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ATLANTA — The tomahawk chop isn’t going anywhere yet … but what if it did?
Pressure is mounting outside Atlanta for the Braves franchise to dissociate itself from its Native American connections. Some critics have called for the team to end the tomahawk chop, while others have gone further and floated the idea of a complete rebrand, tomahawks, team name and all.
Atlanta won’t be getting rid of the chop this weekend; well over a dozen choreographed and impromptu chops broke out over the course of Game 3 Friday night. The Braves will also remain the Braves at least through the end of the World Series.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred made it clear earlier this week that baseball, as an entity, doesn’t consider the Braves name and the chop a priority for change. The Braves have made no public indication that a Cleveland Guardians-style rebrand is on the horizon.
“The Native American community in that region is wholly supportive of the Braves program, including the chop,” Manfred said on Tuesday. “For me, that’s kind of the end of the story. In that market, we’re taking into account the Native American community.”
Should the franchise decide to move away from the name it’s held for more than a century, should it abandon the chant that has accompanied rallies since 1991, the road will be long, controversial, filled with rancor — but ultimately, according to branding experts, manageable and feasible.
Changing the Braves name: A mammoth, multiyear challenge
Regardless of current sentiment in Atlanta and the commissioner’s office, it’s clear that time appears to be on the side of change. Countless high schools and colleges across the country have eliminated their Native American mascots and team names. Both Washington’s football team and Cleveland’s baseball team have consigned their former names to the history books, and both those teams boast fan bases at least as engaged as Atlanta’s.
The Braves have quietly distanced themselves from some of their traditional Native American origins. The team’s screaming-brave logo is long gone. The Braves fired “Chief Noc-a-Homa” in 1985 and didn’t recast his role, and the team left behind a teepee that once decorated left field two stadiums ago. But the chop, imported to Atlanta when Florida State University’s Deion Sanders played for Atlanta in the early 1990s, lingers on, despite withering criticism.
“We have repeatedly and unequivocally made our position clear — Native people are not mascots, and degrading rituals like the tomahawk chop that dehumanize and harm us have no place in American society," Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said in a statement earlier this week. The NCAI called on the team to change its name, and on Fox to stop showing the chop on national broadcasts.
The key to a franchise overhaul, branding experts say, is to consider changing times, to understand that legacy brands like sports franchises have to consider not just the current environment, but the future as well. Atlanta will likely have a baseball franchise long after the 42,000 chopping in the stands Friday night have ascended to their own spiritual postseasons.
“Marketers have to look beyond what a current fan’s understanding of a brand might be in order to create something that is going to lead to the next chapter of the franchise,” says Jerry Ferguson, VP of growth and innovation at Sid Lee, a branding firm that created the Toronto Raptors’ successful “We The North” campaign. “There will be 50 to 100 years of history built on what you do today. You’re talking to fans of today, but you need to think about the future.”
Rebranding any team involves both logistical and emotional hurdles. The effort includes changing everything from the logos on the field to the name on beer receipts. A rebranding also severs at least some measure of connection with its fans, rendering their years of accumulated T-shirts, pennants and other merchandise instantly obsolete.
“A team’s brand is the story of who they are, where they’ve come from, and how their experiences have shaped the character and personality of the franchise,” says Rodney Richardson, of Rare Design, a branding firm that reimagined the brands of the Atlanta Hawks, Houston Texans and NASCAR, among others. “It’s about knowing and connecting with their fan base and city — that special place in the world they call home and ensuring that’s part of their story, because it’s definitely part of who they are.”
Rebrands rarely happen on tight timelines. Even if the Braves decided tomorrow to change their name, ditch the chop and rebrand the franchise, a realistic timeline for the change would be at least a year. Consider all the elements necessary for a complete change:
First, the team would need to convince its fan base that a change is not just necessary, but imminent. Persuading a loyal fan base that its team’s name needs to be changed at all is a substantial hurdle; the only successful way to do that is to declare that change from the status quo is coming.
"The challenge with rebranding a sports team is landing on an idea that’s going to unite everyone,” Ferguson says. “That idea not only needs to be fresh and ownable from a brand perspective, it needs to be potent enough to inform the brand with new behavior, new collaborations, new partnerships, and new fan rituals … Having it feel true and big is the magic.”
If Atlanta does rebrand, there’s a “true and big” idea sitting out there already. “Hammers” is a popular alternative choice in Atlanta, given that it’s the nickname of Atlanta’s beloved legend Hank Aaron. There’s already an enormous statue of Aaron within Truist Park. Change out the name and swap the tomahawk for a hammer, the thinking goes, and you have an instant, popular rebrand.
Perhaps. But even the simplest, most straightforward ideas need stress tests to ensure both copyright compliance and widespread fan acceptance.
