July 2, 2020
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The shifting social climate in the wake of George Floyd’s murder has driven the likes of Quaker Oats (Aunt Jemima), Dreyer’s (Eskimo Pie), Mars (Uncle Ben’s), Conagra (Mrs. Buttersworth) and B&G Foods (Cream of Wheat) to announce their intent to reinvent long-established brands that perpetuated racial stereotypes. While the movement toward equality and justice has yet to claim a sports-related trademark in 2020, calls for Washington’s NFL franchise to rebrand are getting louder. Team owner Daniel Snyder has repeatedly insisted over the last decade that he would “NEVER change the name” of the club—presumably he believes there is equity built up in the once proud Redskins’ brand—but a trifecta of brand experts (including Paul Swangard, Instructor of Advertising and Sport Brand Strategy, University of Oregon) say any value that does exist is declining. “Given the times, there is an amazing opportunity to do the right thing while [simultaneously] making the ‘tent’ bigger for future financial ambitions,” Swangard said.
Our Take: In 2019, Forbes valued the Washington NFL franchise at $3.4 billion—an estimate that attributed $231 million specifically to the Redskins’ brand. It’s unclear how the publication arrived at that number, but Peter Schwartz believes the club’s identity is worth “substantially less.” Sportico’s resident valuations guru said: “The ongoing controversy over the team name—including the 2018 trademark dispute—has resulted in a significant decrease in the appreciation of the value of the team. Viewed through that lens, the Redskins’ brand is actually a net-negative.” Larry Taman (Managing Partner, Brand Positioning Doctors and Co-Host of the Brands, Beats & Bytes podcast) agreed with Schwartz’s assessment. “If the team went up for sale tomorrow, I believe 95% of prospective buyers would pursue a name change,” he said. “And if I’m right about that, the brand really isn’t worth anything.”
While Snyder has never publicly indicated that he would consider doing away with the Redskins’ name, it’s worth wondering if the promise of boosting club profitability would be enough to drive the billionaire owner to overhaul the team’s identity (particularly if this season sees depressed attendance/revenues because of COVID-19). Darryl Cobbin (Managing Partner, Brand Positioning Doctors and Co-Host of the Brands, Beats & Bytes podcast) reminds, “At the moment, only the most die-hard of Redskins fans are buying team merchandise (see: 0 players in the NFL’s top 50 for jersey/merchandise sales in 2019). But if the club were to get a new name and it’s marketed the right way, all of a sudden folks who aren’t even fans of the franchise could be buying the gear.”
Changing the overwhelming negative narrative that surrounds the team would also help the franchise rebuild its fan base and theoretically sell more seats (attendance is down 31% over the last decade, their season-ticket waiting list has also shrunk from a reported 200,000 names to 0). Swangard explained that there is a “massive base of young people [both in and out of market] who care more about what a brand stands for than the product or service it is selling. If the Redskins changed their name, people who never rooted for the club before would begin to because of the perception they’re taking a leadership position as it relates to promoting social progress.”
It’s worth noting that in addition to the potential revenue upside in a rebrand, there are costs associated with the franchise maintaining the status quo. Swangard explained that “everyday [Snyder] waits [to change the name], it becomes harder—and thus more expensive—to retain and attract new fans.”
On Monday, head coach Ron Rivera told the hosts of a Chicago radio show that a rebrand of the Redskins’ name was a “conversation for another time.” It’s unclear when he believes that would be (many would argue it’s years overdue), but Cobbin insists there’s never been an easier time for Snyder to make a change (at least in terms of appeasing the fan base) than right now “under the cover of the cultural shift taking place.” Swangard agreed, adding, “the current environment can actually serve as a launching pad. The team could really lean into this moment and earn some [much needed] goodwill in the market.”
To be clear, a rebrand does not mean the franchise needs to shy away from its rich tradition and history. In fact, Swangard said he would advise the club take a more evolutionary approach. “You’d like to combine the positive associations that the fans have (think: maintaining the teams burgundy and gold color scheme) with the need for a fresh start and a new story.” Taman—who lived in the D.C. area during the Redskins’ 1980s heyday—was in total agreement. “If the club came out with a different name—particularly if it was one with ties to the team’s existing imagery—and a great product, they would sell that stadium out in a heartbeat, and it would be the most popular team in the city again.”
It’s worth mentioning that a team rebrand would not be a new concept to sports fans in the District. Back in 1997, the NBA’s Washington Bullets reimagined themselves as the Wizards. Abe Pollin, the team’s owner at the time, made the call to change the name (Wizards was the name chosen by the fans) in response to a rash of gun violence within the market.