This can’t possibly go well
On January 4, the Football Team provided an update to fans on the progress of the rebrand, now stretching into its second year. It was announced that the new name would be revealed on Groundhog Day, February 2, 2022. Some further hints about the new name have been teased by the team, but to this point all that we know officially is that the name will be chosen from three finalists, which have not been revealed. Media have reported that the following names made the short list, but it has not been confirmed by anyone that the final name will be drawn from this list:
- Red Hogs
All that we know for sure is that two popular options, Warriors and Redwolves/Wolves, are off the table. Thankfully, Redtails is not on the list either.
In this article, I would like to share my thoughts on why the process that is being used to select the new name is fundamentally misconceived and is not likely to produce a new name that Washington football fans will embrace and come to identify with for decades to come. This will be significant departure from my usual data- and analytically-driven contributions to Hogs Haven, in which I try to back up every claim with some kind of objective evidence. Here, I am going to share the perspective a fan of over 50 years who grew up watching the Redskins with his dad on every Sunday when there was a game on.
This is all just my opinion. Everyone is entitled to their own, and if you disagree with what I have to say, have at it in the comments section.
How We Got Here
I’m not going to belabor the merits of the previous name, whether it was really a racial slur, or indulge grievances about being forced to change. As far as I am concerned, that is water under the bridge. However, the motivation for the name change, and how it informs the search for a new name, is central to my argument. I will attempt to tread lightly on the past and just stick to what’s relevant to the rebranding process.
As we all know, years of simmering controversy over whether Redskins was a slur on Native Americans were brought to a head in the summer of 2020, against the backdrop of widespread protests and civil unrest over police violence against African Americans. The decision to change the name was ultimately forced on the team when two of the team’s major corporate sponsors presented an ultimatum to the owner.
The way this decision came about effectively resolved the Redskins name controversy in the affirmative for all practical purposes. Whatever the new name was, it would have to be one that avoided giving offense to any identifiable ethnic or cultural group, which is a given in this day and age and shouldn’t be controversial. The more difficult part about coming from this angle is that the new name can’t be perceived to cause offense either directly, or by association with subject matter which gives rise to a perception of offensiveness. That is a very long bow to draw and places significant constraints on the naming options.
For example, many fans supported Warriors as a means to maintain the association with Native Americans, but in a more affirmative, inoffensive manner. I was never a fan, but the reason it was taken off the list provides a great illustration of the pitfalls of picking a name to be inoffensive. Supporters of the Warriors name argued that it wasn’t a reference to any particular ethnic group, since people around the world have warrior histories. However, the team announced that it was taken out of consideration because the new name would not be “Native American adjacent,” meaning that anything which can be perceived to be associated with Native American culture was off the table.
To be clear, my issue is not that many great naming options have been ruled out by a desire to be politically correct. Rather, I feel that the primary motivating impulse to be inoffensive takes us in the opposite direction from one of the key elements of a good sporting franchise name. I will explain what I mean in the next section. For now, let me just head off a world of snark in the comments section by clarifying that I will not at any point argue that a good name has to be offensive, or that offensiveness is inherent in a good name.
The other factor that the new name will have to overcome to be embraced by the now largely estranged fanbase is its association with the team’s ownership. There is less that anyone can do about this one, aside from the majority owners having a sudden change of heart and putting their shares up for sale. But I see it as a crucial factor in determining the success or failure of the rebrand, which deserves some attention here.
Dan Snyder became principal owner of the Redskins in 1999. During Snyder’s 22 year tenure the team has accumulated a regular season record of 155-212-1 (42% wins), had six winning seasons out of 22 (27%) and won two wildcard playoff games. This contrasts with the team’s fortunes under previous long-term owner Jack Kent Cooke who presided over three Super Bowl Championships, five NFC Championships, 19 winning seasons out of 28 (68%), a regular season record of 250-169-3 (59.6% wins).
If the transition from being a dynasty to a perennial loser were not enough, Snyder’s tenure as owner has also been plagued by a consistent pattern of bad decisions, inept micromanagement and regular displays of contempt or obliviousness toward the fanbase. The most recent example, this season, was the bungled Week 6 retirement of Sean Taylor’s jersey.