“We think the world [of possible names] is wide open, but names must fit the market,” Richardson said. “They must be able to represent a sports franchise and also a place, which can make the list of truly viable names much smaller than originally expected.”
Then there’s the matter of registering the new name with all appropriate trademark and copyright entities, along with securing all necessary website and social media accounts. Due diligence is a necessity; the Washington Football Team failed to keep squatters from capturing several possible team names, and the Cleveland Guardians apparently didn’t properly secure the use of the “Guardians” name from a local roller derby team. (For the record, AtlantaHammers.com has been gone since last July, while someone snapped up @AtlantaHammers on Twitter in January.)
Once the new name is secured, there’s the matter of crafting a logo, with all appropriate fonts, color palettes and style guides. Once that logo meets with team approval, old signage and logos have to come down not just all over the stadium, but all over the city. New uniforms for the team, new merchandise for the stadium, new web pages and apps for browsing … it all has to change. (No need for new mascots; the Braves severed ties with their Native American mascots decades ago … another clue that the team has long understood the controversial nature of its imagery.)
Plus, there are the unknown unknowns, the unexpected challenges to a rebranding effort. Any good overhaul will involve a broadcast test — seeing how a new uniform and logo looks on television. Observing how well a new color scheme looks on TV can catch misfires not obvious to the naked eye. For instance, the Houston Texans’ helmet was originally intended to be white — but broadcast tests proved its current navy was a much better fit.
All of those logistical challenges are significant, but none come close to the difficulty of the most important effort: getting fans on board with a change.
Could Atlanta stop the chop?
Changing a brand is one thing. Changing fan behavior is another endeavor entirely. Fan bases have a tendency to become galvanized in their ways when under attack from the outside, and columns in many major publications this week attacked the chop, the Braves and, by association, the fans themselves. That’s not an environment that fosters cooperation in the name of progress.
For the sake of argument, though, suppose the Braves did decide to do away with the chop. Logistically, how exactly would that happen? How do you keep 40,000 fans from doing whatever they want, particularly when they know exactly how much that would annoy the rest of the country?
If the Braves declined to take action, MLB, sponsors or broadcasters could all have an impact. Though Manfred explicitly sidestepped the issue earlier this week, MLB could prohibit the chop in Atlanta's stands, with the threat of fines or postseason bans if Atlanta didn't comply. Sponsors and networks could apply financial pressure to the Braves, especially given the degree to which companies and broadcasters alike involved themselves in social justice efforts in 2020.
There’s precedent here, in form if not degree. Soccer federations around the world have taken action against racist and homophobic cheers in recent years.
“There are two ways of approaching this,” says Piara Powar, executive director of FARE (Football Against Racism in Europe), an organization dedicated to rooting out racism, homophobia and other problematic behavior in soccer. “The first is that it comes organically. A team realizes that actually what is happening is embarrassing, out of kilter with where they want to go as an organization, out of kilter with their values. They realize themselves, ‘We need to undergo a process of change.’ The other trigger in soccer is through regulation.”
The current testing ground for a crackdown on offensive cheers is Mexico, where the national team is working to eliminate a homophobic cheer that's circulated among some Mexican fans for the last decade. The team, the organizing bodies and broadcasters have all made attempts to indicate to fans that those cheers won't be tolerated any longer. Notable offenders are ejected individually. If that’s impossible given the extent of cheers, FIFA has a three-step process for halting offensive cheers:
1. Stop the match, with a warning statement over the PA;
2. Suspend the match, with players going to locker rooms for a period of time;
3. Abandon the match, with the offending team forfeiting the match. Repeated violations could cost teams spots in major competitions, including the World Cup.
"The fans are forced into corner," Powar says, "both by the leadership of the [soccer] association and by the team. Fans realize they need to change, or they'll miss out on competition."
It’s a theoretically viable framework; Braves fans with a few decades of moderate postseason success don’t even compare to the bone-deep, generational fanatic passion of European or Mexican soccer fans. If crackdowns work there, they could work in Atlanta, provided there was the will to do so and buy-in from individuals and institutions (read: local big names) within Atlanta, not just outside critics.
One of many problems with a blanket elimination is that the Braves haven't just tolerated the chop, they've encouraged it, right up to this very moment. Even before any enforcement began, the team would have to convince a skeptical or dismissive portion of the fan base that the chop is a problem in the first place. Given the fact that the team has touted its connection to, and support from, some Native American organizations, an informational effort doesn’t seem to be in the team’s plans in the near future.
But, again, putting aside thorny specifics and speaking of hypotheticals here, if Atlanta did move forward with a plan to get rid of the chop, it couldn’t be a half-measure. The Braves stopped handing out foam tomahawks after Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee nation, criticized the chop during the 2019 postseason. But the chop has continued unabated ever since.
