In just a few days, the Washington Football Team is set to unveil the new franchise brand, live on national television. After an 18-month buildup, I am expecting the brand reveal to be a momentous event, which will go down in history. I am expecting something even bigger than the Sean Taylor Jersey retirement. Maybe something that historians of corporate America will discuss in the same category as Microsoft’s Windows 95 launch.
Why am I so pessimistic about the prospects of Tanya Snyder’s leadership team rising to the occasion of an historic opportunity of a storied NFL franchise making a fresh start? To answer that question, let me review how we got to this point.
In the summer of 2020, the WFT’s major corporate sponsors presented majority owner Dan Snyder with an ultimatum that it was finally time to drop the Redskins name. With due pomp and fanfare, the Brand Journey was launched, complete with its own slick website.
Throughout the Journey, we have been advised that the team will consult with fans and other key stakeholders, including past Redskins greats, to come up with a new brand that everyone in the team’s wider community can take pride in. The team has been forthcoming in providing regular updates, and has posted some very impressive community submissions they have received to demonstrate just how seriously they are taking the consultation process.
All of this has been intended to convey a message that the Washington football franchise is going on the journey with us, not taking us for a ride. However, there are a few things about the messaging from the team that don’t quite seem to add up.
The most recent update was a bit of a showstopper for many former Redskins fans. Several naming options have come up in the team’s consultation process and ensuing fan discussions, including on Hogs Haven. A few front runners have gained traction with certain sections of the fanbase, including Warriors (briefly, before being ruled out as “Native American adjacent”), Redtails, Commanders, Hogs and Warthogs, among others. However, only one naming option which the team has consulted fans about seems to have gained widespread support across the community.
In his update, Team President Jason Wright broke the disappointing news that the clear fan favorite, Redwolves, had been taken out of consideration due to trademark issues with wolf-themed names. That’s a problem. If the team was really serious about the consultation process, they should have been prepared to deliver on any of the options presented, if a clear-cut favorite emerged. Backing out of Redwolves raises uncomfortable questions about how serious the consultation process actually was.
I suppose we might have to cut them some slack if there was a good reason that Redwolves wouldn’t work. That brings me to the second problem. The justification given for dropping Redwolves appears to be weak, at best. According to Jason Wright:
Once we began looking into Wolves, however, we became aware of a notable challenge: trademarks held by other teams would limit our ability to make the name our own. And without Wolves, variations like RedWolves wouldn’t have been viable either for these and other reasons.
Understanding the weight and importance of our team name, and excitement around other name options – both internally and within our fan base – we didn’t want to risk going down a route that could be dotted with legal hurdles.
I don’t claim to be an expert in trademark law. But, as it happens, I did do a course on trademark as part of my Master’s degree in Intellectual Property Law, so I know the basics. What Jason is saying here does not seem to make much sense even at that level.
What Jason would like us to believe is that some other sports franchise holds a trademark on Wolves and all variations of, in relation to a professional football team trading in Washington DC. That’s not really how trademark works.
Trademark is a form of intellectual property which grants the owner an exclusive right to trade under a specified mark (a.k.a logo). Like all other forms of intellectual property, trademark is based on a social contract, which involves striking a balance between the interests of individual rights owners and society as a whole. Consequently, the US Trademark Office, and its counterparts worldwide, seek to narrow the scope of a mark holder’s rights to uses associated with their legitimate business interests, in order to prevent them from unduly interfering with other traders’ rights to do business.
What this means is that, for example, a professional basketball team holding a set of trademarks associated with the name Wolves, would not necessarily be able to prevent a roller derby team operating in the same market from also trading under the name Wolves. Similarly, they might also find it somewhat difficult to win an infringement suit against a semi-professional basketball team in another city trading as Green Wolves.
There are a lot of complexities involved in determining whether one company’s brand infringes another’s trademark, which I will not get into. The key principle is the same as what I have argued is the key to a good sporting franchise name: distinctiveness. The test for trademark infringement is whether the mark in question is likely to confuse consumers, or mislead them into thinking they are buying another brand. The closer two companies’ logos and/or the businesses they are associated with are, the more likely it is that one brand will infringe the other’s trademark.
Let’s put that in context of Jason’s excuse for dropping Redwolves. There are quite a few American sports teams with “Wolves” in their names. The one major league franchise is the Minnesota Timberwolves. That’s a Minneapolis-based basketball team, with a different species of wolf as is its mascot. What is the chance that you might accidentally mistake a burgundy and gold Chase Young Washington Redwolves jersey for a blue Timberwolves jersey? The Timberwolves would have a very hard case to make to prove that the Redwolves football team was infringing their trademark.
Another team would have a much stronger case, if they elected to enforce their trademark. The Arkansas State Redwolves are actually a football team, and they hold a registered trademark to the actual name Washington’s fans would like the team to use. Furthermore, Arkansas State has previously demonstrated their willingness to enforce their rights against another professional franchise seeking to appropriate the Redwolves brand.
The Arkansas State situation is somewhat different than Timberwolves, however. It is common practice for companies which trade under similar marks to reach coexistence agreements, to avoid litigation. These may involve dividing up territories or fields of business, and may include payment terms if one party has a reasonably strong case for infringement.
I am not on top of the current financial situation of American state universities. If it’s anything like in Australia, it should be possible to make this issue go away for around the salary of a backup NFL player, if that much.
