Name Changer

Tailgating, body paint, jerseys, good luck rituals, and an unparalleled fraternity all exist as part of sports fandom. People love their teams – and love anyone else who also loves their team. Such loyalty has become an integrated part of sports culture sociology.

Social Identity Theory states that by wearing team colors, attending games, knowing the players’ names, positions and stats, a fan begins to feel as if they are an integral part of the team – they connect with the team as if they were playing the game themselves. This connection explains why even poor performing teams have avid supporters. However, it is ultimately marketing that fosters fan identity. After all teams are brands; encompassing colors, logos, and mascots.

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Fan loyalty has elevated sports to become part of our commodity culture; a product to be bought and sold, meaning big bucks for team owners. High-level sport has been transformed into a commercialized, commodified, and massified phenomenon. Therefore, fan identification and brand commitment become two key factors in managing and marketing a team. Building a brand is hard, but building and maintaining a culture of fans is much harder.

As we transition into fall, we know that means one thing in sports,  football is king. With the NFL season in bloom, one team in particular, the Washington Redskins, are off to a rough start. The return of RG III has been very anti-climactic and on top of the team’s poor performance, a greater worry looms in the background: the franchise is under pressure to change the team name.

Many believe the team’s name, “redskins”, is derogatory and racist due to its historical connotation and use to alienate and belittle Native Americans. The acclaimed Peter King from sports illustrated has even decided to stop using the name, saying, “I don’t want to add to the offensiveness.” Pressure to change the team’s name has been mounting for years and this past spring 10 congress members sent letters to the team owner and NFL requesting them to change the name. One Native American group, the Oneida Indian Nation, has started to take action and run ads in D.C. about the offensive name in hopes of rallying up support.

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Whether you are an avid supporter for the name change, an avid supporter of the Redskins, or just don’t care, you can’t deny that team names mean a lot in the sports industry. Which leads us to the question: does a new name mean a new team? Does the team culture change when a team redesigns?

These are exactly the questions the NBA juggled this past summer when they chose to revert the Charlotte Bobcats back to their former team name, the Charlotte Hornets. Coming onto the basketball scene in the ’90s, the Charlotte Hornets created a unique culture. With Hugo the Hornet as the mascot and teal uniforms, the Charlotte Hornets were a recognizable brand. So when the NBA decided to change the team name it was a hard transition for many loyal and devoted fans. Unable to identify with the new team and culture the fans gave up support and the fall of the Bobcat brand ensued.

Reverting back to the original team name rejuvenated Charlotte fans. There was an immediate increase in the amount of ticket sales; quantitative proof that the Hornet name had been sorely missed. By keeping the team name consistent with what the fans wanted, the Charlotte basketball team re-strengthened their brand significantly.

However, Washington, unlike the Bobcats, doesn’t have a sorely missed brand. In fact, the Redskins name is so beloved the proposition of changing the team’s name is being met with great opposition. Owner Daniel Snyder commented he would never change the name saying, “the Redskins’ fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means.” Even NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, described the team name as a “unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride, and respect.”

Even if Snyder wanted to change the name it would be hard to change the minds of brand followers who have spent years identifying with the team, purchasing the merchandise, rooting for the players, and most importantly making memories. Ditching the derogatory name may ultimately come to a forced decision but the implications involved are massive. It boils down to a relatively simple equation: fan identification and brand commitment work together to produce the main goal in sport commodity, revenue. So the most important factor to ponder: the fans. How is the team going to remarket and rebrand to get fans to commit to a team they may no longer identify with?

Savannah Valade, Caroline Robinson, Meghan Carey, Morgan Jones

37 thoughts on “Name Changer

  1. Very good example of the power of communication and social construction of reality. There has been a LOT of history and scholarship to this issue. Many colleges have already gone through the name changes or, in the case of the Seminoles, received the blessing of the Seminole nation. In that case we can see that it is not solely about the nambe but about the relationship. The NBA didn’t change the name of the Hornets, the Hornets moved to New Orleans. But that move, along with the Colts moving to Baltimoore created a shift in policy within pro sports. It is now standard for the name to STAY with the city. . The NBA is allowing the New Orleans team to change ot hte Pelicans and the Hornets name to return to Charlotte. Some name changes have come and gone without much fan outcry. The Washington Wizards used to be the Washington Bullets. Burkes Purification drama would be an interesting model to apply here to heelp illuminate the dynamcis. Great example!