It is likely that the name change would have occurred regardless of who owned the team, but Snyder’s involvement has almost certainly helped to inflame the name controversy that led to the rebrand and to prolong the rebranding process. More importantly, the rebrand is being conducted under his and Tanya’s tenure, and therefore carries with it all of the bad associations that the fanbase has with them. That is a large obstacle to overcome.
The best hope for the new brand to catch on will be for Rivera to turn the team into a consistent winner. As the great John Madden was fond of saying, “Winning is the best deodorant.” Whether Rivera has what it takes to do what no previous coach has managed during the Snyders’ ownership remains to be seen. I am still holding out hope for him.
What Makes a Good Sports Franchise Name
Getting back to that supposed short list of name candidates reported by the AP. There is something that all but one of them have in common. Six of the nine candidates are military themed (Admirals, Armada, Brigade, Commanders, Defenders and Sentinels). A military associated name could make sense, because Washington DC is home to the Pentagon and the DMV region is home to numerous military bases and had a significant role in several past conflicts.
Surprisingly, only President is related to DC’s foundational role as the seat of the US government.
Then there are two names of somewhat fearsome animals (Redhawks, Red Hogs), one of the great standbys of sports franchising naming. Red Hogs is distinctive, but that’s only because it’s ridiculous. It appears to be a painfully forced attempt to do two things: retain Red in the name and reference the legendary offensive line from the first Joe Gibbs era, which enjoys a cult following amongst older fans (myself included).
What do all but one of these options have in common? Aside from the laughably stupid Red Hogs, they are all generic. You could argue that the Armada is a specific reference to the Spanish Armada, because there do not appear to be any other famous Armadas. Why anyone would name the team after a Spanish naval unit that is most famous for being destroyed by the much smaller British fleet is beyond me. I’m just going to dismiss Armada as a serious possibility from this point. None of the other seven names has anything distinctive about them.
Why is that important? Throughout the whole rebranding process, and repeated in Jason Wright’s cringeworthy promotional video, we have heard a number of things that the team intends to build into the new brand. It will be tied to the team’s history. It will be appeal to all fans. It will have meaningful association with Washington DC’s region.
All of those are great, and each one is hard to argue with when considered in isolation. But when I look around the NFL, and the wider world of sport, I can see examples of great team brands that have one or more of those features and others that don’t. What most of the great team brands I can think of have in common is that they are distinctive. They have some unique or unusual quality about them, often that you might not expect to be associated with a sporting franchise, or that you wouldn’t expect to see repeated very often.
To explain what I am talking about, I’ll show some examples. At this point, this is going to get very subjective, because what I think is a great team name might not appeal to everyone else. But here goes anyway.
New England Patriots – “What?” I hear you saying, “You just said a good brand is not generic and then you go right to Patriots. Patriots is completely generic.” No it’s not. The New England Patriots branding ties the potentially generic Patriot name directly to the American revolutionaries, based in the New England colonies, who referred to themselves by that name. Even the new stylized logo is clearly recognizable as a nod to the Minutemen. This is an example of a great team brand that is all about the region’s history.
Cincinnati Bengals – The historical range of the Bengal tiger is limited to the Indian subcontinent. I’m not the biggest fan of scary animal names like Lions and Bears. It’s a lazy option to take, particularly when they have no connection to the area. What makes this branding distinctive is that, instead of going for the obvious tiger logo, they took an oblique approach by putting the tiger stripe pattern on the ‘B’ for Bengal. I wonder how many NFL fans actually know what a Bengal is. They all know that the Bengals are Cincinnati’s football team, though, which is what matters.
Miami Dolphins – Who is afraid of a dolphin? Everyone loves them. The dolphin and sun logo is not something you’d really expect to be associated with a sport where 300 lb men beat each other to a pulp, so that a 220 lb guy can push forward for a yard. I did like it better when the dolphin was wearing a helmet, but it still works. The logo says sea and sun which is what Miami has always been about.
