Redskins name change would have to pass muster with NFL, sponsors

February 24, 2013

Daniel Snyder owns the Washington Redskins, but even he couldn’t change the team’s name without a complicated, and possibly lengthy, process that might include winning approval from both the NFL and some of its many sponsors, according to experts on the way the nation’s most prosperous sports league conducts its affairs.

The financial stakes in such a move by one of pro football’s most valuable franchises would be considerable for the 32 NFL owners, who have a revenue-sharing agreement that covers much of the more than $9 billion the league generates annually.

“The unique dynamic of professional sports is that teams essentially give up some of their rights as far as names and trademarks to the league as part of the joint venture,” said Gabriel Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University. “While an individual team owner makes business decisions primarily affecting the one team, there are also decisions made by the league and the other owners that tend to affect the league as a whole.”

The Redskins have made it clear that they have no intention of changing the team’s name or logo, despite recent criticism from Native Americans, the media and others that both are racially offensive and should be abandoned. The Redskins have said they don’t mean to offend anyone and are proud of the team’s history and traditions.

But the fierce debate has glossed over both the financial implications of a name change and the procedural issues that would be involved. All of those considerations would be significant, people familiar with the situation and outside legal and business experts said.

The Washington Post’s LaVar Arrington, Dan Steinberg, Jason Reid and Jonathan Forsythe peer into their collective crystal balls to offer their bold predictions for the Redskins in 2013. (The Washington Post)

According to two people with knowledge of the NFL’s policies on such matters, the league exerts great control over the use of trademarked team names, logos and colors.

One of those people, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said he presumes the NFL would take the position that team names are set by the league constitution and any name change would require league approval.

It is not clear how much authority the league and the other 31 owners could exert if they differed with a team’s position on changing its name. There is little or no precedent about such an issue.

The NFL declined to comment through a spokesman. Separately, the Redskins also declined comment.

Sponsors also have a say

Team names, colors and trademarks are subject to existing contracts with sponsors at both the individual team and league-wide levels, according to both people familiar with the NFL policies. So companies that sponsor the Redskins or the NFL would have some say in whether the name could be changed or would require notice — possibly years of advance warning in some cases — to allow existing contracts and licenses to lapse, according to those people.

The Redskins’ business partners “would not appear to have much issue with this,” said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “They may not like it. But if they were getting push-back [from customers], they would be having meetings with the team and working with the commissioner and the league on it.”

One person familiar with the Redskins’ business dealings said he’s not aware of any sponsor ever indicating that the team should change its name.

The Washington Post’s Jason Reid, LaVar Arrington, Dan Steinberg and Jonathan Forsythe recall some of the most memorable moments on offense for the Redskins in 2012. (The Washington Post)

“I suppose some might argue that sponsors might actually prefer that the name be changed . . . [but] I expect there would be some at least who would argue that any name other than Redskins would not have the brand association [and] name recognition that justifies the expense they are paying to be associated with the team,” that person said.

The NFL is the nation’s most popular professional sports league, with revenues estimated at more than $9 billion annually. Forbes magazine last year estimated the Redskins’ worth at $1.6 billion, third highest in the NFL, and their annual revenue at $373 million. Snyder bought the team, its stadium and its training facility in 1999 for $800 million.

Other NFL teams and franchises in other pro sports have changed names, often when they relocate from one city to another. But not all name changes have been tied to moves. The New York Titans of the former American Football League changed their name to the New York Jets in 1963. Washington’s NBA franchise changed its nickname from the Bullets to the Wizards in 1997, in part because of then-owner Abe Pollin’s concern about the former name’s violent connotation.

When the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets announced in January that they would change their name to the Pelicans, it was reported that the move required league approval but that the NBA was expected to expedite that process. Commissioner David Stern had said he would not object to any new name chosen by owner Tom Benson.

Few team name changes, however, involve a franchise with a storied history and the passion and nostalgia inspired by the Redskins’ name.

“There’s quite a bit of economic impact tied into the name if it’s the Redskins or the Cowboys, if you’re one of the historical franchises like that,” Carter said. “It would need to be a revamping of the entire brand. If you revamp a brand that’s not broken, there’s quite a bit of risk in that. You can be New Coke.”

New revenue, but new costs

NFL teams share a large portion of their revenues, particularly those from national contracts such as television deals and league-wide sponsorships. Carter said he believes “it would absolutely have to be a collaboration” between the team and the league for the Redskins to change their name.

“There’s no doubt they’ve already been in discussions and figured out contingency plans,” Carter said. “The NFL doesn’t want their brand to be damaged by bad PR. There’s no doubt they have been and will continue to work in collaboration on this.”

FedEx, for example, is a major business partner of the Redskins. The Memphis-based global delivery and business-services company purchased the naming rights to the team’s stadium in Landover, now called FedEx Field, in 1999, a deal reported to be worth about $207 million over 27 years.

A spokesperson for FedEx, Jenny Robertson, said in a written statement: “We understand there is a difference of opinion on this issue. Nevertheless, we believe that our sponsorship of FedEx Field continues to be in the best interests of FedEx.”

Feldman said it’s difficult to predict whether the team ever will be forced to change its name because of ongoing federal trademark litigation which, he said, could take years to resolve. The Redskins could choose to retain their name even if they lose their trademark.

One person with knowledge of the league’s inner workings said it’s possible, but not clear-cut, under NFL rules that the league could force a team to change its name over the team’s objection. Important league-wide changes typically require the approval of at least three-quarters of the 32 owners. Feldman said he’s uncertain how such a scenario would play out.

“I don’t know if they could technically force it,” Feldman said. “But they could certainly put pressure on the team to change it.”

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.

Carter said the controversy over the team’s name is not felt as intensely in other parts of the country as it is in the Washington area, and there does not appear to be a public consensus on the issue.

“I’m not saying here whether [the name is] appropriate or not,” Carter said. “Whether it’s appropriate or it’s not appropriate, from a business standpoint it has worked well for a long time. Tinkering with that is pretty risky.”

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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