“The start of a new chapter.”
That’s how Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation representative and head of the Change the Mascot campaign, framed the Washington NFL team’s decision to stray away from their old name in favor of a new mascot ahead of the 2020 season.
“This is a good decision for the country — not just Native peoples — since it closes a painful chapter of denigration and disrespect toward Native Americans and other people of color,” Halbritter said in a statement. “Future generations of Native youth will no longer be subjected to this offensive and harmful slur every Sunday during football season.
“Today marks the start of a new chapter for the NFL and the Washington franchise, beginning a new legacy that can be more inclusive for fans of all backgrounds.”
That new chapter is one the organization and its ownership hope will last for decades, and hopefully centuries, to come.
“Dan Snyder and Coach [Ron] Rivera are working closely to develop a new name and design approach that will enhance the standing of our proud, tradition-rich franchise and inspire our sponsors, fans and community for the next 100 years,” the team wrote in a statement when the decision was announced.
But, while the move itself makes sense given the nature of the old name, the change could have a lasting impact on numerous facets of the business. Whether it’s the general audience the team plays in front of, the merchandise those fans buy to represent their favorite players, and everything in between, a name change comes with all sorts of considerations.
Luckily for Washington’s NFL franchise, there are plenty of sports teams that have gone through name changes, and can serve as a basis for Washington to follow as they navigate the process.
If Washington, D.C. is worried about continued support from fans within the city, it can benefit from the fact that its basketball team went through something similar in 1997.
Modern fans will only recognize the team as the Wizards, with their sharp uniforms, John Wall leading the offense at point guard, and a young, shining star in Bradley Beal, as well.
Even older fans will have their own memories of the team, remembering the franchise as the home of Michael Jordan’s final few years in the league and Richard “Rip” Hamilton’s first few seasons, with different colored jerseys to signal a different era.
But, before they became the Wizards, the team was representing Washington, D.C. as the “Washington Bullets,” owned by Abe Pollin.
The Bullets spanned more than three decades, lasting 34 years and covering two cities (Baltimore from 1963 to 1973, and Washington, D.C. ever since). But, in 1996, the franchise decided on a new team name in an effort to get away from their own version of a controversial name.
“This name change is just one little part of the anti-violence campaign,” Pollin said in an article from the Baltimore Sun in 1996. “This name, the Bullets, had been part of my life for 32 years. I have a championship ring with Bullets on it. I’m prepared to give that up.”
Then, the Wizards were born, the franchise became the first in the NBA to change names without switching cities, and everything changed.
“I never did like the name ‘Bullets,'” NBA legend and current Michigan head coach Juwan Howard said in an article written by the Chicago Tribune in 1996. “I never liked names that exemplified something negative… How can you have a mascot with the name ‘Bullets’? I mean, what do you have, a bullet from a gun?”
But, while many can see the negative connotation to the original name, fans still clamor for the old mascot to return. In fact, in 2013, the team’s owner Ted Leonsis was even “open” to the idea of the Bullets making a comeback.
“Yeah, I’m open to that,” Leonsis said. “Many fans have suggested it, and I’ve just felt that it’s… like a cheap thrill to change the name back.”
Like Leonsis said in the article in 2013, the process is a “major redesign” and “does take about two years if you want to change the name.”
Unfortunately for the city’s NFL team, they had to go through the process in the span of a few weeks and/or months. So, fans weren’t able to contribute much, if at all, to the process, unlike the situation when the Bullets became the Wizards in the late 1990s.
Now, as a result, the franchise may have fans that decide to cling onto the old mascot, using it as a sign of their fandom and dedication to the team.
And, if former players are any indication, it may even take some effort to get the team’s alumni on board.
“I’ll always call them the Washington Redskins, I’m sorry,” former Washington center Jeff Bostic told ESPN. “I’ve got great memories, great game scenarios that played out. There are parts of that I’ll never forget the rest of my life. It was an honor for us to put the helmet on that had the Redskins emblem on the sides.”
In 1997, the Houston Oilers moved to Tennesee and became the Tennessee Oilers. In 1999, they began their now 20-plus-year tenure as the Tennessee Titans. In the span of just a few years, the franchise changed names twice, and presented a nightmare scenario for retailers and sports collectors alike.
No fan wanted to buy team merchandise in the interim time between the Houston Oilers’ disappearance and Tennessee Titans’ arrival, and retailers were forced to deal with customers that weren’t willing to spend money through the transition.
“We’re in a real tough situation now with the name change coming in,” Rod Kirk, director of marketing and advertising for a sports merchandise retailer with five Nashville area locations, said in 1998 before the Tennessee Titans name became official.
“The [Tennessee] Oilers merchandise has been moving very slow anyway, because of the transition to the new name and the fact that people here still haven’t identified with the team as one of their own,” Kirk continued.
That interim time provided a unique scenario for those living in Tennessee at the time: one where they didn’t want to put in effort for a team that wouldn’t technically exist in just a couple of years.
“It was like Nashville thought it got an expansion team that began in 1999 with a new name, new uniforms, new stadium; it’s like those previous two years playing in Memphis and Vanderbilt didn’t exist,” Houston Chronicle reporter John McClain said in May of 2020.
The Tennessee case study likely creates a sense of urgency in the minds of Washington’s NFL franchise, who could be thinking of a temporary name to get them by as they work through trademark issues throughout the 2020 season.
Merchandise is a big moneymaker for the NFL and its 32 teams, with jersey sales a consistent conversation topic as teams move to new cities, rookies turn into stars and players change teams during free agency.
The Washington NFL franchise finds itself at a disadvantage as it relates to merchandise creation ahead of the 2020 season: Team gear is already in production with just a month before the start of the NFL’s preseason (as of July 17, 2020), and Nike will have to expedite the process for the new Washington mascot to show up on shirts and hats on the sidelines.
Now, there’s added pressure to settle on a name quickly that fans will enjoy and stand behind, and the franchise will need to be willing to stick with that new name for the “next 100 years,” like the team’s statement suggests.
But, as the head of the Change the Mascot campaign said when the decision came down, the whole process to find a new name signifies a “new legacy that can be more inclusive for fans of all backgrounds.”
As long as Washington’s NFL franchise sticks with that message, fans will be sure to stick around for centuries to come.