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Why Does Changing A Team’s Name Take So Long?

UPDATE (July 23, 2021, 10 a.m.): The Cleveland Indians will change their name to the Cleveland Guardians at the conclusion of the 2021 season.

The Cleveland baseball and Washington football teams are both embarking on the daunting tasks of renaming their historic sports franchises. After years of backlash against racially insensitive names and mascots, both teams have a chance to start fresh with new identities. But though their name changes were announced in 2020, neither franchise will implement its new permanent name until at least 2022. Why will it take so long?

Selecting a new name for an existing sports franchise sounds like a fun exercise. How hard can it be? Everyone has named a child, a dog, a boat or their Twitter handle. You corral a bunch of creative folks in a room with a big whiteboard, sip a few cocktails and brainstorm. Everyone’s brimming with ideas and positive energy, ready to collaborate on this epic creative process. Someone will come up with the right name, a moment of epiphany when everyone shouts, “That’s it!”  

The reality is, the process to find the right name for a sports team is grueling, onerous and tedious, and it comes with career peril. After an NHL expansion team was granted to Seattle in 2018, I helped shepherd an exhaustive process that carved out the Kraken brand from a list of 1,200 prospective names. The Kraken name launched 19 months after the franchise was approved by the league.

Renaming a team with deep history is even more treacherous. Unlike when naming the latest tech startup, there is fanatical attachment to the original team name. Fans and media sit in judgment on your long-awaited selection. There is a huge revenue number forecasted for sales of the newly branded merchandise. Add players as vital partners in the new brand decision. Owners may want to exert control over the name given that, well, they own the franchise. And lastly, the trademark process. Nearly every word in the English language has been trademarked by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Think the Washington Redhawks are in the clear? A trademark application was filed for that name last summer, perhaps by a law firm covertly representing the team or by an enterprising fan hoping to sell it for six figures. How about the Cleveland Rockers? It was also registered last summer (after the trademark was abandoned in 2006 by the WNBA). Add in names previously registered as website domains or Twitter handles, and you have a lengthy legal process before getting to the finish line. 

Finding the right name takes time, patience, a flawless process and clear direction from ownership. Here’s how the Washington and Cleveland franchises might approach it.

A fan contest: A good idea that can go bad. Remember the San Diego soccer group that asked the fans to name its potential MLS expansion team? Result: San Diego Footy McFooty Face. The best way to involve fans is to ask for submissions, which Washington did on its portal. The team might find a few nuggets among the thousands that were submitted.

Team owner names it: Owners might not handle rejection well. Once they lock into a name they like, even a bad one, it’s difficult to change their mind. If they are open to bouncing their ideas off brand experts, this option is workable. Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley was inspired by his military background when he set out to name his new NHL franchise in 2016. He came up with three names before selecting the Golden Knights

Brand experts: A handful of brand agencies have strong tools in place to mine new names and objectively evaluate them. Given the high stakes to find the right name for Washington and Cleveland, they might spend low-six figures for this expert advice. (Washington has reportedly hired the agency Code and Theory to work on its rebanding.) A firm’s typical grading system uses the following criteria to narrow the field of names down to a manageable few:

  • Does the name have ties 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, fan chants and songs, fan club, foundation.)
  • Does it match franchise values? (Tradition, grit, effort, unity.)
  • How does it sound? (The alliteration in Washington Warriors is smooth. Washington Sentinels is a mouthful.)
  • Are there trademark complications? (Cleveland Buckeyes would entail a legal challenge from a major in-state university.)
  • Are there negative aspects? (Cultural sensitivities, dark connotations.)

This is the pivotal moment of the process; which criteria take precedent, then grading each name. But after the field is narrowed to a reasonable number, the design process begins — months of exploring logos, wordmarks, uniforms, field designs, merchandise concepts. How does the logo look reduced to the size of a bug on TV? Do your team captains like it? Does the design have staying power? Is it iconic?  

After the design process is complete, the trademark lawyers conduct a thorough international search on the name. Every name is being used somewhere, from Singapore to Saginaw. The experts take several more months to evaluate if there would be a legitimate claim for rights infringement before clearing the name for registration. 

Give credit to the leadership of the Washington Football Team and Cleveland’s baseball club. There is short-term pain to delaying the new name launch for a season or two. But being process-driven — even taking a year or more to do it right — is worth it in the long run. This is not a “trust your gut” decision. It’s as crucial a decision as the quarterback you’re drafting early in the first round. The difference is, you can trade or cut the quarterback if he bombs. A new name for a sports team, with a few exceptions, is eternal.

John Rizzardini is a Seattle-based sports consultant specializing in new franchise development. He has worked on brand identity strategy with the Seattle Kraken, Seattle Sounders FC and Las Vegas Lights FC.