Washington, D.C., is a city divided — by politics and race, class and quadrant. But disparate views have a way of aligning over a shared sports franchise, and nothing binds the nation’s capital together like its football team, the Redskins.
With a current value of $2.85 billion, the Redskins are the third-most-valuable franchise in the National Football League, trailing only their bitter rivals the Dallas Cowboys and the perpetually successful New England Patriots. But amidst all that financial success, the brand has lived for decades with a controversial thorn in its side. That name.
While only 23% of Americans currently support changing the team’s name, sentiment is shifting quickly. That’s a 9% increase from only a year before, and young Millennials support a name change at higher rates than the general public. In 2014, sales of Redskins-branded clothing fell 35%. A long list of major news outlets and sports broadcasters refuse to use the team’s name during coverage. President Obama has weighed in against the name, as did 50 US senators, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the Oneida Indian Nation, and the first African American league referee to call a Super Bowl refused to work any Redskins games for the last eight years of his career. Fortune on the field has a way of shielding the team from criticism. But after a first-round elimination in the NFL playoffs early this month, they are vulnerable again.
The team’s current owner, Dan Snyder, has sworn that he will never change its name, citing both tradition and business concerns. But over the years, many other long-term, die-hard fans have come to find the name unconscionable.
"Growing up, I always had great pride and respect for the team’s name and the mascot and never looked at it with any sort of negative connotation," said Matt Hill, senior vice president for global sports and marketing at GMR Marketing. Hill is a native Washingtonian who spent eight years at the NFL in corporate communications and business development. "But I think it’s clear now that it is a name that is a derogatory term that a large segment of the population finds offensive."
A different D.C. team changed its name in recent memory. In 1997, Bullets basketball team owner Abe Pollin, concerned about associations with the city’s high gun homicide rate, changed the name of the team to the Washington Wizards. It wasn’t an easy transition, and some fans never acclimated to the changes. The Wizards declined to comment for this article on their name change or branding strategy, but Pollin’s decision decades ago offers a valuable case study for anyone seeking to rebrand the Redskins, an outcome that looks increasingly certain — someday.
"Too many bullets"
In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, D.C.’s crime rate spiked due to gang violence and easy access to firearms, earning the city the nickname "the murder capital of the nation." The Bullets had also been performing poorly on the court, so the team seemed ripe for a rebranding.
In an effort to involve the fans, the franchise solicited new names with a contest run through the fast-casual restaurant chain Boston Market. Half a million entries were received, suggesting more than 3,000 different names. "I don't want to disparage the Wizards, but that is rarely a process that by itself yields a great name," said Matt Gordon, director of naming and writing at brand consulting firm Landor Associates.
The fans agreed, mocking the five options the contest produced, which had no identifiable associations with the city: Dragons, Express, Sea Dogs, Stallions and Wizards. After a panel selected Wizards as the new name, the logo was changed to a stylized Merlin-figure leaping in front of a moon, and the uniforms dropped the popular red, white and blue color scheme in favor of white and a cheap-looking royal blue.
"Could the name have been a better one? Maybe, but they had to make a decision pretty quickly," said Edward O’Hara, senior partner at SME Branding. "With the rise of gang proliferation in our inner cities, it needed to be changed. [SME was] involved with the identity portion of that, not so much the actual name portion, but I support what they did. I think it was the right thing."
While fans mostly lauded Pollin’s reasoning, the rebranding never quite caught their imagination. Even now, the SBNation fan site for Washington Wizards news is bulletsforever.com. While the team resolutely rode out the criticism for years, in 2011 they introduced popular "throwback" jerseys and in 2014 dropped the wizard logo altogether. "As the team has gone back to the more retro look and the old-school uniforms while still keeping the name Wizards," Hill said, "that has certainly resonated with the fan base and created that bridge back to some of the great memories of the Bullets of old."
Utah is not famous for its jazz music, nor is Los Angeles known for its lakes. The state bird of Arizona is the cactus wren. Yet, when the New Orleans Jazz basketball team moved to Utah in 1979, they kept their nickname, as had the Minneapolis Lakers in 1960. The Chicago Cardinals football team migrated to St. Louis in 1960 before flying on to Phoenix in 1988. "Those names really speak to how hard it is to change a name and how sticky they become," Gordon said. "Changing the name is essentially changing the brand and the franchise." A team looking for a fresh start must contend with both habit and history.
"Redskins" as a team name is an old moniker, dating to 1933, four years before the franchise moved to D.C., when they were still the Boston Redskins. It was picked by George Preston Marshall, the team’s founder and owner for more than three decades. Marshall later became notorious for his opposition to the integration of the NFL, a stance he always maintained was motivated solely by business concerns. Under his leadership, the Redskins were the last NFL team to integrate, and then only after the federal government threatened action.