The key to eliminating the chop would be eliminating everything associated with it — the tomahawk, for instance — as well as the triggers that encourage fans to chop, like the drumbeat and video imagery of chopping tomahawks played on screens all over Truist Park at crucial moments in games.
“If the Braves did move forward with trying to ban the chop,” says Sarah Brewerton-Palmer, an associate with the Caplan Cobb law firm in Atlanta with experience in First Amendment matters, “then as a practical matter, I would say good luck enforcing it, especially if they kept the [tomahawk imagery].”
Americans speaking out in public often wrongly claim “free speech” as a justification for their right to say whatever they want, regardless of whether it offends, upsets or triggers anyone else. But free speech and the First Amendment only apply to government restriction on speech.
A private business has the right to restrict patrons’ speech, whether it’s in the middle of a restaurant, in the comments of an article, or in the stands at a baseball game. That’s why an amusement park can eject anyone for wearing an obscene shirt, even if they’re otherwise behaving in a perfectly legal fashion, or why Augusta National can eject a patron for talking in the middle of a player’s putt. Their house, their rules.
But as with everything else involving the Braves, this situation is more complex than most. The team built Truist Park with substantial government funding from Cobb County, and that means fans in the stadium may be able to argue they deserve First Amendment protections.
“I think fans could certainly bring a lawsuit, but they would have to show that the First Amendment applies to the Braves,” says Brewerton-Palmer. “It could be easier to show that here because of the partnership between the Braves and Cobb County in building and running Truist Park. If the First Amendment applies, the team couldn’t ban the chop because that would be an impermissible content-based restriction.”
Brewerton-Palmer is not aware of a case where a sports franchise lost a First Amendment case brought by fans, but that wouldn’t stop such cases from being filed. Atlanta has no shortage of lawyers, and they would line up all the way down Interstate 75 to defend fans who claimed their rights were being violated if the Braves tried to crack down on the chop via enforcement (throwing out ticket holders who chop) rather than redirection (not playing triggering drumbeats, playing other music when the chop starts).
Trying to ban the chop by other draconian means — preventing people from wearing tomahawk-logo T-shirts into the stadium, say — would also meet with so much immediate backlash that the team would risk torpedoing all of its goodwill among loyal fans.
Imagine the PR nightmare of a social media video of a Braves fan wearing a tomahawk jersey and doing the chop while being escorted out of the stadium. Suddenly, winning a World Series looks a whole lot easier than rebranding a franchise.
The timeline: When to rebrand?
Assuming the Braves would choose to move forward with this hypothetical rebrand through hurricane-force winds of resistance, when would be the optimal time to set out on the journey? It seems counterintuitive, but the best time to change a team’s identity is the exact moment when the team’s at its peak. Why? Because trophies cure a whole lot of ills. Fans give a winning team a whole lot more latitude than a losing one.
“Winning certainly helps,” Richardson says. “It can make a bad identity sell well and a great rebrand have instant heritage. People like winners, be they teams or individual athletes. Fans can be tough, and even a great rebrand can be met with negativity if a team isn’t winning. We’ve seen it, and the most common response is something like, ‘Instead of focusing on this, you should be spending that time and attention on fixing the team.’”
To get the fans on board, Richardson recommends listening. “I’m not talking about focus groups during the project, I’m talking about an ongoing relationship and understanding with them,” he says. “What I love about sports more than any other industry is that you literally have thousands upon thousands of people who feel they have a vested interest in this team. And they do. It’s their team, and they want to be represented by it. Their story is part of this team’s story, and vice versa.”
The team also has to explain why the rebrand is necessary. “Because we said so,” isn’t nearly enough to convince dubious or entrenched fans, nor is “because people outside Atlanta don’t like what you’re doing.” If the Braves do end up changing their name and eliminating the chop, they’ll need to go through a constant, continuous and in-depth process of educating fans on why a change is necessary.
“If a rebrand is truly warranted, and the way the team undertakes it is thoughtful and respectful — and it’s explained to the fan base in the right ways — fans will usually get on board,” Richardson says.
Half-measures won’t do, though. As with the chop, a rebranding effort can’t come to light until it’s ready to go, which likely means the beginning of a new season.
“It’s important to do all this work in the background,” Ferguson says. “When a team announces a new identity, it should be like hitting a switch — everything should be replaced at once — signage, digital assets, new uniforms, new merch.”
If all this rebranding talk sounds like trying to hit a home run into the beer cup of a fan standing 20 rows deep in Truist Park’s left-field stands … that’s because it is. Any rebrand or reworking of the Atlanta Braves franchise would require years of work before the change comes to pass, and years of reconciliation and goodwill afterward.
“This is a heritage MLB brand we’re talking about,” Richardson says, “and any change whatsoever would have to be made with great purpose and deliberate care.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact hm at firstname.lastname@example.org.