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LAST SUMMER, I wrote a column arguing that renaming the Redskins wouldn't hurt Washington's NFL team ("What's in a Name," Aug. 19, 2013). That triggered a barrage of negative responses from readers, who accused me of everything from not being able to read a dictionary to political correctness to bad math. And upon further review, I have to admit, I was wrong: The statistical and financial case for getting rid of the name Redskins is even stronger than I'd realized.
First, a recap: No college team has lost money in the long run by moving away from derogatory Native American mascots. Further, NFL teams risk less than college programs when altering their identities because pro football franchises generate so much money from so many sources beyond their logos. When the estate of former Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke put the team up for sale in 1998 (ultimately selling to Daniel Snyder), Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, the investment bank advising the deal, assembled a confidential memo detailing all the benefits of owning the club. The document ran to 66 pages and included sections on the team's "membership in the National Football League," "high and stable revenue base," "new state-of-the-art stadium," "popularity based on 62 years of on-field success" and location. Among all these assets the bankers deemed significant enough to lure bidders, they never mentioned the team's name.
Now there's new evidence that shows Snyder is actively hurting his team by clinging to its offensive moniker. Michael Lewis and Manish Tripathi, marketing professors at Emory University, calculate what they call fan equity, which is how much money fans are willing to invest in their teams once you control for how well a club does on the field and for how big and rich its market is. The professors have found that Washington's pull is declining. "We see the Redskins coming in the bottom half of the league," says Lewis. "But what's really key is the change." Specifically, the team has fallen from first in the NFL to 20th over the past decade.
As an example of that decline, the Redskins have hiked average ticket prices by just 39 percent over the past 10 years, compared with an NFL average of 54 percent. Meanwhile, the Ravens, who moved to nearby Baltimore in 1996, have increased their prices by 89 percent over the same time. Overall, Lewis and Tripathi estimate that an NFL team in Washington, playing no better than the current one, could generate $1.6 million a year more if it did just an average job of marketing.
Then there's opportunity cost, the revenue Snyder is forgoing by refusing to change. I spoke with five marketing analysts, who all said that the Redskins should rebrand by altering their identity. If they rebuild their image around Robert Griffin III -- whose merchandise sales have been phenomenal -- and put a better product on the field, the club could bring in another $10 million to $15 million a year. "I'm not going to argue that there's no value in the Redskins brand," says Mike Ozanian, executive editor at Forbes Media, whose most recent annual franchise valuations peg the team's worth at $2.4 billion. "But a new name with a winning team would be far, far more valuable." The Redskins' brand, Ozanian says, could grow into a national powerhouse like the Cowboys' -- but right now it isn't at all.
Of course, there are franchises, like the Raiders, whose fans don't spend hugely at games but stay loyal to their favorite team through other means. But not the Redskins. Given the size and affluence of a team's metro area and how much it is winning, Lewis and Tripathi can project how many people should be following it on social media. For example, Washington ranks 20th in the NFL with 319,000 Twitter devotees. The team should have roughly 60,000 more, according to Lewis, which would place it 16th in the league.
Snyder claims that "Redskin" connotes a special sense of honor and pride. But as he fights to maintain that identity, his team keeps falling further from the financial performance and connection with fans that you'd expect from an NFL team with monopoly rights to the nation's capital. This is a franchise in need of a reboot, and a good place to start would be dropping its affiliation with bloody scalps.