WASHINGTON -- There has been plenty of discussion recently about whether the Washington Redskins should change their name. With Wednesday's announcement that a federal trademark board has ruled against the name the decision may ultimately be out of their hands.
While most of the talk surrounding the potential name change has focused on the appropriateness of the mascot, few have focused on the financial implications.
No NFL team has changed nicknames since the Tennessee Oilers became the Tennessee Titans one year after their move from Houston in 1998. The last true renaming without a geographic relocation occurred after the 1962 season when the New York Titans became the New York Jets. But plenty of teams have tweaked logos and colors, like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who just changed schemes for the second time since 1997.
Though a name change would be almost unprecedented for an NFL franchise, there are myriad different directions the Redskins could choose, should they decide to make the jump.
"Clearly there's a huge potential for merchandise sales," says Minor League Baseball business writer Ben Hill, who has covered the many recent rebrands in the minors.
As he has witnessed, some teams that rebrand have great financial gains, often through the increased awareness of their image and shiny new logos, team names and color schemes.
"Teams have really found that it's good for merchandise sales," says Hill. "Not just local sales, but national. The logo becomes appealing to anybody. It's not something you have to be from that area to become appealing."
Several teams have seen their sales numbers jump since their rebranding efforts. While MiLB merchandise sales have risen in the past few years (from $55.2 million in 2011 up to $55.4 million last season), the list of top sellers has been littered with rebranded clubs.
The newly-minted Hilsboro Hops -- a club in a tiny market and with only half as many games as the full-season clubs -- cracked the top 25 (of 160) in their first year. So did the renamed Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Rail Riders and Reading Fightin' Phils, for the first time since '07 and '01, respectively.
The Lansing Lugnuts chose a nickname with local ties to the city's automotive history. (Lansing Lugnuts)
Some of the most successful minor league rebrands -- from "The Simpsons"-derived Albuquerque Isotopes to the Lansing Lugnuts or Richmond Flying Squirrels -- have continued to place in the top 25 in sales consistently since their overhaul.
Then there's the case of the El Paso Chihuahuas, who initially drew national ire upon the announcement of their name.
"I think there was a significant misread by a significant portion of the population on ‘Chihuahuas,'" said Branch Rickey III, President of the Pacific Coast League in which El Paso plays. "We had more second-guessing on that name than ever before."
But that doubt has transformed into a largely positive response, epitomized by a man who approached Rickey following his appearance at the team name unveiling in El Paso. He thanked Rickey for picking the only name from the list of finalists that was the same in Spanish as it was in English.
Rickey also presided over Albuquerque's decision to go with the Isotopes. The old Albuquerque Dukes had been very popular, dating back as far as 1915. There were strong community ties to the historical name, referencing the Spanish nobility that settled the area. So when Rickey was first approached with the idea of the Isotopes by team President Ken Traub, he was less than optimistic.
"I practically said to him -- and I was barely able to stop myself: ‘That's gotta be the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life.'"
But within a year, Albuquerque's licensing revenues had shot past half the Major League clubs, Rickey says. The name also fit for other reasons in Albuquerque, home to Sandia National Laboratories.
For those who think a kitschy name like Isotopes may not work at the top level of professional sports -- say the NFL -- as it does in the minors, Rickey offers the following rebuttal.
"What do you think about the (Pittsburgh) Pirates?" he asks, pointing out the inherent silliness of team nicknames when removed from context. "What about the (Brooklyn) Dodgers? Now when you say ‘Dodgers,' there's nothing more aristocratic. It's emblazoned in baseball heritage."
The Spokane Indians created jerseys which they auctioned off to support their local tribe. (Spokane Indians)
Of course, the Redskins aren't the first team to face public scrutiny for a Native American mascot. Before the Spokane Indians rebranded in 2007 to include Native American imagery, they approached tribal leaders for their input and incorporated those ideas in the new logo set. The club even created special jerseys with the team's name in Salish -- the tribe's native language -- which it auctioned off at the end of the season to benefit the tribal members.
If the Redskins do reverse course and change their name, no matter what approach they take, they may well find themselves reaping the financial reward.
"Everybody knows the backstory," says Hill. "There would be even a more positive reaction to a rebranding. The potential gain in terms of a huge fan base and organization is just enormous."
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