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.
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.
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?