Even 23 years later, Ed O’Hara can still picture the lapel pin. SME Branding’s current chairman was standing at the front of a large conference room on Miami University’s campus in Oxford, Ohio when he saw it. The school was about to announce its decision to drop its Redskins name and become the RedHawks.
Supported by representatives of the Miami people, the change was opposed by a large subset of the school’s alumni and fans. “I will always be a Redskin,” one trustee had tearfully said after voting earlier that year. Another protester happened to be one of the school’s biggest donors, threatening to pull his $500,000 annual gift if the administration didn’t change its mind. At the unveiling, he sat in the front row, wearing a caricatured image of a Native American carrying the head of a White man by his hair on his lapel. “That was pretty intimidating,” O’Hara said.
Despite that display, the school president went through with the announcement, and the donor ended up coming around. As for the trustee, his family gave a $6 million gift in 2014.
Before working with Miami, SME helped St. John’s move from the Redmen to the Red Storm in 1994, and since, they’ve transitioned the University of North Dakota from the Fighting Sioux to the Fighting Hawks in 2015. “It’s always hard,” O’Hara said. “It’s always controversial. But it’s also always the right thing.”
Moving on from the Redskins brand would likely cost the Washington NFL franchise millions of dollars, with low estimates starting around $3 million. While creating a new name and logo is likely to only run around $500,000, experts and precedent suggest that everything from related legal fees to extra marketing spend to a new coat of paint at the team’s facility could push the total budget past eight-figures. Keeping the name, however, would be even more costly. In addition to being the moral choice, O’Hara said, going in a new direction “is also good business” for one simple reason: sponsorship.
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.”
Sponsor considerations are often pivotal in branding decisions, according to designer Jeff Eagles, who helped create the Vegas Golden Knights’ identity. “That was something we talked about in the very first meeting,” Eagles said. “[Owner] Bill Foley wanted a brand that resonated with local residents of Las Vegas and a brand they could be proud of…. If the identity was derived from some of the more controversial aspects of Las Vegas, which a lot of people assumed it would be early on, that might not be something a Nike or Adidas or Under Armour would want to get behind. When you step back and look at it that way, clearly sponsors were a part of it.”
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.
Of course, for the franchise to reap the full benefits of a rebrand, it needs to make a considered choice, and experts said that can only happen at the end of a considered process. Most advised against trying to change as little as possible about the current identity; rather, they suggested Washington establish a new, positive brand story that could last decades. “It shouldn’t be about running away from something,” Eagles said. “It should be about moving towards something better.”
Snyder doesn’t have to look far to see how these things can go wrong. In 1997, the Washington Bullets became the Wizards, with local fans and writers criticizing the name for a lack of local resonance. The team later re-adopted its former color scheme. The Redskins now run the risk of alienating both the diehard keep-the-name contingent as well as those looking for a totally fresh start if they opt for half-measures.
“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.”
To this point, reporting suggests that Snyder has been heavily involved in the decision, narrowing down potential names before announcing the official review. If he does establish a new name, possibly even before the start of the 2020 season, it wouldn’t be the first time an owner’s prerogative has won the day.
As the managing director of SourceUSA, Matt Levine recalled working with the NFL to help new owner Bob McNair pick a name in Houston, and counseling against going with Texans. “We felt it was an insult to the Cowboys,” Levine said, “and the owner said, ‘That’s exactly what I want.’” McNair wanted his team to be Texas’s team.
Nearly a decade earlier, Levine was involved in one of the most successful branding journeys in modern sports. As the second employee of what would become the San Jose Sharks, he helped come up with 200 possible names for the new NHL franchise before eliminating most of them based on a variety of requirements.
The team decided it wanted a name that was easy to depict graphically, unique in American pro sports, exciting for both young and old fans, and impossible to shorten, thus making the brand easier to control. Notably, it solicited countless suggestions from fans across the globe but opted not to select the most popular response, Blades, because of its violent connotations.
Other teams have gone about redesigns by first creating a brand strategy program that by itself can take months to produce, with stakeholders deciding what makes their franchise different and what they believe in, O’Hara said. In the Redskins case, that process could help designers determine how best to maintain a connection to the team’s heritage while updating other elements.
Picking a name and colors is still only the beginning. Legal experts have to look into trademarking the identity around the world. Marketers, meanwhile, often test the selections based on qualitative and quantitative measures, including techniques similar to those of consumer product gurus who line up various logo possibilities for “pass-by evaluations.”
At that point, a team is still early in the process. Similar timelines must play out for secondary logos and uniforms, as well as custom fonts, all of which are once again surveyed with fans as well as tested for TV. In the Sharks’ case, Levine remembers NHL leadership being very skeptical about the team’s teal sweaters until a staffer skated around wearing a prototype for in-arena cameras.
In all, the process often takes 18 to 24 months. The NFL, as well as league outfitter Nike, will likely play a large role in the final decisions. While brand assets can be created in a matter of months, full implementation takes longer. And that’s a good thing, O’Hara said.
First, the lengthy process gives retailers time to move all of their remaining Redskins gear. If the team had to buy back that merchandise, that could add millions of dollars to the overall cost. Second, the process itself provides a long-delayed public relations opportunity.
“The more they stage this out over time to get that goodwill back, the better,” O’Hara said. “Let’s have five events before we announce a name. If I’m them, I would form a coalition of Native Americans, African Americans, local community members, fans and sponsors. You have to start the process of getting people on board with the change. It’s the old adage: If you ask me, I’ll believe it. If you tell me, I’m not supporting it.”
Native groups like the National Congress of American Indians have expressed support for a name change. “NCAI looks forward to immediately commencing discussions with the league and team about how they will change the team’s name and mascot, and a prompt timetable for doing so,” NCAI President Fawn Sharp said in a statement.
Done right, the long, complex, expensive process can pay off big. After passing on a Wine Country-inspired maroon concept, considering 20 shades of teal, tweaking the logo to incorporate notes from parents, and developing a triangle Gothic font type, the Sharks accounted for nearly 25 percent of NHL merchandise sales over the franchise’s first two years.
Levine knew he’d succeeded when, returning to his hometown of Philadelphia, he saw a local sports retailer’s billboard advertising that they had San Jose merchandise in stock. If Washington can achieve the same results in their NFC East rival’s backyard, they will really have accomplished something.