Chiefs Avoid the Chopping Block While Redskins and Indians Pursue Rebrand

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Michael McCann
·5 min read
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This year’s Super Bowl will feature a marquee matchup between two legendary quarterbacks, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Tom Brady and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes. The game will also draw attention to the Chiefs’ name and associated properties—including Arrowhead Stadium, the horse mascot named Warpaint and Chiefs fans mimicking tomahawk chops.

These properties have been criticized as insensitive towards Native American groups. They are also subject to greater scrutiny in light of the Washington Redskins’ recent rebranding as the Washington Football Team and the Cleveland Indians’ plan to change their name.

The unique history of the “Chiefs” is detailed in Ingrid Messbauer’s “Beyond Redskins” article, published by the Federal Circuit Bar Journal:

This team, which uses Native American imagery in its logo (specifically an arrowhead), was named for Kansas City mayor Harold Roe Bartle, whose Boy Scouts nickname was “Chief.” The fact that the Native American name used by the team was used by a private individual before the team adopted it does not change the analysis—it is still an example of Native American imagery being used by non-Natives without Native permission, and it is therefore presumed to be disparaging.

The Chiefs appear mindful their identity has stirred debate and might seem particularly miscast in today’s culture. Seven years ago, the team began a “dialogue with a group of local leaders from diverse American Indian backgrounds and experiences.” This dialogue led to policy changes announced last August. They included a prohibition on fans wearing headdresses while in Arrowhead Stadium and using face paint “styled in a way that references or appropriates American Indian cultures and traditions.” The team also pledged to review “the Arrowhead Chop” and other aspects of game presentation.

The team hasn’t hinted of any plans to drop “Chiefs.” But such a move might become known suddenly. Both the Redskins and Indians’ name decisions surfaced without public expectation or prior rumor.

The decision to change a franchise name is a complex one. A rebrand requires structural changes to a team’s sale of officially licensed apparel and merchandise, new marketing strategies, revised local broadcasting arrangements and other operational adjustments. It also demands selection of a new identity that will appeal to a fan base who embraced the old ways.

The selection process is guided in part by the availability of names. The Indians, for example, might wish to consider Cleveland Baseball Team and Cleveland Spiders. Yet both are already the subject of trademark applications. There are individuals and groups derisively called “trademark squatters” who file applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). They seek marks that could eventually become wanted by those willing and able to pay large sums of money.

Filing a trademark application doesn’t foreclose another from obtaining the mark. Before the USPTO grants registration, it undertakes a multi-step process wherein objections can be raised and eventually reviewed by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. Still, an application presents logistical hurdles for a sports team and an uncertain outcome.

If the Chiefs explore a rebrand, their range of options would be constrained. Last year, Kelly Thompson of Arrowhead Addict suggested several possible replacements, including “Kansas City Smokin’ Blues,” “Kansas City Blues,” “Kansas City Bucks,” “Kansas City Wolves” and “Kansas City Monarchs.” He offered thoughtful explanations, each of which is worth reading.

Some of the suggested names are more available than others.

Kansas City Smokin’ Blues is available. There have been applications for other usages of “Smokin”, including the delicious-sounding “Smokin’ Jacks Kansas City Barbeque”.

Kansas City Blues had several registration applications, but each was abandoned during the 1990s and early 2000s. Whether the NFL franchise would pick a name already assigned to another Missouri pro franchise—the St. Louis Blues—is another matter.

Kansas City Bucks, meanwhile, hasn’t attracted an application (yet). The NBA probably would not be thrilled by an NFL team with that name, though the San Francisco Giants and New York Giants co-exist without problem.

Kansas City Wolves is available, though it is also a song. The similar sounding “KC Wolf” is taken, but by the Chiefs, which obtained registration in 1992.

Kansas City Monarchs is registered to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City for the sale of clothing—namely, T-shirts, sweatshirts, jerseys and caps.

According to the USPTO’s Trademark Electronic Search System, there are 1,411 applications or registrations for marks containing “Kansas City” or “KC”. They include:

Classic Kansas City
Kansas City Classic
Kansas City Comets
Kansas City Cowboys
Kansas City Crusaders
KC Cubs
KC Fire
Kansas City Glory
Kansas City Prime
Kansas City Steers (which the NBA applied for in 1993 and abandoned in 1995)
Kansas City United
Kansas City Wiz
Kansas City Wizards
Touchdown Kansas City

To be clear, neither an application nor a registration would necessarily bar the Chiefs from using the same name. In some instances, the application is “dead,” meaning abandoned. In other instances, the mark has not led to a registration and is subject to opposition filings. Even where a mark has been registered, the registration might pertain to a different kind of good or service than a professional football team and not foreclose a separate registration for football. Lastly, even if the Chiefs would be barred by a registration, they could attempt to buy or license the mark.

While Kansas City’s football future remains bright, with the team’s 25-year-old franchise QB signed through 2031, the fate of its nickname is much less certain.

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