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.”