    • Dr. Olsen, thanks for the sports insight! That was a great suggestion to use Burke’s purification theory. We will look into using this theory to examine other issues in our future blog post!

  2. As an avid sports fan, I was excited when I started reading this post but as I continued to read I feel like you all missed the mark. I worked for the Philadelphia Eagles as a Marketing Intern during their 2012 Training Camp so I witnessed fan engagement and brand identity first hand. I think what you all missed was identifying the fact that regardless of the name of the team, everything that encompasses a professional sports team is an experience. It is a constant production of events and interactive games throughout the entire year that help fans identify with their favorite teams. I do not think they will struggle to rebrand because the fan base is so strong. I do think that their marketing and PR efforts are what will affect them the most. How will they address this topic? Is the topic even a relevant discussion within the organization right now or should the conversation be focused on the performance of their roster and coaching staff?

    • Caroline, we appreciate the insight you have offered as someone who works directly in the industry. We agree with what you said, that experience is a crucial factor in retaining fans. Obviously the goal is to make the experience as positive as possible for as many fans as possible, hence, as you mentioned, the constant production of games and events. Our argument in this case, however, is that events may help maintain fan identity, but they do not foster the initial fan identification – the team name does. There are many fans who have never been to a game or promotional event, but are still supporters. A team is a brand, the Redskins are a brand. The logo, the mascot, the colors, etc. are all part of that encompassment of the “Washington Redskins”. Our question in this article is, how do you tell a group of consumers – who have purchased the jerseys, the cups, the blankets, the bobble-heads, the posters, the tickets – that they are no longer Redskins? They are now (insert name here). You state that you don’t think a name change would be a problem because of a loyal fan base. How can you be so sure of such commitment? Essentially all of the fan gear consumers have purchased or collected becomes meaningless. If people stop identifying with the team because they are no longer the Redskins, then the team is no longer a valued commodity without purchasers and supporters. As an industry worker you are rational enough to understand that the players are the same, the coaches are the same, the game – the experience is the same, but do fans possess that same logic? When you ask someone who their team is, they say, “I’m a Redskins fan.” They don’t say, “I’m a Lambeau Field fan” or “I’m a Dan Snyder fan”. We argue that to an audience, the actual team name weighs the burden of significance.
      The topic isn’t of extreme relevance right now, but it is something that is being circulated around the media enough to generate buzz. While this may not be a topic of discussion while the season is still in swing, it could become much more prominent once the season lulls after the super bowl.

      -Savannah Valade

  3. Thanks for your response, Savannah. I do not think that the merchandise fans have purchased becomes meaningless. Just because a team is changing their name to be politically correct does not mean that everything in the franchise’s history has no value. If anything those items will increase in value. For instance, the Eagles changed colors when the current owners took over. Granted it was not as drastic as a name change but fans still had to purchase new merchandise and the Eagles franchise and fan base is still strong. Ticket and merchandise sales are based off of the experience that the fan had whether that be a team sponsored event, a game, or simply watching it on tv. I have a feeling that if the name change does happen that fans will embrace it but they will still have a strong affinity towards the Redskins name. I am simply an alum just giving my constructive feedback from personal experience within the professional sports realm in hopes that my opinions will only continue to improve the blog.

  4. I understand what youre trying to convey, but I think you failed to mention the hurt and disrespect that name has for native americans across this great land. it goes deeper than just sports, and “controversy” there’s legacies and history on the line. Otherwise, nice piece.

    • Veage, thanks for the comment. As the name of the team is a very serious and sensitive issue involving many varying opinions, my team and I tried to stay out of the debate of whether the name change was justified or unjustified. This included going more in depth on how disrespectful the name is for some. We tried to focus on how the name change and any name change in general would affect such a big sports franchise and their fan base.

