A team by any other name is fine, it turns out

By Kevin Draper

When team owner Abe Pollin decided to change the name of the NBA’s Washington Bullets in 1995, the two-year rebranding process had the veneer of a democratic undertaking.

The fast-casual restaurant chain Boston Market ran a renaming contest that resulted in nearly 3,000 submissions. A seven-person panel came up with five finalists — the Wizards, Dragons, Stallions, Express and Sea Dogs — which were put to a public vote.

Jody Shapiro, who at the time ran the regional sports television network that aired Bullets games, was one of the seven panel members. His preference, the Monuments, was highly rated by the panel but the NBA rejected it because of trademark considerations.

“I thought it had the D.C. connection and the sense of towering structures and buildings or individuals,” he said.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his participation in the process, Shapiro was never under any illusion about who was really in charge.

“Truth be told at the end of the day, Abe and Susan chose whatever they wanted to choose,” he said, referring to Pollin and Susan O’Malley, then the team’s president. “It was more public relations than it was actually significant.”

For the second time in a quarter-century, a professional sports team based in the Washington area will undergo a name change and rebranding, in large part because of the name’s negative connotations. On Monday, Washington’s NFL team announced it would drop its logo and “Redskins” name, with a new identity to be determined.

While Pollin rebranded his team voluntarily — he was concerned by an epidemic of gun violence in Washington and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister and a friend — Daniel Snyder, the owner of Washington’s NFL team, was largely forced into it by sponsors who said they would end their association with the team if the name didn’t change.

The timing of Washington’s rebrand is unique. “Any redesign is either done with a franchise acquisition or done with a big transition,” like relocation or the unveiling of a new stadium, said Mark Verlander, who has designed the logos for a number of NFL teams.

Altering a professional sports team’s identity is a huge undertaking that typically takes anywhere from six months to a couple of years. Research is conducted, design firms are contracted, hundreds of logos are mooted, trademarks are secured, merchandise is produced and marketing plans are rolled out. The NFL has a creative services division to help teams through such occasions.

This rebrand could be particularly difficult, as the trademarks to a number of possible names that have bandied about over the years, like the Redtails and Monuments, are owned by the same man.

Matthew Wolff is a graphic designer who focuses on the visual identity of soccer teams, though he has participated in redesigns for North America’s big-four professional sports teams. He designed the uniforms France wore while winning the World Cup in 2018, as well as the instantly iconic Nigeria jerseys from the same men’s tournament.

He said a logo should be “a mirror, an avatar of self-identification” for fans. This is particularly explicit in soccer, where team names are less prominent on uniforms and supporter culture can define a team in the eyes of outsiders.

This is not necessarily true in American football. There are of course names that explicitly reference regional identity, like the New England Patriots, but in the NFL identity often works in reverse. Nobody particularly associates, say, tigers with the Ohio River Valley or big cats with the Canadian border, but over decades the Bengals have come to represent Cincinnati and the Lions Detroit.

“I think there is an inherent connection with football still as kind of a gladiator wild animal spirit that they can’t let go of,” Verlander said.

And rather than teams reflecting some unique aspect of regional culture, the regional culture coalesces around the team that represents it via TV to tens of millions each weekend.

“Those NFL team names are so historic that I don’t even think about their origin story,” Wolff said. “I don’t really think about Buccaneers Buccaneering across the sea when I watch Jameis Winston throw interceptions.” He referred to the former Tampa Bay quarterback who joined the New Orleans Saints this offseason.

What makes a good logo or name is not objective, as ultimately it is art. It also isn’t static. Winning and losing, controversy and popular culture trends can alter meanings. Washington’s NFL team meant something different in the early 1990s, after three Super Bowl wins in a decade, than in 2020, after two decades of mismanagement.

Wolff knows that much of the success of his Nigeria jersey design, which sold out in minutes, came from what happened after the garments were made. Nike’s brand design team rolled out a clever influencer marketing campaign and used beautiful photographs in ads, just as aspects of Nigerian culture, like film and fashion, were becoming prominent worldwide.

“I felt like it was the right piece at the right time,” he said. “To be frank, that is kind of dumb luck.”

It is not clear yet in which direction Washington’s unnamed football team will go. In announcing the change, the team said Snyder and coach Ron Rivera were developing a “new name and design approach that will enhance the standing of our proud, tradition rich franchise.”

In a previous statement, Rivera said he had “hoped to continue the mission of honoring and supporting Native Americans and our Military.” That could prove problematic.

In a letter sent to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell earlier this month, representatives from hundreds of Native American groups demanded the league require Washington cease the use of “imagery of or evocative of Native American culture, traditions and spirituality,” as well as change its longtime burgundy and gold color scheme to discourage fans from continuing to wear their old gear.

But what Washington’s team will be named, and the logos and colors it uses, isn’t up to Native American groups, design firms or others.

When Verlander was given the brief to design the Tennessee Titans’ logo in the late 1990s after the team relocated, he was told the Houston Oilers’ colors had to be used because Nancy Neville Adams, the wife of the team’s owner Bud Adams, loved the colors.

Wolff knows that no matter what the brief says, only one person’s opinion matters.

“Once it gets past legal checkpoints, and even if the supporters overwhelmingly say one thing in their online poll or Twitter or Reddit, ultimately someone bought a franchise for X million or billion dollars.”

That someone is Snyder. He paid roughly $800 million.

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