Dan, I know you’re upset. But if you play it right, Wednesday’s trademark cancellation could be a blessing in disguise.
For decades, Native Americans, former NFL players, fans, U.S. senators and even President Obama have tried to urge, coax and shame the Washington Redskins into shedding their name. “Redskin,” after all, is an ethnic slur, comparable to unprintable epithets for Jews, Hispanics and blacks. And despite team owner Daniel Snyder’s laughable protestations that the term is “a badge of honor,” even Merriam-Webster flags it as “usually offensive.”
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, as it turns out, agrees.
On Wednesday, its Trademark Trial and Appeal Board canceled the team’s federal trademarks, calling the team name “disparaging to Native Americans.” The government cannot force the Redskins to rebrand, nor should it be in the business of choosing or proscribing sports team names. But the patent office is tasked with deciding which names and logos enjoy certain legal protections, and U.S. law doesn’t allow the registration of trademarks that “may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”
The financial damage that could unspool from this decision looks substantial, since trademark registration safeguards the team’s (and the NFL’s) ability to make money from licensed merchandise. Washington Redskins jerseys sell for $100; losing the trademark weakens, though does not eliminate entirely, the team’s ability to prevent upstart vendors from hawking unlicensed jerseys for $10 a pop.
No wonder, then, that the team plans to appeal, and the league — which distributes merchandising revenue among the teams — has backed Snyder. But if I were the team’s owner, I’d embrace the latest turn of events.
This initially unwelcome ruling is an opportunity not only to do the right thing but also to make even more money — just as Donald Sterling’s unmasking as a bigot turned out to produce a huge, if potentially spurned, financial windfall.
Right now, die-hard fans already own Redskins-branded home jerseys, away jerseys, hats, bobbleheads, teddy bears, stuffed monkeys, earrings, cheese cutting boards, shot glasses, four-piece barbecue sets and various other overpriced knicknacks.
Why not give fans a compelling reason to buy all new, rebranded gear — bearing a new team name and logo? That’s a marketer’s dream.
Renaming the team might even expand the pool of paraphernalia purchasers to include folks who’d previously been unwilling to wear sweatshirts emblazoned with a slur.
“Pretty much everyone outside of Washington, D.C., thinks the current name is a bad idea,” said Dan Bruton, a sports marketing professor at San Diego State University who has consulted on team licensing contracts. “Changing the name would be a huge relief to those fans who want to support their team publicly without being seen as disparaging and racist.”
A rechristening could present other opportunities for Snyder to make money and gin up enthusiasm for the team’s players. The team could hold a contest in which fans pitch new names. (I’m partial to my colleague Jonathan Capehart’s suggestion: the Washington Gridlocks.)
Yes, there are legal and other costs associated with transitioning to a new name and applying for new trademarks. But battling the patent office for what will likely be years looks even more expensive. The last time the Redskins ran this gantlet — when another group of Native Americans fought to have the trademarks canceled and ultimately lost on a technicality — it took 17 years to resolve.
And, yes, I realize the team’s existing brand recognition is worth something. That’s no doubt at least part of the reason why Snyder has dug in his heels. But sports economists and marketing experts I spoke with said other teams that once had offensive, racist names have converted to more respectful ones with minimal damage.
“Does Stanford not have any fans anymore? Does Miami of Ohio not have any fans? What about St. John’s?” asked Victor A. Matheson, an economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross, referring to college teams formerly known as the Indians, Redskins and Redmen, respectively.
“This is a little bit like pulling off a Band-Aid,” he told me. “There’s a little bit of pain just for a moment, and then they’ll forget that in a second — once everyone lines up to buy those brand-new jerseys.”
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