      -Caroline Robinson

  5. I just do not get it. Your points are excellent. But all of a sudden it is not correct. Why is Redskins offensive. Suppose we called a team the Black Team is that offensive? What about the Italian Studs? What about the Mafia Nine? What about the Dago twenty four? I think you get my drift. Years ago I worked against the N. word and when I taught school that is what the kids would call themselves. We have gotten to the point of politically correct to the absurd. Next we will make television clean the words from their shows. Miley Cyrus would be forced to change her act because of the excessive use of her tongue. All the tongues will unite. Sorry but it is going to the extreme.

  6. A name change would definitely have a dramatic impact on the branding of the Redskins, but on the other hand, since Daniel Snyder took over ownership of the team, he has done so many things to totally alienate a good portion of the team’s fan base anyway, it is hard to imagine a new name making things any worse. When the Washington Bullets changed their name to the Wizards, interestingly, there did seem to be a change in the team’s identity. The team also began losing and has had little success since being renamed the Wizards. Recently, the Wizards began using the same design the old Bullets uniforms had but still kept the new name. I guess on the good side, the murder rate in D.C. has gone down since the heyday of the Bullets, but it would be wishful thinking to say that the new name for D.C.’s NBA team had anything to do with it.

    • What particularly do you think Snyder has done to alienate fans? Has this been done by marketing faux pas or through changes in player or coaching dynamics? Can you give us some examples? If fans are already wavering their loyalty now, the name change could prove detrimental to the team.

  7. Thank you for the post. I think you pose good questions: “does a new name mean a new team? Does the team culture change when a team redesigns?” I think that in the context of the Washington Redksins being changed because it offends some people the answer to both would be yes. If owner, Dan Snyder were to voluntarily or to be forced by some kind of legislation to change the team name to appease those who are offended I imagine that he and the NFL would also (voluntarily or in compliance to legislative force) remove any franchise or league endorsed use of the term Redskin so as to not risk offending any of the currently offended.

    As a Redskins fan, I can say that when the team is having a rough season, which is far too often, my loyalty to the team is tested. However, one major factor in retaining my team loyalty is the knowledge of the team’s past successes through its long history. How would fans of the – let’s say, Washington Warriors – be able to identify with the glories of the past and individuals like Sammy Baugh, John Riggins, Joe Gibbs, Joe Bugal, Lavar Arrington, Gary Clark, Darrell Green, Russ Grimm, Sam Huff, Sonny Jurgensen, Dexter Manley, Art Monk, Joe Theismann, Doug Williams, Jon Jansen, and Sean Taylor – to name a few – if the team name was discarded and considered evil?

    Additionally, I don’t believe it is the proper function of government to make any decisions for a business owner. If a team owner were to call his or her team by a vulgar or sexually explicit term that I wouldn’t even spell out here on your blog, then I don’t think they would be able to generate enough revenue to exist as a franchise, and they’d probably bring the entire league down with them.

    What if the league and Snyder agreed that it’s wrong to use “Redskins” as a team name and decided to go with “Skins” instead. Would that be acceptable to the currently offended?

    I hope Snyder and the NFL stand their ground and keep the name. If the fans consider it offensive they’ll stop spending money on tickets and merchandise. The team name is not violating the rights of anyone, including the Oneida Indian Nation. If the NFL and Snyder were keeping the name as a call to action against the Oneida Indian Nation or any individuals then I would advocate not only changing the name, but also legal action against Snyder and the NFL for violating the rights of others. However, that is not the meaning, purpose, or use of the name “Redskins.”

    I apologize for straying from the questions posed, but your post got me thinking.