There are, of course, a large number of other American sports teams with Wolves in their names. There are the AHL Chicago Wolves, the long defunct LA Wolves soccer team, the NBA G-League Iowa Wolves. And there is even the Edinburgh Wolves American football team in Scotland. Aside from the Arkansas State Redwolves, though, I have been unable to find any examples that could reasonably claim to suffer from confusion in the marketplace if the Washington Football Team rebranded as Redwolves.
If the Washington Football Team was actually serious about delivering the fans’ preferred name, I am not seeing any obvious prohibitive trademark barriers. In other words, Jason’s explanation sounds like a smokescreen.
What are they doing in Football Team HQ?
If the team wasn’t really serious about developing ideas for the new brand through the consultation process, what could they be up to? I have a theory, which I’ll get to, but first I need to introduce a few more strands of evidence.
As The Journey has unfolded the team has dropped a few hints, and possibly some deliberate misdirection, about the direction they might be heading. Most recently, a list of supposed final naming options was leaked to the AP. I have shared my thoughts, in considerable detail on that list. What most of the leaked options have in common is that they are bland, generic and seem to reflect a complete lack of originality.
Is it even plausible that the best a team of marketing experts could come up with in 18 months was Admirals, Armada, Brigade, Commanders, Defenders, Presidents, Redhawks, Red Hogs, and Sentinels? I don’t think so, and I suspect most Hogs Haven readers agree with me.
Throughout this series, I have conducted a few polls on preferred naming options. Let’s look at the results.
1. Which name would you prefer?
14% Washington Football Team
7% “A” Trains
5% One of: Admirals, Armada, Brigade, Defenders, Presidents, Redhawks, Red Hogs, Sentinels
3% Capital City Go-Go’s
2% Bad Brains
2. Which would you prefer as the team’s name?
25% Stick with Washington Football Team
23% Admirals, Armada, Brigade, Commanders, Defenders, Presidents, Redhawks, Red Hogs, Sentinels
Granted, the Hogs Haven readership might not be perfectly reflective of the wider Washington Football fanbase. Nevertheless I can draw a few conclusions of how this segment of the fanbase sees things. When Redwolves is presented as an option, it is by far the most popular choice. More than four times as many Hogs Haven readers preferred Redwolves over any of the options leaked to the AP. The local cult favorite, Hogs, even polled well above any of the options supposedly developed by Jason Wright’s team.
Even when Redwolves is removed from contention, a sizable majority preferred Hogs, while Jason’s entire list was close to dead even with keeping Washington Football Team, which very few of us actually like.
The Fish Rots From the Head
Let me review the key points. The team consulted with the fanbase about potential naming options, and Redwolves emerged as a clear-cut favorite. Late in the process, it was announced that Redwolves was not a viable option due to potential trademark challenges. This explanation does not appear to hold water and reeks of a smokescreen. Around the same time, the team appears to have leaked a list of supposed final naming options, all of which have limited appeal, and are much less popular than Redwolves.
How do we make sense of all of this? What I suspect is going on is that, shortly after announcing the rebrand, Dan Snyder presented his corporate team with his choice for the new name. I think it is Commanders, but it might be Admirals or something else that appeals to his sense of grandeur and his military fetish.
Jason realized that the owner’s choice was going to be a flop, and went into damage control mode. That is, after all, the skill set that got him his job. Everything that followed, including the Brand Journey, and the dubious trademark excuse, was designed to do two things: 1. make you accept that your preferred name was not an option, and 2. make Commanders seem like an acceptable choice.
The first point is fairly self-explanatory. The trademark issue was just a made up excuse to eliminate Redwolves from contention. As for the second, I suspect that the other options on the leaked list were intended as foils to make Commanders seem better. Taken on its own, Commanders seems pretty weak and unimaginative. However, compared to Armada, Brigade, Defenders and Presidents, it’s really not that bad.
Look, I could be completely wrong. On Ground Hog Day, Jason Wright might reveal a really great team name, or unveil a compelling Commanders brand, featuring George Washington’s silhouette from the quarter to evoke the old Redskins logo as one Hogs Haven commenter suggested. If you asked me to put my money on it, though, I’m betting on Sean Taylor Jersey-retirement-level bad.
Naming the Brand Challenge Update
I’ve already received some great entries, but there is still time to get your final submissions in. Submissions are open until midnight on Ground Hog Day Eve. I have deliberately avoided placing any limits on numbers of entries per contestant to encourage free expression of creativity.
Also, some of my personal favorites have not been claimed and are open for grabs. These include:
- The Feds
- Beltway Bandits
- Postal Employees
- Deep State
I have not even started looking at the booby prize entries. Last weekend’s Divisional Round Playoff results are sure to have scrambled most of the tiebreak entries, with the elimination of Green Bay and Tennessee. If anyone really cares about taking out that prestigious honor, there is still time to update your entries.
Last of all, there is one final naming option which the team has been negligent if they haven’t explored. To make up for their egregious oversight, I consulted the Wu-Tang Clan name generator:
Washington Redskins, from this day forward you will also be known as Ace Scrappy.
I suppose there are worse options than Commanders.
What does Jason Wright have in store for us on Ground Hog Day?
Washington Commanders – what did you think?
DC Football Commanders, “The People’s Team” – as shown in the Making the Brand video
Commanders – with a surprisingly cool brand concept
Another name on the leaked list
Hogs or Warthogs
Redwolves – Ha ha! Fooled you!
Runs off stage when fans start booing, team announces real name won’t be revealed for six more weeks
Another surprise – say in the comments
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