Why does changing the name of a team take so long?
The Cleveland baseball and Washington football teams are both embarking on the arduous task of renaming their historic sports franchises. After years of backlash against race-insensitive names and mascots, both teams have a chance to start fresh with new identities. But although their name changes were announced in 2020, neither of the two franchises will implement their new permanent name until at least 2022. Why will it take so long?
Choosing a new name for an existing sports franchise sounds like a fun exercise. How hard can it be? Everyone has named a child, dog, boat, or their Twitter handle. You gather a group of creatives in a room with a large whiteboard, sip a few cocktails, and think. Everyone is bursting with ideas and positive energy, ready to collaborate on this epic creative process. Someone will come up with the right name, an epiphany moment where everyone will shout: “That’s it!”
The reality is that the process of finding the right name for a sports team is grueling, expensive and time consuming, and it involves occupational risks. After an NHL expansion team was granted in Seattle in 2018, I helped pilot a comprehensive process that carved the Kraken brand out of a list of 1,200 potential names. the Kraken name launched 19 months after league approval of the franchise.
Renaming a team with a deep history is even more treacherous. Unlike the name of the latest tech startup, there is a fanatic attachment to the name of the original team. Fans and media alike judge your long-awaited selection. There is a huge turnover forecast for the sales of the newly branded merchandise. Add players as essential partners in the brand new decision. The owners may want to exercise control over the name since they own the franchise. And finally, the branding process. Almost every word in English language has been filed by the US Patent and Trademark Office. Do you think the Washington Redhawks are in the clear? A trademark application was filed for this name last summer, perhaps by a law firm secretly representing the team or by an enterprising fan hoping to sell it for six figures. What about the Cleveland Rockers? It was also recorded last summer (after the mark has been abandoned in 2006 by the WNBA). Add names that were previously registered as website domains or Twitter aliases, and you’ve got a long legal process before you reach the finish line.
Finding the right name takes time, patience, a flawless process, and clear direction from the property. Here’s how the Washington and Cleveland franchises might approach it.
A fan contest: A good idea that can go wrong. Remember the San Diego soccer group asking fans to name their potential MLS expansion squad? Result: San Diego Footy McFooty Face. The best way to engage fans is to ask for submissions, which Washington did on its washingtonjourney.com portal. The team might find a few nuggets among the thousands that have been submitted.
The team owner appoints him: Homeowners may not handle rejection well. Once they lock into a name they like, even a bad one, it’s hard to change their mind. If they are open to bouncing their ideas off brand experts, this option is achievable. Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley was inspired by his military experience when he decided to name his new NHL franchise in 2016. He has already come up with three names selection of the golden knights.
Brand experts: A handful of brand name agencies have put in place solid tools to extract new names and evaluate them objectively. Given the high stakes in finding the right name for Washington and Cleveland, they could spend six low figures on this expert opinion. (Washington has would have hired agency code and theory to work on its rebanding.) A typical company’s rating system uses the following criteria to narrow the name field to a manageable few:
- Does the name have any links to the region? (History, industry, culture, nature.)
- Is the name popular with fans? (Washington Redhogs, Cleveland Rockers.)
- Does the name allow for brand extension? (Mascot, uniforms, merchandise, creative content, animation, songs and fan songs, fan club, foundation.)
- Does it correspond to the values of the franchise? (Tradition, courage, effort, unity.)
- How does that sound? (The alliteration in Washington Warriors is sweet. Washington Sentinels is a mouthful.)
- Are there brand complications? (Cleveland Buckeyes would lead to a legal challenge from a major state university.)
- Are there any negative aspects? (Cultural sensitivities, dark connotations.)
This is the turning point in the process; which criteria prevail, and then write down each name. But once the field is reduced to a reasonable number, the design process begins – months of exploring logos, keywords, uniforms, field designs, merchandise concepts. What does the logo shrunk to the size of a bug on TV look like? Do your team captains like it? Does the design have a lasting hold? Is it iconic?
After the design process is complete, trademark attorneys conduct a comprehensive international search on the name. Each name is used somewhere, from Singapore to Saginaw. Experts still take several months to assess whether there would be a legitimate claim for infringement of rights before allowing the name to register.
Give credit to the leadership of the Washington Football Team and the Cleveland Baseball Club. It is difficult in the short term to delay the launch of the new name for a season or two. But being process-oriented – even taking a year or more to do it right – is worth it in the long run. It is not a “trust your gut” decision. It’s as crucial a decision as the quarterback you draft at the start of the first round. The difference is you can trade or reduce the quarterback if he bombs. A new name for a sports team, with few exceptions, is eternal.