As the 2021 NFL season gets underway, the shortlist of new names for the Washington Football Team has narrowed – but our Saturday opinion argues that change may not be the best option.
This weekend the Washington Football Team (WFT) kicks off the 2021 NFL season by welcoming the Los Angeles Chargers to FedExField. This will be its second season under the WFT name. But recent media reports have suggested that eight names are left in the running for a permanent identity after its temporary rebrand. One is WFT itself – and it would be no surprise if the team opted to stick rather than twist. In fact, it may be the smart move.
The history of the name change has been covered in some length, on WTR and in news and sports outlets around the world. As a quick recap, the Redskins nickname used by the team since 1933 had been the focus of opposition for years, with a trademark cancellation action lodged by Amanda Blackhorse, a Native American who had just reached the age of majority, and four similarly situated Native Americans, in 2006. Eight years later the TTAB directed that six REDSKINS trademark registrations be cancelled because they were disparaging to Native Americans. The ruling was upheld in 2015, but then came Matal v Tam, which saw the US Supreme Court unanimously hold the disparagement clause in the Lanham Act unconstitutional on the ground that it violates the First Amendment. The cancellation decisions were themselves subsequently cancelled and, at that point, the odds against a name change lengthened considerably. Yet even during those proceedings, team owner Dan Snyder dug in, famously declaring in 2013: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps.”
In 2020 everything changed. Two factors forced a U-turn on Snyder’s stance. First, against a backdrop of brand activism and action in light of the Black Lives Matter protests, a number of companies were compelled to withdraw product names and logos that perpetuated stereotypes – heaping pressure on others to do the same. Then came reports that team sponsors FedEx (which is also the Washington stadium naming partner), PepsiCo and Nike had threatened to withdraw their support if a change was not forthcoming. On 13 July 2020 news broke that the controversial name would be retired. Later that month it was revealed that the Washington Football Team would be the brand used for the upcoming season.
Speculation was rampant about potential new names. It was also widely reported that Alexandria-based Martin McCaulay had applied for a range of trademarks. He was quoted in 2015 as predicting: “I see the name changing to the Washington Warriors. And if not the Warriors, then the Americans." Thus, he applied for trademarks for those terms, as well as a host of alternatives.
The team is set to announce its permanent new name in 2022 but over the past week media reports have suggested that the shortlist is down to eight options: the Red Hogs, the Defenders, the Armada, the Presidents, the Brigade, the Commanders, the Red Wolves and the Washington Football Team. Reports elsewhere suggest that the name has narrowed to three (undisclosed) options – clearly the rebrand wheels are turning.
In July 2020 Pro Football applied for two WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM trademarks in the United States. In June 2021 the USPTO issued an initial refusal. The Washington Post reported that the decision had hit two roadblocks: the generic geographic nature of the mark and previous registrations held by McCaulay. Those applications remain live. In the meantime, the brand continues to build its recognition.
A change from WFT to one of the new names would bring a number of benefits, not least a potential merchandise sales bump. However, there are various reasons to stay with the current moniker.
One is that rebrands are not without risk. In the WFT name, the team has a brand that it has had the benefit of testing in the market. Fans have bought the merchandise and, even where sentiment was lukewarm initially, have become accustomed to the name. Another is that, while it a somewhat generic name for, well, a Washington football team, that brand approach would be unique in the pro-football landscape and set the team apart from others.
The switch to the temporary WFT name has also had little negative impact on the value of the franchise, which a fan backlash could easily have resulted in. Consider the Forbes list of the world’s most valuable sports teams. In 2019, under its previous controversial name, the franchise was ranked 14th with a $3.1 billion value (unchanged from the previous year). In 2020 as WFT, it remained in 14th place, but its value nudged up to $3.4 billion. This summer it dropped to 19th place but it still registered an uptick in value to $3.5 billion. What is more, its fall from 14th to 19th is not a case of its value slipping when compared to other NFL teams. In fact, the New York Jets was the only NFL franchise to overtake WFT. Other sports teams that moved past WFT were all new entrants into the top 20 and were all European soccer brands: Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Manchester City.
In short, WFT offers a tried and tested name. It has had no negative impact on the value of the team and has not been the focus of ire from fans or otherwise. Rebranding a sports franchise is a challenging – sometimes risky – endeavour. WFT has proof of concept. If it was up to me, I would be leaning strongly towards making the temporary name permanent.
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