Baltimore Ravens – my personal favorite NFL team other than Washington is the only major sporting franchise I am aware of whose team name is a literary reference. A raven is not a particularly fearsome creature, except when he turns up at your door at 2 am saying, “Nevermore,” and won’t shut up. The name is of a reference to Baltimore resident Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous work, The Raven (because The Telltale Heart is just not a good football team name). A lot of people don’t like the purple. When I see the Maryland state crest on the uniform I still think of home, even after living in Australia for close to 30 years.
New Orleans Saints – for my money one of the league’s best team name, logo and uniform combos pays homage to New Orleans’ rich cultural heritage. The fluer-de-Lys logo is a nod to the city’s French colonial history. New Orleans is famous for its annual festivals, most notably Mardi Gras, tied to the Christian calendar, and as the birthplace of jazz. The Saints name acknowledges both aspects of the city’s cultural heritage without forcing anything.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Pittsburgh is known for being the home of the American steel industry. What is interesting about the Steelers’ branding is that their helmet logo is based on the Steelmark logo, belonging to AISI, the peak body for the US steel industry. Keep that in mind when Jason Wright tells you that we couldn’t have the fan favorite Redwolves brand due to unresolvable trademark issues. I guess the Rooney family’s organization is better at negotiating business deals than the Snyders. Does that surprise anyone?
Buffalo Bills – The Bills’ name is a play on words. Buffalo have never roamed in upstate New York. The town got its name from Buffalo Creek, which was supposedly named for a big hairy Native American resident who people thought resembled a Buffalo, although how they knew what a Buffalo looked like is a good question. The team got is name through a reference to legendary wild west show character Buffalo Bill, who also never lived in Buffalo. And that’s how you got a Buffalo logo in Buffalo.
New York Giants – Sorry, much as it kills me to acknowledge they got anything right, the New York Giants do have a strong brand. What I think makes their brand particularly distinctive is that they never tried to put a giant character in the logo, like you might expect, and instead have mostly gone with letter logos. Except in the early days they also had a QB throwing a pass. You’re playing the Giants, but you never actually see a giant anywhere in the stadium. Giants are really more of a concept than a thing in the branding. There is no particular association with New York, either, that I am aware of.
Arizona Cardinals – The team was named when it was based in St Louis, where cardinals are one of the most colorful local birds. What makes this brand unusual is that the cardinal is a songbird. Name me another major contact sport franchise that’s named after a songbird. Penguins aren’t particularly ferocious, but they’re not little tweety birds like a cardinal. Oregon Ducks is getting kind of close, and it’s also a great team name.
I could go on and work through the list of Oakland/LA/Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders, Green Bay Packers, 49ers, Seahawks, Broncos, Vikings, Bears, Buccaneers, Falcons and Carolina Panthers. What all of the NFL teams with really strong brands have is common is that there is something unique or original about their branding.
That can be achieved in a number of different ways. Often NFL teams have achieved distinctive branding through association with their city or region’s cultural and historical roots (Patriots, Ravens, Steelers, Saints, Packers, 49ers, Seahawks, Vikings, Buccaneers). Others have put their own unique spin on the animal mascot or gone with local native species (Bengals, Broncos, Panthers, Cardinals, Falcons). And a few teams have just come up with their own unique concepts (Buffalo, Giants).
I don’t think it’s actually that hard.
Can This Possibly End Well?
The problem that Jason Wright and his corporate marketing team are struggling with is that they are approaching the branding challenge from the wrong angle. Rather than seeking something distinctive, through a genuine association with the team or city’s heritage, or through imaginative, out-of-the box thinking, they seem to be seeking a least common denominator, that is tolerable to the widest possible audience. What I fear we will end up with, if that list is real, is a name that focus groups found to be most generally acceptable.
There is an alternative explanation for that short list. Knowing how the Snyders operate, it is possible that Dan decided on the new name some time ago and the elaborate song and dance the team is putting on is just a smokescreen to make the fanbase believe that the new name was selected through a responsible, deliberative process.
Regardless of how they arrived at it, will the new name be something that fans can embrace and identify with like the Redskins? In the best case scenario, if the team starts making regular playoff appearances, we might end up with something that a majority of the fanbase doesn’t mind. If early signs are any indication, it seems doubtful that the WFT marketing department will come up with anything that will energize more than a few of us.
