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There’s risk for Redskins in makeover of team mascot

By Scott Cacciola
The New York Times

WASHINGTON Few teams in the NFL have faced more pressing off-season concerns than the Washington Redskins, whose star quarterback, Robert Griffin III, hopes to be ready for training camp as he continues to rehabilitate his surgically repaired right knee.

But the hand-wringing over his injury has helped to mask a more polarizing issue for the team: its name.

With a group of American Indians engaged in a lengthy legal battle over the team's trademark protection, the chorus calling for change broadened in May when 10 members of Congress condemned the franchise for using a “racial, derogatory slur” as its mascot.

Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, and Daniel Snyder, the Redskins' owner, have been adamant about holding firm to tradition — the team has had the name since 1933, when it was based in Boston. But as one of the league's wealthiest franchises, Washington could eventually find itself grappling with the risky business of a name change. How much would a makeover cost? It is impossible to know for certain, sports analysts and league executives said, though it would be measured in the millions of dollars.

“Any time you try to reinvent yourself or improve yourself or cater to the needs of some, you run the risk of ending up as new Coke,” said David Carter, the executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “You're talking about a wholesale change of a global brand, and that's pretty substantial. It really depends on how the new name is embraced. If they took something that people could rally around, then there might be tremendous upside.”

The process would start with the enlistment of lawyers and focus groups to vet a new name. When the NBA's Grizzlies relocated to Memphis from Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2001, the franchise spent about $125,000 on research alone, said Andy Dolich, the team's former president for business operations. Included in that figure was the work of a graphics team, which went through several mascot iterations. Memphis ultimately decided to keep the old nickname while revamping its bear logo.

It would be dangerous, though, to draw too many parallels to the Redskins' situation, Dolich said. Unlike the Grizzlies, who were new to Memphis and benefited from almost unconditional support, the Redskins have been part of Washington's civic fabric for decades. Any changes would need to be carefully calibrated.

“You're not just going to Larry's T-shirt Store and saying, ‘Hey, Larry, we need to change this,'” Dolich said. “In terms of merchandise and the team's presence on the Internet and all their corporate sponsorships, the Redskins have millions of exposure points. So there's a dollar figure attached to any sort of overhaul.”

A big chunk of the budget would be directed to the fairly rudimentary process of replacing all the old logos with the new one, including the scoreboard at FedEx Field and the stationery that the team uses at the training complex. Carl Bassewitz, a sports marketing and branding expert who has worked with several professional teams, uses a 300-item checklist whenever he helps guide a franchise through the logistics of an identity change. “It's a massive undertaking,” he said.

Redskins officials, who declined to comment for this article, could minimize some of those costs by keeping the same color scheme, which would spare them having to replace thousands of burgundy-and-gold seats at the stadium. Still, any rebranding effort would require an investment from the team and the league.

For example, the Charlotte Bobcats of the NBA recently estimated that it would cost them $4 million to become the Hornets (again) in time for the start of the 2014-15 season. When the Washington Bullets decided to call themselves the Wizards in 1997, it was a similarly painstaking process.

“We anticipated needing two years to wipe the slate clean, and it never really is clean,” said Matt Williams, a former Wizards executive who now heads communications for the Washington Animal Rescue League. “You had to change everything, from court design to uniforms to luggage. It was almost like starting up an expansion team.”

One huge caveat is that the Redskins, with their zealous fan base and lucrative revenue streams, are neither the bottom-feeding Bobcats nor the Bullets. The Redskins make a lot of money. Forbes magazine recently assessed the Redskins' annual revenue at $373 million. They ranked third in home attendance last season, behind the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants. Just as important, the Redskins share in the swollen coffers of the NFL, which generated $9 billion in revenue in 2012. The league banks more than $4 billion in annual television rights fees, which is split among its 32 teams.

So even if the franchise were to spend $10 million, or $20 million, to drop its nickname and rebrand itself, how much is that really?

“A drop in the bucket,” said Gabe Feldman, the director of the sports law program at Tulane University. Consider that the NFL's salary cap for the coming season is $123 million.

The larger issue is how the team's fans would react, and that is much more difficult to forecast. Would fans protest the change by shedding their RGIII jerseys? Would they stop going to games? Would the new, unfamiliar name — everyone knew the Redskins — lessen the franchise's appeal to corporate America and cost the team sponsorships?

“I think you run the risk of heavily damaging your brand if you change your name,” Dolich, the former Grizzlies executive, said.

Although there is no precedent for a change of this magnitude in pro sports, two marketing professors at Emory University recently studied the economic effect on college athletic departments that move away from Indian mascots. The professors, Manish Tripathi and Mike Lewis, found that these colleges tend to have a year or two of marginal financial losses before quickly recovering. In fact, the move typically yields positive returns in the long run.

Just as important, ditching an Indian mascot has no effect on an athletic department's all-important “brand equity,” Tripathi said — that is, the willingness of a consumer to pay a premium price to support the team, whether that means ordering season tickets or buying a sweatshirt.

“You could make the argument that the Redskins have brand loyalty that's not linked to the logo at all,” Tripathi said in a telephone interview. “It could have more to do with growing up with the team and feeling a connection to the franchise. If that's the case, people will just go out and buy the new jersey.”

Ultimately, the financial stakes would have more to do with the psychology of the sports fan than with the costs of printing new business cards. John Maroon, a former spokesman for the Redskins who runs a public-relations firm based in Maryland, said any sort of move would be bad for business.

Maroon cited a recent poll conducted by The Associated Press in which 79 percent of those surveyed said they favored the team's keeping its name, with 11 percent opposed. Rebranding the franchise, Maroon said, would be “hugely unpopular” and wind up costing the team “tens of millions of dollars.”

At the same time, Maroon said, it would be difficult for fans to stay away, even if they were initially annoyed. Football, he said, has a strong emotional hold over people. Are Redskins fans really so attached to a nickname that they would refuse to watch them play as the Congressionals or the Red Pandas? Maroon said he rooted for the New York Jets.

“If they changed their name or banned Joe Namath from the stadium, I'd be upset,” he said. “But I'd still wind up wearing my Jets stuff, and then Sunday would come and I'd go to the game and watch them lose in another color.”

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