I HAVE SOME ADVICE for folks defending Washington's use of the name Redskins: Stop trying so hard.
Of course "Redskin" is racist. The term's origin is disputed, but some say it derives from the bloody scalps of natives, for which the Massachusetts Bay Province began offering rewards in 1755 -- 50 pounds for each murdered adult male, 25 pounds apiece for women, 20 pounds per child. There's no way to pretty that up, so be honest: Your real argument is that your enjoyment of the team's name, and your connection to its folklore, is more important than its genocidal history. If that's what you believe, hey, 79 percent of Americans agree with you, according to a recent Associated Press poll. And while 10 members of Congress are now sponsoring legislation to outlaw the team's moniker, owner Dan Snyder says he will never change it -- and Roger Goodell backs him.
But I also have some news. While a Redskins lawyer has claimed that the franchise would suffer "every imaginable loss you can think of" if it can't keep exclusive rights to its brand, and marketing experts have said the club will incur massive costs if it changes its name, the truth is that they're wrong. A rechristening wouldn't hurt Washington. In fact, it could make the team reams of money in the long run.
I first looked at this issue after Native American protesters urged the U.S. Patent and Trademark Offices to strip the Redskins of their trademarks back in 1999. I found that when college programs with native mascots changed their names, they often endured backlash from hard-core supporters -- but their bottom lines held steady or, after new marketing campaigns, actually improved. For example, when Miami of Ohio's Redskins became the RedHawks in 1997, trustee Bill Gunlock, who had donated more than $500,000 to the university, quit loudly and stopped giving. But over the next two years, the university's football attendance, merchandise sales and fundraising all went up. Same story at Marquette, Eastern Michigan, St. John's -- I couldn't find one school that lost money because of a new name.
Now two Emory University professors have conducted updated, more comprehensive research into the same subject and have come to the same conclusion. Michael Lewis and Manish Tripathi looked at how dropping native identities affects revenue at NCAA basketball programs and found that "schools experience a very short (one or two years) negative financial impact and then quickly recover. Furthermore, in the long term, the shift away from a Native American mascot yields positive financial returns."
It's easy to see why. Teams modernize their logos and apparel every few years whether they keep their mascots or not, and fans keep buying new stuff, however vociferously a few complain about the changes.
And I think the same would happen if Washington flips. It might seem that the Redskins, who have represented our nation's capital for nearly 80 years, have a uniquely powerful brand. But pro football teams get most of their value from the sport they play (62 percent, Forbes says) and the market they're in (17.4 percent). Just 6.5 percent, on average, comes from their brand equity -- the value teams get from fans being able to identify with individual franchises. Put an NFL team in DC and it would be worth more than $1 billion even if you called it the Washington Smallpox.
If anything, Snyder has done more to wreck the Redskins brand than a name change ever could. For 14 years, his misadventures have ranged from signing Albert Haynesworth to hiring Jim Zorn, from charging fans to watch practices to suing a local reporter. Now his team is the third-most valuable in the NFL but has just $131 million in brand equity, according to Forbes. That's far less than the Patriots ($188 million), a franchise with a market comparable to Washington's. The Redskins have kept their name, but they have failed to maximize their brand.
The bottom line: A team's value comes from its monopoly rights, TV deals, market size and, lastly, brand identity, which in turn largely depends on what fans experience -- how it plays and treats its customers. Not its mascot. If RG3 gives his franchise the new character it's desperately seeking, who'll care if it's called the Red Dogs or the Pigskins?