But perhaps there is still some cause for hope. You don’t stay of fan of this team for the past 22 years without learning to find the bright side of every raincloud. This might be wishful thinking, but I can still see a few possibilities for us to get something unique or original.
First, if we believe that list, it suggests that someone involved in the process has a fixation on the military. I am not a fan of military-associated names, probably because the WWII vet who raised me as a Redskins fan felt that sports teams trying to associate themselves with the military was exploitative. Dad even thought that starting NFL games with the national anthem was a step too far, but that is another story (he was a staunch Republican, by the way). Setting that aside, if I were tasked with finding a military-associated name, I would focus on famous military units or distinguished servicemen and things along those lines. For example:
- Rangers – US Army Special Forces
- SEALs – US Navy Special Forces
- Gunslingers – Strike Fighter Squadron 105, Navy; also a nickname for a trigger-happy QB
- Rough Riders – First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, Spanish-American War
- Iron Brigade – famous unit of the Army of the Potomac, Civil War
- Warthogs – after the A-10 Warthog ground attack fighter, also alludes to the Hogs
- Black Swallows – after Eugene Bullard, first African American military pilot
That’s clearly not the direction the team seems to be going with generic names like Admirals, Brigade, Commanders, Defenders and Sentinels under consideration. However, as the Patriots have demonstrated, it is still possible to attach distinctive branding to a seemingly generic name. For example, Admirals could be combined with more specific imagery linking it to some specific naval unit or conflict such as the War of 1812 (although that one is more Baltimore’s territory, all DC did was get sacked). I don’t know. I feel like I might be reaching a little here.
In today’s political climate, making Presidents distinctive without being divisive would be extremely challenging unless they avoid the modern era entirely. I couldn’t imagine anything like a Mt. Rushmore theme working, but I suppose there is scope for a skilled brand engineer to work with.
Then there are the two animal names. Both Redhawks and Red Hogs seem like artificial constructs intended to retain red in the name, because neither refers to anything that actually exists. Redhawks, though, is open to going the native wildlife direction, since it’s not that far from the red tailed hawk, which is common throughout the DMV, as well as the rest of North America. If Atlanta can make a cool Klingon-esque logo out a falcon, I don’t see any reason we can’t do the same with a red tailed hawk. You’ll still have to sell me on why this isn’t just another Falcons/Eagles wannabe brand attempt, though.
And that brings us to the final option, Red Hogs. Is there anything we could do to salvage this one from sounding like a brand of barbecue sauce? Yes there is. Drop the Red and you’ve got a distinctive name that ties directly into the team’s history and will resonate with the older generations of the fanbase, at the least.
Hogs can be ferocious. The African warthog, for example, is one of the few animals in the Serengeti that will take on an adult lion. The only other major sporting team I can detect with a hog-themed mascot are the Arkansas Razorbacks. Dropping Red from the name would even help to diminish any concerns about trademark infringement because the razorback hog is usually depicted in red.
I can think of three reasons to hang on to hope that the new brand will be something that fans can take pride in.
First, it appears that they are sticking with the familiar burgundy and gold color scheme with some minor tweaks, like addition of some black. That could actually turn out to be an improvement. At least it’s not a step back.
Second, as I have argued, even though most of the supposed finalist names that were reported by the AP are bland and generic, it is still possible that the team spins some kind of original branding around them.
Third, if you look at the specific wording of the CBS news story I linked, it says that the leaked names were among the options being considered. That could mean that there were other options which were not leaked. Who knows, one of those could be a really good name, like Hogs, and the leak might just be an elaborate ploy to misdirect us. We have already seen a few of those with domain names drawn from the list directing to the team’s website.
That might not be a lot to go on. As I have argued, grounding the rebrand on a desire to be innocuous is not conducive to finding a unique or original name that has meaning to the Washington fanbase. The results that have been teased thus far, if they are real, are a testament to that. If that is the way that Jason Wright and his marketing team are really thinking, I am not confident that we will avoid embarrassment. But until Groundhog Day, I will cling to the hope that Jason is being devious and holding on to the one really good name that his team came up with.