    • Jonathan thank you for your comment. As a Redskins fan yourself, your insight is very valuable to this discussion. You are right, it is often cited fan loyalty is based on the team history. If fans feel as if a new name means a new team, then suddenly there is no history to be loyal to.
      Although we did not focus on the bureaucratic involvement encompassing this issue, it is definitely something we can assume will cause further up roar. I am sure there are plenty of others who share your viewpoint that business owners should be able to enjoy the certain amount of autonomy they obtain as being a private enterprise. As a fan, what would you do if the Redskins name was changed? Would you still be a fan?

      • Thank you for your reply. The answer to the question of whether I would still be a fan if the Redskins name was changed depends on a few factors.

        If they didn’t make every effort to maintain the identity of the current franchise and its history my answer would be “no.”

        If the league and Snyder were forced by government bureaucrats to change the name then I would not only stop being a fan of the team, I would stop being a fan of NFL football. I recognize that in that case the league and Snyder would not have much of a choice, and I would not necessarily blame them. However, the fact would remain that the government would ruin professional football just as it ruins everything it implements coercive controls over. I’m not interested in watching government football any more than I am interested in government health care, which I vehemently oppose.

        If Snyder chose (by his own volition) to change the name to something that connotes pride, such as “Warriors,” but he was able to keep the history, uniforms (I assume the logo would have to change), and team colors, as well as retain the support of Redskins past players – I think I would remain a fan. Other challenge would have to be predicted and met. For example: he would need to actively prevent aspects like the storied rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys from being diminished by the new name.

        Additionally, the Redskins have many loyal fans who are not local to the D.C.- metro area and have no ties to it. I think a name change would risk alienating those fans even more so than the hometown fans. Even though I have lived and worked in the D.C. area and will be moving back there soon, I don’t consider myself a hometown fan. I grew up in a state far from D.C. with no professional football team. I became a Redskin fan during their Superbowl “glory years” with Joe Gibbs when I was young. My team loyalty has nothing to with with the D.C. region.

        I’d rather follow a winning team that I have no loyalty to than a losing team that I have no loyalty to.

        That introduces my final point. If they become a completely different team, but also become perennial winners, contenders, and champions, then I can see myself becoming a loyal fan of the new team for just that reason – but in that context, the final chapter would have already been written in the Redskins history book.

  8. Give the fans a palliative. If the team changes its name to something more socially responsible, give them a guaranteed spot in the Super Bowl each year for the next five years. That will be adequate time for the fans to readjust to a new brand, especially since they would identifying with the only team in history to appear in five straight Super Bowls. For the rest of the teams, just put an asterisk next to those five appearances, like the Roger Maris-Babe Ruth asterisk.

  9. Here is my view… Is it simply because the Redskins SUCK? Hold with me a minute. The fact that they are not doing well, gives the “impression” that Redskins is subpar, not good, not strong, not mighty, not able to stand on their own, etc.

    Now picture if the Redskins were 4-0 this season? Would this really be a serious conversation? The Redskins would be MIGHTY WARRIORS, ready to fight and win any battle that comes their way. Perseverant.

    I’m just thinking that it wouldn’t be such a big deal if they were Super Bowl contenders every year. Its a perception on the name based on how the team plays. ( Think Detroit. How many years were they made fun of for the Lions losing their roar. )

    ( I’m only using this seasons record as an example. RG III will hopefully find his groove and find a way to win some games. )

    • Exactly! That;s why I suggested that they change their name in exchange for a guaranteed five straight Super Bowl appearances. Fans get a Super Bowl team and the nation gets a team distanced from a dodgy part of our national history. “Win-win!” as they say.

  10. This “problem” has been circulating around DC for Decades and never once have any of the local Native American Tribes/Chiefs ever tried to make a stink about it – they are actually ok with the name Redskins. It’s just a team name, Dan Snyder and the NFL understand this and are leaving it be – no matter the criticism, no matter what ploys a paid PR team come up with, the name will never be changed!


    Sincerly, A Die Hard life long Redskins Fan and DC Native!

