This post was published on the Nebo Agency blog in December, 2013.
Football in America wasn’t always the colossus it is today. It wasn’t that long ago that baseball dominated the headlines and little boys grew up wanting to play sports like soccer and basketball. In the eyes of many, football was barbaric and violent. It was unrefined. It was American machismo at its worst. In his book Brand NFL: Making & Selling America’s Favorite Sport, Michael Oriard writes that things came to a head in the early 90s during a string of incidents involving female reporters being barred from the locker rooms or, worse, harassed by the players once inside.
It became a national conversation—one that went far beyond the chalk outlines of an NFL field. It was an American problem. Sexism, hyper-masculinity, and male superiority were running rampant through our culture. At least that was the narrative. And the NFL found itself in the crosshairs, pegged as the root, or at least the worst offender, of this callous mindset.
The NFL had its life-long supporters, but they were growing older. The opportunity to earn a new generation of die-hards was in front of them, but they’d have to start treating football not as a game, but as a brand. And brands need sculpting. They need PR. They need a story.
Oriard pegs Super Bowl XXVI as a major turning point for the NFL. On that evening in January of 1992, the game kicked off not with highlights of big hits and mud-soaked jerseys, but with interviews provided by NFL Films in which star players recalled their first memories of football. In this way, the NFL was able to craft a new narrative around the biggest game of the year – these weren’t warrior-men out to bludgeon each other on the gridiron, they were kids lucky enough to grow up and live out their dreams. There became something magical and sentimental about the broadcast. And, by the time the players’ own children were invited out to the sideline as time expired to celebrate or commiserate with their dads, the national perception of football players as overpaid muscle heads was starting to lose credibility.
It was one of the earliest examples of the NFL purposefully crafting their story in the face of a shifting cultural climate, and it helped launch American football into a new stratosphere.
Today, though, the world moves much faster. There isn’t only one conversation. There are dozens. There’s Jonathan Martin, Richie Incognito and the bullying culture in America. There’s player safety and the link between concussions and suicide. But one of the most prominent and persistent points of debate surrounding the NFL today is the name of the Washington Redskins franchise. Is it offensive? Should it be changed?
It’s an issue that has cropped up repeatedly over the years, dying down at times, roaring back to life at others. But it won’t go away. Like the issue of machismo and sexism in the 90s, the Redskins dilemma has become a national talking point. It invokes questions of race relations and whether Native Americans are marginalized in our society and where you draw the line between good intentions and denial of past mistakes. It’s become too big to go unaddressed.
The arguments for changing the name have already been made by people much more qualified than me. Prominent Native Americans, leaders in sports media, and others. The fact that it’s even a debate should tell you everything you need to know about how Native Americans are thought of in our country. I know that, personally, I have to oppose the name if only for the simple fact that I could never look a Native American in the eye and call him a Redskin.
But Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, has already declared that he will never change the name of his team. He argues that the Redskins name holds 81 years of proud history, of classic matchups, of Super Bowl wins and heart breaking losses. To change the name, Snyder says, would be to lose hold of the franchise’s heritage. Experts have warned that ditching the Redskins moniker would be “catastrophic” to the franchise’s brand.
I can’t agree, mostly because this dilemma isn’t exactly unprecedented. Teams have been uprooted or rebranded before. The Browns left Cleveland in 1995 and were resurrected as the Baltimore Ravens the following season. 18 years and 2 Super Bowl wins later, the Ravens are the 10th most valuable franchise in the league. And the new Browns? The ones that started from scratch in Cleveland a few years later? They rank 20th in the league in both value and fan loyalty. Not great, but hardly a catastrophic collapse considering the consistently awful teams Cleveland has fielded since.
To understand why Snyder’s brand defense is poor, you have to understand that the sports world is not your typical marketplace. It’s not a shelf at a convenience store where people can either choose from Wrigley or Orbit when they want a pack of gum. Differentiation is nearly impossible because every franchise is mandated by the league to do almost all of the same things. They all do work in the community and they wear pink during Breast Cancer Awareness month and they visit the troops abroad in the offseason. They can’t differentiate through customer service. There’s no 800 number fans can call when their team isn’t playing well.
NFL teams differentiate themselves by their product. By their performance on the field. And, even more importantly, by the narrative the NFL crafts around that product.
Win games. Craft story. That’s the recipe all great franchises understand.
Choosing an NFL team is not a high consideration decision. No one objectively watches and analyzes tape of every NFL game in order to decide which players or teams jive with their sensibilities. If the decision about whom we’ll root for isn’t born into us by region or family ties, all we have to rely on is the narrative surrounding the NFL at any given moment. Whether it’s an exciting young player that’s reinvigorating a franchise, or an old-school “blue-collar” squad intent on undermining the high-flying passing attacks of today’s game, the NFL is masterful at crafting narrative to appeal to certain audiences based on what you see on the field.
Take the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito story. Allegations of bullying, workplace harassment, and mental health have exploded into national discussions that creep into everything from racism to mass shootings. For the NFL, and for the Miami Dolphins, this story is still being written. In the media, officials are making many of the right moves. They’ve acknowledged the conflict and brought in a formal investigator to uncover the truth. They will likely follow up with severe punishment for the guilty parties and some sort of anti-bullying outreach campaign. The right story is in the works, but it won’t mean anything without support from the Dolphins’ football product. Right or wrong, what the team does on the field will ultimately end up determining the national narrative. If they lose, they’ll be a team driven apart by a toxic locker room – a morality play about why things in America need to change. If they win, they’ll be the team that banded together to stand up for what’s right.
Win games. Craft story.
For this reason, I can’t get behind the notion that changing the Redskins name would be a deadly blow for the NFL’s 4th most valuable franchise. The Redskins brand is at risk right now, whether Dan Snyder wants to admit it or not. Holing away behind the castle walls doesn’t change the fact that the spotlight is firmly on the Redskins and growing hotter every day. Rebranding is a gamble, but it won’t be any more damaging than the path the franchise is already on. Because right now, they’re losing games and telling the wrong story.
Snyder wants to craft a history-based narrative. He wants Americans to recall the Redskins teams of old and associate the name and logo with a championship pedigree. The problem is, a brand can only survive on smoke and mirrors for so long. A rich, storied history comes with an expiration date when your product isn’t delivering. And, for a franchise with three playoff victories in the past 22 years, the only way to effectively market the Redskins to the next generation is to start winning. But that’s only the first part of the formula.
Win games. Craft story.
Chirping about championship teams of years past is a waste of ink. There are only four teams that have never been to a Super Bowl, and only two that have no retired players in the Hall of Fame (including expansion teams like the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars that have abbreviated lifespans). Everyone has history in this league. What matters is the here and now. And right now, Redskins’ story is being written without their input (don’t believe that any amount of open letters or Navajo Code Talkers honor ceremonies is going to change it). Until the name changes, the Redskins’ story will be controversy — even if they win. Debate will drive every prime time broadcast. It will be present in every front-office interview and every locker room sound bite.
The bottom line is that brands can’t separate product and story. Terrific marketing with a flawed product is a recipe for short-term success but long-term disaster. A great product without the right story is equally doomed. The least Snyder can do is give his team a fighting chance to craft a new narrative by quelling the controversy.
The results might not be pretty. If the Redskins can’t find a way to turn things around on the field, a new name might lead to them being billed as a floundering franchise. A team without an identity.
But if Snyder can rally his executives, coaches, and players, he can turn the Redskins into the good guys who risked it all to do the right thing. He can turn his embattled team into one that little kids around the world can root for. A team that fans can be proud of.
Snyder should man up and bet on his team to get it done.