There won’t be any federal action over the team’s name, but official action from the NFL is likely a long way off, too. Neither the NFL nor the Redskins responded to requests for comment for this article.
"From a PR standpoint, the NFL is one of the most shrewd organizations in the business world," Hill said.
"Up until now, the league has made clear that it is the owner’s decision. But should that pressure increase and reach a critical mass, I could see the league stepping in."
And pressure is beginning to mount in the media. As more broadcasters stop using the name — the brand — of the team, advertisers could start putting pressure on the team to change the name to something more palatable, Gordon said. "Sponsors and broadcasters are the real audience for the NFL."
But the real audience for the team is its fans, specifically those who buy tickets and merchandise. While 2016 season tickets sold out in just 13 minutes earlier this month, there is evidence that merchandise sales are dropping off.
"In this day and age, we just can’t have offensive names like that," said O’Hara, who cites the greater numbers of young people who support a name change. "They believe in social justice more than any generation before them, because social media has empowered them. There is a democracy in branding now where they have a voice, so they are not going to stand for an offensive name."
Lessons to learn
Of course, even with a team’s leadership behind a name change, it’s an arduous process. It’s also an expensive one. "From naming, from the research that would have to inform the naming, to the testing, to the logo, to the brand standards guides, uniform development, secondary marks, word marks, home and road marks — I think you are looking at between $200,000 to $300,000, and you're looking at two to two and a half years of a process," O’Hara said. "Eighteen months at the minimum, from the very start to the absolute completion of all the tools that a sports brand like the Redskins needs."
And while the team itself doesn’t own a large amount of physical inventory, its retail partners do. But those outdated jerseys and jackets probably won’t go to waste. They might even be a financial boon to both retailers and the team. "I actually think Redskins merchandise would fly off the shelves if they announced a name change. Fans would want to build up their inventory of the heritage brand before the new brand was launched," Gordon said. "Creating a transition period or calling this the ‘heritage uniform’ and then rolling out the new one could be one of those ways to really capitalize on the change."
As the Bullets’ difficulties demonstrate, even the best of intentions can be derailed by choices that turn out to be unpopular with fans. Simple names with mild political overtones tend to do well in Washington: the Capitals hockey franchise, the soccer team D.C. United, the Nationals baseball team (a name chosen over Senators when the sport returned to the city after a 33-year absence in 2005). The Wizards is the outlier, though Bullets was as well.
The other D.C. teams embrace a patriotic color scheme, but it’s best to break with that tradition. "They don't have to change their colors — the burgundy and gold is just unique in football," O’Hara said. "There is a lot of great visual brand equity there."
But graphic-design needs will be less demanding than the social engineering. Redskins fans are devoted to the team, despite its historically poor record on the field (only three Super Bowl wins in 80 years), and they are aware of its long history. The most difficult thing to sell to the public might be the rebranding itself. While the Redskins would be distancing themselves from part of their history and identity, they would also be trying to maintain fan loyalty to that very brand. "They’d change because they want to distance themselves from a negative association, like Altria did," said Gordon, referring to the 2003 Philip Morris rebranding spearheaded by Landor.
"With the Redskins, their business isn't changing. They're going to be putting the same product out on the field," he said. "Make a huge change, something dramatic, something that sports fans and teams haven't seen before, so that you can be seen as taking the lead in how teams rebrand themselves. You need to make it about something other than facing the social pressure."
"It has to be positive," O’Hara said. "If you don’t have positive reasons, if the announcement is reluctant, the fans are going to reject it and it’s going to be big failure. They can be known as the franchise that did the right thing and I think that's much more of a contemporary idea than hanging onto the past."
But O’Hara is skeptical that such an effort could be successful if helmed by Snyder, even if the owner was genuinely on board. "That would be such an about face that it might come off as disingenuous. It might have to come from the commissioner, which would cause a whole other set of problems."
Of course, there is one proven method to guarantee that fans will accept changes to their beloved team’s look and identity: success.
"Put a winning product on the field and a lot of this would be forgiven," Gordon said. "Winning is sort of a cure all in sports in a way that doesn't exist for other brands."
On the flip side, changing the team’s name is "probably a harder thing to do if they’re Super Bowl champions," O’Hara added. "If you have your choice you’d do it when they’re down rather than when they’re up."
The Redskins haven’t made it to a Super Bowl since 1992. But Washington football remains the oldest and most cherished franchise in the city, a fact that guarantees any changes to the brand will be hard-fought and require careful planning.
"While the Nationals are certainly beginning to build a sizeable fan base, and the Wizards and Capitals have had success as of late, I don’t think any of those franchises are really ready to unseat the Redskins as Washington’s team," Hill said. "It’s hard to say when a change will come and what the key factors will be in creating that change, but I do feel that it is inevitable."
Follow I-Hsien on Twitter @ihsiensherwood.