  11. I suppose from a Marketing standpoint, your comment “So the most important factor to ponder: the fans” is correct, but this isn’t a simple business issue, it’s a Human Rights issue. From that perspective, the most important factor to ponder: the impact that stereotypical names and images have on marginalized groups. The oppression of Indigenous people in North America is a serious issue with significant implications that continue today, but we ignore and deny these issues when we cling to logos and names that continue to do harm. Perhaps some still consider it “good business” to cling to racist imagery and branding, but the tide is turning and someday many franchises may wish they had led the path to change and inclusion instead of waiting to have it forced upon them. Some teams have started along this path, like this little league football team in Canada:
    There are many business examples of how taking a stand for inclusion and social justice has resulted in positive business outcomes. It might take bravery and leadership to do that in this instance but I think it could be done.

    • You hit the nail on the head. Whether it’s racism, sexism, age-ism (and on and on), being marginalized by words that mask attitudes is hurtful. As a society, we should correct our past errors and strive to make the playing field level for all. (BTW, it looks like a hibiscus on your gravitar, so how about renaming them the “Hibiscuskins”? It would shorten nicely to “Hibiskins” in fanspeak. A flower mascot might help to deflect some of the violence the sport promotes these days.)

  12. That picture of the couple with the pig noses seems prophetic. Why not change the name to the Washington Pigskins?!?

    Why not? In the old days the football was made of pigskin, so it just seems natural that since they are “tossing around the ol’ pigskin” they could change the first half of their name, and still be “Da Skins”.Their emblem could possibly be a football flying through the air.

    Just a thought!

    • Since the Redskins are often referred to as the “Skins” I think your idea of the “Washington Pigskins” is a great compromise! “Pigskins” draws in connotation with the actual football itself, identifies with fans known as “hogettes”, and still allows the referencing of a nickname that is already in use. Thanks for commenting, Karl.

  13. Definitely looking at a new team if the name is changed. The Colts were still the Colts when they moved to Indianapolis, the Rams have always been the rams. The Browns vanished and reappeared. But the Oilers are dead. In their place we have the Titans. There is nothing offensive about the term Redskin, it was originally used by the indians to distinguish themselves from the white people. If I were an indian, I’d be proud of it. I’d totally by the jersey of a team called the “Whiteboys” or the “Gringos”. Difference is something to be proud of.

    • The origin of a word is less important than how it comes to be used. The “f-word” was invented by a poet around the time of Chaucer because he needed a high-class term to describe love-making. In Chaucer, our “c-word” for females is spelled with a “q” and is used freely as high-class word. Words become derogatory through use, and their original connotations are lost. “Redskins” became derogatory through use.

  14. I found this article particularly interesting since I come from a family full of Redskin fans. Our bonus room is filled with pictures of past and present player, old and new uniforms, Redskins rugs, slippers, and even a Redskins Santa hat that my Dad wears every Christmas. Just in the past year my Dad has gotten two Redskins related tattoos. Redskins culture has been in my family for generations and I would hate to see it changed. I could not imagine replacing everything with a new team name. To me it would seem like we are supporting a completely new team. As for the term “Redskins,” I do not see anything wrong with it. It is simply a word that describes what somebody is. My Mom is white, my Dad is black, and that makes me mulatto. I would be proud if there was a team called the Mulattos. I think people are just becoming too sensitive these days.

  15. How can I put this as simply as possible. I’m a fully registered Native American who has traced his lineage back five generations. I take great pride in my Native American heritage. I don’t find the name the least bit offensive. In fact I take some pleasure and high regard in the name and the logo and enjoy following the Redskins thoroughly. I earnestly believe that anybody who claims to be offended by it is just looking for attention. I don’t like very much of anything that Dan Snyder does, but I believe he is absolutely correct in keeping the name and logo.

  16. This post was interesting and you make some good points, but I honestly feel like this is a weirdly dense subject. Just because you change a team name to something more offensive, does that mean that someone should suddenly stop being a fan? I feel like, in a way, that doesn’t really cater to brand loyalty because, regardless of the name/colors/logo, the team is still the same, and that’s who you’re actually rooting for…right? Unless you are one of those people who tune into the Super Bowl and just pick the team with the “prettiest color jerseys” or something, it shouldn’t make a difference what they’re called, who their mascot is, or what colors they wear. Though I obviously understand all of those things are symbols, if you are honestly a fan of the team, a name change would make little difference and you should still go on and support them. (Note, this is coming from an unbiased non-spots fan).

