Daniel Snyder owns the Washington Redskins, but even he couldn’t change the team’s name without a complicated, and possibly lengthy, process that might include winning approval from both the NFL and some of its many sponsors, according to experts on the way the nation’s most prosperous sports league conducts its affairs.
The financial stakes in such a move by one of pro football’s most valuable franchises would be considerable for the 32 NFL owners, who have a revenue-sharing agreement that covers much of the more than $9 billion the league generates annually.
“The unique dynamic of professional sports is that teams essentially give up some of their rights as far as names and trademarks to the league as part of the joint venture,” said Gabriel Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University. “While an individual team owner makes business decisions primarily affecting the one team, there are also decisions made by the league and the other owners that tend to affect the league as a whole.”
The Redskins have made it clear that they have no intention of changing the team’s name or logo, despite recent criticism from Native Americans, the media and others that both are racially offensive and should be abandoned. The Redskins have said they don’t mean to offend anyone and are proud of the team’s history and traditions.
But the fierce debate has glossed over both the financial implications of a name change and the procedural issues that would be involved. All of those considerations would be significant, people familiar with the situation and outside legal and business experts said.
According to two people with knowledge of the NFL’s policies on such matters, the league exerts great control over the use of trademarked team names, logos and colors.
One of those people, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said he presumes the NFL would take the position that team names are set by the league constitution and any name change would require league approval.
It is not clear how much authority the league and the other 31 owners could exert if they differed with a team’s position on changing its name. There is little or no precedent about such an issue.
The NFL declined to comment through a spokesman. Separately, the Redskins also declined comment.
Sponsors also have a say
Team names, colors and trademarks are subject to existing contracts with sponsors at both the individual team and league-wide levels, according to both people familiar with the NFL policies. So companies that sponsor the Redskins or the NFL would have some say in whether the name could be changed or would require notice — possibly years of advance warning in some cases — to allow existing contracts and licenses to lapse, according to those people.
The Redskins’ business partners “would not appear to have much issue with this,” said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “They may not like it. But if they were getting push-back [from customers], they would be having meetings with the team and working with the commissioner and the league on it.”
One person familiar with the Redskins’ business dealings said he’s not aware of any sponsor ever indicating that the team should change its name.
“I suppose some might argue that sponsors might actually prefer that the name be changed . . . [but] I expect there would be some at least who would argue that any name other than Redskins would not have the brand association [and] name recognition that justifies the expense they are paying to be associated with the team,” that person said.
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.