nickname that has been used since 1933 is an important step in resolving where the team will be playing its home games at the end of this decade.

With the likelihood of a new stadium (wherever it is located) comes the inevitable question of hosting a Super Bowl, most likely a season or two after the new stadium opens. These opportunities are part of the “rewards” that Dan Snyder and the fan base can hope for in the wake of the name change.

Trademarks and uniforms

My reading of the John Keim article indicates that trademark issues may not create as big an obstacle as I thought they might.

The first step, according to Michael Graif, an intellectual property attorney with Mintz, is “clearing the trademark.” The team has to make sure there are no “confusingly similar trademarks that have priority over them,” he said.

Once the Redskins do that and are confident the trademark is available, they could start using the new name while applying for the trademark to be registered. The cost: $275 per classification of what they want trademarked. That includes clothing and calendars, printed material, video recordings and much more. The costs add up.

Graif said it takes about year for a trademark to go through. It takes about three months before it even gets assigned to an examining attorney from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. For fans of the name Redtails, know this: Above the Law recently published a piece by Darren Heitner, founder of Heitner Legal, about two men who live in the Washington area — Deron Hogans and Thaniel van Amerongen. In February they “jointly filed an application to register the ‘Washington Redtails’ trademark in association with the licensing of intellectual property rights.”

Heitner said that application was published for opposition on June 23. After that point, other parties have 30 days to oppose the trademark. If the team wanted to use Redtails, it still could do so because it can prove the name would be used for goods and services. That’s key. However, Washington couldn’t move forward until the other application was resolved.

“It would cause a bump in the road in terms of trying to apply and register for a name if [Snyder] falls in love with [Redtails],” Heitner said in a phone conversation.

The franchise can announce a name and let the legal processes surrounding trademark play out on a different timetable. This seems more like a limiting issue that may block certain options where the trademark is already in other hands, or one where the money and power of the NFL can smooth out a bump in the road.

Uniforms, apparently, are not a huge issue. Nike is one of the major corporations pushing for the change; it seems likely that they will do whatever is necessary to insure that the Washington Whatevers are clothed and ready to do battle on the gridiron without delay.

Brand Power

The ESPN article addresses the impact the name change will have on the brand.

Let’s be honest: The Redskins’ brand has suffered in recent years for reasons unrelated to their name. In fact, when it comes to percentage of home attendance, the Redskins have finished just one season above 20th since 2007 — and that was in 2007, when they were second. They were 30th in 2019 and last the year before that. Part of that stems from having a stadium fans dislike in an area that results in traffic headaches — and a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2005.

There’s certainly a segment of the population that was offended by the name and logo — some fans of the team included — and that didn’t help. But the name has long been controversial, yet the fan base remained strong. Until recent years, that is, when fans tired of inconsistent play, years of false hope, and a front office and ownership group they disliked.

Over the past two seasons in particular, it was common to see opposing fans outnumber Redskins fans at home games. In other words: Winning matters; the brand hasn’t been selling tickets.

“We place too much emphasis on how much money a brand generates or how many followers it has on Twitter, and not enough emphasis on what a brand stands for,” said Jeremy Dowler, a brand consultant who is a former director of marketing for Adidas in football and baseball. “Going forward, the more inclusive a brand is, the stronger it will be,” he said. “The long-term connection fans have with a professional sports team comes from the location of that team, what the organization stands for, and how it represents the local and regional community, not the mascot.”

I’ve been a Redskins fan at least since 1967 when Vince Lombardi was the head coach. I write hundreds of articles per year for Hogs Haven. I pay for subscriptions to Game Pass, The Athletic and other NFL related sites so that I can follow the team from the other side of the world. I value the Redskins name and brand.

Yet, I’m ready... nay, I’m excited for a re-brand.

Disclaimer: I reserve the right to hate the re-brand if it doesn’t meet with my personal expectations. For example, I would likely jump ship if the color scheme changes to Red, White and Blue. I would almost certainly disown the team if they adopt the Redtails moniker, which I associate with certain primates and ass-whippings rather than the WWII era flyers.

As I was saying, I’m excited by the opportunity to link a re-brand to the end of the Bruce Allen era and the start of the RivEra. The only way I could be more excited would be if this week’s announcement is not related to the name change, but a change in ownership. I know Dan will still own the team long after I’ve gone to the Happy Hunting Grounds, but a man can dream, can’t he?

I honestly think the Redskins brand is at about the lowest point an NFL brand can reach in the early 21st century. A strong new brand will re-energize my enthusiasm, and I expect it could open up opportunities to attract new young fans who will be the future of the NFL in DC in years and decades to come.

John Keim ends his article asking whether there will be “fallout”.

I don’t need him to answer that question for me. Of course there will.

The franchise will lose some fans forever. Some of us who remain won’t buy in completely to the new brand. Our division rivals might not feel as passionate about the rivalries.

But one thing will overcome most of that — winning football.

If the re-branded NFL team in DC goes out and wins a lot more games than it loses; if it gets to the playoffs and if it wins some playoff games, then the new brand will be a winner.