  17. I am Jewish. I would be offended and the entire world would be up in arms if a sports team decided to use racist and hateful Nazi caricatures of Jewish people as their team logo. These caricatures were born of oppression, subjugation, and genocide both in the case of my hypothetical example and in the case of the Redskins name and the Cleveland Indians logo. It is amazing to me that Americans can not acknowledge the simple fact that these caricatures were created a long time ago to dehumanize a group of people who were viewed as inferior and thus wiped out, and now our society pays them homage by marketing their dehumanization as a brand to make money, and meanwhile we still have Native American reservations where the people live in abject poverty. Does no one see the perversion in that? This is not a matter of personal preference. It is not a matter of whether you are personally offended or not. For god’s sakes America committed genocide against these people just like the Nazis committed genocide against the Jews. That is the simple fact of it. And please don’t argue that just because you have Native American friends who are fine with the logo and name, that means that everything’s fine. That’s not an argument. That’s an anti-intellectual cop out. Your friends do not constitute the entire population of Native Americans in this country.

    • And furthermore I am not arguing that everyone should be offended. I am arguing that people who are not offended should understand why others are offended because their being offended is perfectly legitimate and logical. They should also understand if the team decides to change the name and logo in response. the idea that a whole race of people should just get over a genocide and put on their big boy pants and take it like a man and stop being so sensitive or whatever else you wanna call it in the process of attributing some form of hypermasculinity with getting over a mass killing of people is beyond reproach and frankly abhorrent. and you can call me a liberal looney or a or a crybaby liberal or whatever other inane name you wanna call others who would express the same or similar viewpoint. it doesn’t make a difference, because that’s not an argument. this isn’t about ideology.

  18. I understand why people don’t like the name, and it makes sense to get rid of it, but I still don’t want to see the name change. I’m not a Washington fan, but I am a big football fan, and I am a huge fan of sports tradition. Whenever a team relocates or changes names, it is damaging not just to the team’s brand, but also to the entire sports brand. If the team changes their name I’m sure it will make some people feel better, and everyone will go on just fine, but it hurts the tradition and the brand. For me that would still be sad

  19. This attempt to force the Redskins to change their name is silly. No one uses the name in a derogatory way. In fact, continued use of the name as the name of a football team will probably help to stop people from using the term in a bad way, because after a long while, no one will remember what it originally meant. I’ll admit that I have a vested argument in this one as people have tried to change the name of my favorite college team (South Caroline Gamecocks) before, saying that it promotes animal violence. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing football ever promotes is bruises.

  20. The Washington Wizards changed their team name from the “Bullets” to the “Wizards” as directed by then owner Abe Polin in 1995, and were recognized by that name starting in 1997, due to what he perceived to be violent overtones from the name “Bullets” especially being in D.C. with the high crime rate. I just wanted to add that one to your list.

    I think the biggest issue here is that the individuals whom desire to change the name are a minority. I don’t mean a racial minority, I just mean “minority” by sheer numbers. For something to change, regardless of the event, there must be so much pressure created that the individual in charge needs to feel the pinch, especially in their pocketbook. If Snyder was to change the team name, there would be immediate backlash in the D.C. area from both fans and sponsors. While the team would still have a following, the response would affect Snyder’s pocket book negatively, which is why this will never happen. As for Congress, this is a privately run organization so they can’t do anything of merit to affect the Washington organization.

    As you indicated, the reason that Charlotte desired to change their team name back to the Hornets was to increase revenue. The key word – as with most things – is money.

  21. We have evolved into a nation of pansies. With the crap storm that is our current government, I’m offended that any elected official would take the time to concern themselves with anything sports related. I’m not even a Redskins fan, but does the name seriously still offend Native Americans?

    Interesting post and well written in my opinion.

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