Trademark decision puts economic, political pressure on Redskins

The decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the Washington Redskins’ trademark registration places political, social and economic pressures on the Washington Redskins and, by extension, the NFL.

But whether a perfect storm of those issues is gathering is far from clear. Economically, the league isn’t likely to feel much of a pinch. Most of its revenues derive from TV licensing, although merchandise sales are significant. The nation’s most popular sports league, the NFL generates revenues estimated at more than $9 billion annually and the Redskins, at $1.7 billion, were rated the league’s third-most valuable team by Forbes magazine last year. Their annual revenue was estimated at $373 million.

Robert Griffin III had the 11th-best selling jersey in the league last season, but the Redskins were not among the top 10 teams in merchandise sales, according to NFL.shop figures obtained by the Seattle Times. The NFL closely holds the financial figures, so it is unclear how much of the Redskins’ revenue comes from merchandising. Last year, thanks in part to a new apparel deal with Nike and wider coverage by the NFL Network, national revenue of $179.9 million was equally split among the league’s teams (via ESPN).

In 2013, a person familiar with the Redskins’ operations dismissed speculation that a name change could result in a significant revenue boost based on sales of merchandise bearing a new name and logo. Most of that revenue is shared with other NFL teams, so any revenue growth likely would be more than offset by costs associated with a name change, the person said.

Last month, Capitol Hill lawmakers intensified their efforts to convince the NFL and the team to budge on the matter of the nickname, with 50 Democratic members of the U.S. Senate sending letters to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging him and the league to endorse a change of the Redskins’ name.

“The NFL can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur,” said one of the letters, which was signed by 49 senators. “We urge the NFL to formally support and push for a name change for the Washington football team.”

Legally, not much changes for now. Cottage industries won’t suddenly be springing up and producing Redskins merchandise. The Redskins, who may appeal the decision, retain their federal trademark registrations until all appeals have been exhausted. That process could take years, as it did after the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board canceled the team’s trademark registrations in 1999.

The registrations will be canceled only if the team exhausts all of its appeals and loses on appeal. At that point, the team could continue to use Redskins name and still take legal action against anyone selling Redskins merchandise by exercising its common law rights to the name and logo.

As a league official said, “The decision does not mean that the team loses its trademark protection. It loses the benefits of federal registration, but the team will continue to protect its trademarks against third parties using it.  The team has what is called ‘common law rights,’ which do not require a trademark registration.”

Gabriel Feldman, the director of the sports law program at Tulane University, agreed with that interpretation.

“This ruling doesn’t eliminate the ability of the Washington Redskins to use their trademark or prevent others from using it,” Feldman told the Post’s Mark Maske. “But it does limit their ability to enforce their rights. It ultimately could change the financial analysis about whether to keep the name or change it. … At the end of the day, this likely still will be a financial decision. I don’t know that this changes the political pressure. … This is clearly not the first time there’s been a public declaration that the name is disparaging and offensive.”

In 1992, the patent and trademark office ruled similarly — and the Redskins responded with a lawsuit that wound its way through U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia. Ultimately, it ended up before the Supreme Court, which declined in 2009 to take the case.

Feldman said another prolonged appeal is possible. “It could be another long, drawn-out process,” he said in a telephone interview. “We won’t have an answer immediately.”

He also said it’s possible the ruling could affect the view that league officials and owners of other NFL franchises have of the matter, given the possible effect on their economic situations because of the sport’s revenue-sharing system. To this point, Goodell and other league officials have said they don’t believe the name is intended to be disparaging, although they are sensitive to opposing views. People familiar with the situation have said in recent months there has been little to no pressure, to this point, exerted on the Redskins from within the league to consider a name change. “It’s a great question to raise,” Feldman said. “Maybe this is the tipping point for the rest of the league. This is a unique business.”

Mark Maske and Scott Allen contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Redskins’ value was $1.6 billion

More from The Post:

Full statement from the team: ‘We are confident we will prevail’

The Switch: Seven questions everyone asking about the decision

Fancy Stats: How much would it cost to change the name?

Actually changing the name would take time

Suggestions on what to rename the team

The Early Lead: Who is Amanda Blackhorse?

Volokh Conspiracy: A law professor’s take on the ruling

D.C. Sports Bog: John Kent Cooke was once deposed about the name

D.C. Sports Bog: The ruling does not mean you can open a merchandise shop

Insider blog archive on the team name change issue

After spending most of her career in traditional print sports journalism, Cindy began blogging and tweeting, first as NFL/Redskins editor, and, since August 2010, at The Early Lead. She also is the social media editor for Sports.
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