Season of change for sports teams with outdated mascots

But the franchises are moving at different paces -- if they’re moving at all.

Cleveland's Cesar Hernadez takes a swing during the 2020 Major League Baseball season. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
Cleveland's Cesar Hernadez takes a swing during the 2020 Major League Baseball season. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

The Cleveland Indians will change their name after 106 years, becoming the second major professional sports franchise in the U.S. to do so after the National Football League’s Washington Football Team, formerly known as the Redskins. 

And Cleveland’s baseball club will probably not be the last, sports marketing pros predict. 

Critics have accused both teams for decades of using outdated, racist, demeaning and culturally appropriated Native American nicknames, images and symbols. But following a national reckoning on racism, experts say the issue has finally reached a tipping point. 

“I think every sports team in America is rethinking the use of Native American words and symbols,” says Amy Littleton, MD of KemperLesnik, who at General Mills worked on a media tour to support the U.S. Women’s Olympic Hockey Team. 

“I believe there has been a tidal shift in America that is not going to wane any time soon,” she says. “Our society has become much more aware of how words, symbols and actions do matter when it comes to cultural differences.”

Ben Shapiro, founder and CEO of full-service sports marketing firm Pivot Agency, agrees. 

“I think the Black Lives Matter movement was really a tipping point, especially given so many players, executives and constituents in these teams are of a racial minority,” says Shapiro, who was an executive with the NBA’s Golden State Warriors for 12 years.

He says that, coupled with sponsor pressure – noting the role stadium sponsor FedEx played in the DC football team finally changing its name – has made it impossible for sports teams to try to sidestep the issue, even those he puts some in “the grey zone.” 

Those are teams that he says can make a case that their use of Native American culture celebrates indigenous people.  

The Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League and Florida State Seminoles in college sports, for instance, have both sought and been granted permission from a Native American tribe to use their name and imagery. Guidelines have also been established to ensure assets are used in tribute, and not disrespectful. 

But just because they have permission, some fans still see their brands as having been built on cultural appropriation. 

“The teams are in a grey area or middle ground because of this permission, but they will still have to at least consider a name change,” says Shapiro. “They may be able to keep certain things, but they are going to have to be very cautious and thoughtful about how they go about it.” 

Franchises with less of a leg to stand on include the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. This month, the editorial board of local newspaper the Kansas City Star asked, “Do the Chiefs really want to be the last team clinging to offensive imagery, traditions?” Other teams such as baseball’s Atlanta Braves have also faced criticism for the club’s name and fans’ “tomahawk chop” chant. 

Playbook in progress

The playbook for how big league sports teams retire inappropriate names, logos and other branding is a work in progress.

The Cleveland Indians are taking a different approach from the Washington Football Club, which introduced a temporary name change for this season while it reconsiders its nickname. 

However, MLB’s Cleveland franchise will keep the Indians nickname for one more season before adopting a new name in 2022. A number of pros were taken aback by that decision not to go with a generic moniker, at least temporarily. 

“The sooner the team agrees on an interim name, the better,” says Littleton, explaining the longer they wait, the more likely the club is to lose control of the narrative.

“Many who cover Cleveland will stop using the terms ‘Indians’, [mascot] ‘Chief Wahoo’ and ‘the Tribe’ long before 2022,” she says. “It is important for the team to give direction on nomenclature to everyone in the baseball ecosystem, particularly media, as soon as possible.” 

Tim Martin, president of Cleveland-based Gallagher Sports, was also “a bit surprised” by the team’s decision and agrees the media may not want to call them the Indians this season. Reporters might end up calling the club the “Cleveland Baseball Team” anyway, in wanting to be culturally sensitive. 

Yet he notes the club has taken a staggered approach from the start. In 2018, it announced it would abandon the “Chief Wahoo logo” on uniforms, stadium signs and banners. This summer, hours after the Redskins revealed they would undertake a “thorough review” of their name, the Indians followed suit. 

During that process, it consulted with Native American groups, and won the support of the Cleveland Indigenous Coalition for expressing their intent to introduce a new name. 

“Obviously, to go through a complete identity change is an elaborate process,” says Martin. “Ultimately, they wanted to get it out there that, ‘Yes, we are moving on from this name,’ even if they didn’t have the ability to put out a new name yet.” 

Their approach may have some upsides. Katherine Wawner, director in APCO Worldwide’s Washington office, says this gives Cleveland an opportunity to better engage fans in the name-change process. 

“Taking fans along with them on the journey – and using the year of transition to involve their stakeholders – will pay dividends when it comes to roll out of their new name and identity in 2022,” she says. 

Wawner adds that it could also give the organization time to partner with sponsors on their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. 

“While values-based sponsorships aren’t anything new to the sporting industry, there is an opportunity for organizations to align themselves more strategically with other like-minded brands,” says Wawner. “I think we’ll soon start to see the trend around allegiances between socially moral organizations grow even more in 2021, and the Indians are going to be on the right side of that debate.”

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