When the Washington Bullets changed their name in the 1990s, the team solicited feedback from fans on a new moniker, running a contest that attracted thousands of suggestions. Then, when the franchise narrowed down the options to five, fans voted in a telephone poll to choose the winner: the Washington Wizards.
But early on in the process, former public relations director Matt Williams realized one thing.
“Whatever name we chose, not everybody was going to be happy,” Williams said. “It was pretty clear.”
Picking a new name can be a challenge — one that the Washington Redskins are currently facing as they scramble to have a new identity in time for the 2020 season in less than two months.
A week after announcing it would retire “Redskins” upon conclusion of its ongoing review, Washington has yet to reveal a new name. And on Monday, the team named longtime adviser Terry Bateman as its chief marketing officer to lead “the charge on the name change and branding process along with owner Dan Snyder.”
Thus far, Washington has kept its rebranding process close to the vest. No potential names have been leaked, leaving fans and former players to brainstorm their own ideas — coming up with names such as the Washington Red Wolves or the Washington Redtails.
The quiet approach could lead to a backlash whenever Washington unveils its new moniker, branding experts say.
“The process is almost as important as the end product,” said Brand Federation founding partner Kelly O’Keefe, “if you want to win over the hearts and minds of your current fans and supporters.”
O’Keefe has experience in overseeing the rebranding process. Last decade, he led a task force for the University of North Dakota as it transitioned from the “Fighting Sioux” to the “Fighting Hawks.” During that time, the university took more suggestions from the public — receiving 1,600 submissions. The change took three years, two of which saw its teams play under a generic “University of North Dakota” banner until a new name was determined.
Rebranding can be a complicated endeavor, given all that has to be done. Beyond picking a new name and designing a new logo, Washington will have to secure trademarks for each and spend time updating everything related to the team that contains references to “Redskins” — from items like business cards to letterhead to legal documents. Even the road to Washington’s practice facility is off “Redskin Park Drive” in Ashburn, Virginia.
The process can cost companies millions, said Syracuse University sport management professor Patrick Walsh. “$5 [million] to $10 million potentially when it’s all said and done,” he said.
Walsh, though, said if the rebrand is “done right,” it can have a positive impact on the franchise.
He pointed to an uptick in merchandise sales and increase in corporate sponsorships. It’s the latter that is particularly valuable for NFL teams, since teams don’t have to share that revenue with the rest of the league, unlike what Washington would gain from new merchandise.
“They want to be associated with a brand that has a strong image,” Walsh said of corporate sponsors. “And if you have a strong image and some unique associations, that’s where you can see some benefit from a sponsorship perspective of companies that want to be associated with the team.”
Experts expressed doubts about whether Washington could realistically complete an entire rebrand by the start of the season. Walsh, for instance, said it was possible to introduce a new name and start to make some changes around the team’s facilities before then, but added “there’s not a ton” that can get done in two months.
O’Keefe and Williams floated the idea of the team playing under generic burgundy-and-gold uniforms that just had “Washington” on them, while a new logo is designed. The Wizards’ transition from the Bullets took a full two years.
While Washington hasn’t solicited suggestions from fans, Walsh said there are steps a team can take to gauge public reaction. He noted that the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights got a good amount of feedback on each of their potential names when the team’s trademark applications were discovered.
Once Washington does settle on a new name, it will have to decide how it wants to introduce it to the public. Williams remembered the Wizards holding two big, televised press conferences — one for the name and another to unveil the jerseys and logos. Williams said the logo unveiling was held at a Modell’s Sporting Goods and everyone who attended the press conference received a T-shirt featuring the image.
But the circumstances around Washington’s change, in particular, could force a different path. Would a splashy press conference, for example, further upset the faction of fans who don’t want the name to change? A Morning Consult poll found last week that 49% of Americans do not want the name changed. Only 29% were in favor, with the other 22% undecided. O’Keefe said it usually takes six to 12 months for a team’s fan base to “get comfortable” with a new name.
“It’s always going to be a mixed bag at first,” O’Keefe said. “No matter how well the Redskins does with this process, you’re still going to have people angry because they love the old name and the new one is new. It doesn’t have any storied history. … At first, they’re still kind of (ticked) off that they lost a name that they cared about.”