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Owner’s defiance on Redskins name change could end up costing him

Daniel Snyder has vowed to never rename his franchise, but experts say that may be the wrong play

As the debate over the name of the Washington Redskins has gained momentum, so has the team’s net worth. Forbes magazine recently valued the franchise at $2.4 billion, putting it among a select group of superwealthy teams that includes only the powerhouses of European soccer and big-name American teams.

In the United States, only the Dallas Cowboys ($3.2 billion), the New England Patriots ($2.6 billion) and the New York Yankees ($2.5 billion) outrank the Washington team in terms of net worth, figures compiled in August show.

But the controversy surrounding Washington’s moniker — deemed deeply offensive by Native American groups — and a fervent drive by activists to force a name change, could end up costing owner Daniel Snyder.

Snyder has in the past been intransigent on the issue, responding to criticism by vowing to never rename the franchise.

Experts, though, say that this may be the wrong call and that with a pragmatic approach, Snyder may just be able to turn a potential financial fumble over the name into possible monetary gain.

For while it is likely true that Snyder would have to incur a cost of several million dollars while transitioning to a new name — including changing uniforms to stadium signage — a savvy rebranding could see him and the franchise reap financial benefits in the form of hats, jerseys and other new merchandise sales that will do much more than just offset that figure.

Furthermore, a name change could head off a potentially costly battle over the right of the team to market Redskins memorabilia.

In June, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled the team should be stripped of its trademark protections, given the “disparaging” nature of its name. The ruling was appealed, potentially setting up years of legal limbo. But if upheld, it would leave the team’s financial interests vulnerable to those making and selling Redskins products without its permission — another reason why a name change could make financial sense. 

"It is an economic positive-sum move for Snyder to drop or modify a name that is way beyond the line in racial insensitivity and well within the realm of racism," John Vrooman, a professor of economics at Vanderbilt University, told Al Jazeera. "And while he is at it, try to win as a team. That is how to build the brand in the NFL.”  The Redskins have not won a Super Bowl since 1991.

But Snyder has remained adamant on the subject of a name change, despite an opposition that has become more vocal and attracted wide support.

The Oneida Indian Nation in New York, which launched a radio ad campaign against the Redskins name last year, has been joined by 50 U.S. senators who signed a letter in May urging NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to push for a name change.

And on Wednesday, the National Congress of American Indians sent a letter to media organizations asking them to not use the team’s name on their broadcasts. ESPN has already said it will allow commentators and announcers to use their discretion when talking about the Washington team.

‘Clinging to nostalgia’

Snyder told USA Today in May 2013: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.” More recently, in an interview with ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” Snyder said, "the name of our team is the name of our team, and it represents honor, it represents pride, and it represents respect," repeating a mantra he has used on previous occasions. 

Synder’s attachment to the name appears deep-rooted, tied in part to personal memories of watching the team with his father, fellow Washington fan Gerry Snyder. Last October, Snyder wrote a letter to season ticket holders addressing the name controversy. In the missive, he vividly described being a “lifelong fan of the team,” writing “like so many of you, I was born a fan of the Washington Redskins. I still remember my first Redskins game.” 

"I was only 6,” he wrote, “but I remember coming through the tunnel into the stands at RFK [Stadium] with my father, and immediately being struck by the enormity of the stadium and the passion of the fans all around me."

“I think it’s clinging to nostalgia,” Kelly O’Keefe, a professor of creative brand management at Virginia Commonwealth University, told Al Jazeera. 

But there may be another reason behind Snyder’s unwillingness to switch the team’s name. The team’s brand value, which is the portion of the franchise’s monetary worth attributable to its recognizable name, is estimated by Forbes to be worth $214 million. And the process of transforming the team’s name could have a significant impact on that. Even so, some say that impact could be for the better in the long run. 

“In most cases, especially where the name is good and catchy, where it solves a problem from another name that had some kind of negative baggage associated with it, that new name becomes a much stronger name than the old name,” O’Keefe said. 

Such moves are certainly not without precedent in professional sports or in Washington itself. The NBA’s Washington Wizards were known as the Washington Bullets from 1974 to 1997, but changed their name because of then-owner Abe Pollin's feelings on persistent gun violence in the capital. In the NFL as recently as 1999, the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee and rebranded as the Titans. 

 “There have been many, many teams that have successfully evolved their names over the past,” O’Keefe said.

Gains will ‘exceed losses’

Changing a team’s name, though, is likely to have some immediate costs and require an investment. Charlotte Hornets majority owner and NBA great Michael Jordan reportedly said it would cost him $3 million to $10 million to change the team’s name back to the Hornets from the Bobcats — a move he carried out earlier this year.

Marketing experts suggested the price tag for a rebranding of the Redskins name could be higher.

Allen Adamson of the global brand consulting firm Landor Associates, told Ad Age that a company could rebrand Washington’s new name and logo for $10 million to $15 million, with the biggest cost coming from the replacement of the old name and logo at the team’s stadium, FedEx Field.

For a team worth over $2 billion, it would hurt but is unlikely to break the bank. 

"For a company or a team, it’s not cheap to change out a brand, but if you migrate to a better brand, if you move away from negative baggage that alienates people from your old brand, you’re doing the right thing," O’Keefe said. “I think Snyder lacks the imagination to see that he could actually craft a much better name and turn what is currently a negative into a positive by seizing the opportunity instead of fighting for something that really is only going to get worse."

But O’Keefe added that as the backlash to the name has not yet reached a crescendo, Snyder still has time to control how things play out.

“It’s not something he has to do in 30 days, and it’s not something he’s got to sell his team for, but it doesn’t make it less important,” O’Keefe said. “The great thing about it not being urgent is they can take their time and pick a really great name.”

Vrooman also believes things could worsen for Snyder in the event of no name change. He suggested that major team sponsors including Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, Comcast and Verizon could find themselves vulnerable and drop the team if they sensed a greater public pushback. Vrooman thinks that luxury suite holders and club seat patrons, who are usually from private corporations of varying sizes, would also wield considerable power.

“This is where Snyder is vulnerable to boycott,” Vrooman said. “In the end, even the most scheming revenue squeezing profit maximizer should see the writing on the aging FedEx Stadium walls. The corporate gains from a name change far exceed the individual losses.”

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