Name changes can be stressful. But sometimes they are necessary. Ideally, when you name a brand or organization, it stays named. However, as missions change and trends develop, you may find yourself with a name that is outdated, inaccurate, or worse, considered offensive.
Sports might seem like an unusual place to learn communications techniques for name changes. But because of their active fan base, and prominence, many sports teams have faced this problem. How they went about their name change is instructive for all of us.
Tampa Devil Rays to Tampa Rays
The Tampa Devil Rays were an MLB expansion team. They debuted in 1998 and had a horrible record for their first 20 years. Although the team was named after the Devil Ray, team ownership often got calls from people requesting that they drop “devil” from their name, for religious reasons. The requests were not taken seriously.
In 2004, Stuart Sternberg became the majority owner of the Tampa team. He was determined to change their fortunes. Sternberg wanted to change the name to rid the team of the bad association with 20 years of losing. In 2007, he felt like the team was ready to leave the past behind and he made the name change. The uniform still features a Devil Ray on the sleeve, but is now known as “The Rays” and a new logo features a sun, indicating that they are named for the sunshine Florida is known for. The name change went smoothly, and few people think of the team as the “Devil Rays,” anymore.
The Rays had an advantage in that few people had a strong emotional attachment to the name “Devil Rays.” The team only existed for 20 years, and didn’t really attract a lot of love during that time. Sternberg timed the name change with other changes he was making, creating a unified action that was easy to communicate.
Cleveland Indians to Cleveland Guardians
In December 2020, the Cleveland baseball team announced that they would be getting rid of the name “Indians.” For years, the team had been phasing out the use of an offensive mascot. They had also been facing calls to change the name since the 1970s.
After making the announcement about their intention to change, the team then underwent a long change management process. They started with a list of over 1,000 names. Then, they spent hundreds of hours interviewing players, staff, fans, and community leaders. They also conducted a survey of over 40,000 fans.
In July 2021, the team announced that they had chosen “Guardians,” in a nod to a landmark near the field. Owner Paul Dolan articulated his reasons for the change:
“We do feel like we’re doing the right thing and that’s what’s driving this. I know some people disagree, but if anything, I’ve gotten more and more comfortable that we’re headed in the right direction. And actually, the selection of the name solidifies that feeling because of the values that the name represents.”
The team will play out the rest of the 2021 season as the Indians, and then start the 2022 season as the Guardians.
It’s too soon to tell how well the Cleveland name change process will go. But, it’s clear that they’ve taken the process seriously. Involving relevant stakeholders, including fans, will go a long way to making the change palatable to fans who have a long-held attachment to the team. Being able to clearly and confidently articulate the reasons for the change will also help the team. It’s unfortunate that the team waited so long to make the change.
The Washington Football Team
Perhaps no team has more clearly botched their name change than the football team formally known as the Washington Redskins. The team played under the name “Redskins” from 1932-2020. In the almost 90 years they existed, they faced constant requests to change the name. As recently as 2013, the team owner stated that they would not change the name. It was only in 2020, after 87 stakeholders threatened to pull their money from the team, that they agreed to a name change. They will announce the new name in 2022. (Editor’s Note: In February 2022, the football team announced that their new name is Commanders.)
Don’t be like the Washington Team. By responding only to financial pressure, the ownership made it clear that they do not actually care about people being offended. Because they have not articulated a clear reason for the change, they risk offending both those who like and dislike the name. In order to make this name change successful, the team will need to involve stakeholders, and communicate their reasons.
Your organization may not have the following of a professional sports team. But that doesn’t mean that you can skip steps when communicating a name change. With stakeholder involvement, research, and a communications plan, you can make the change successful.