Why Washington Football Team may stick with their 'so bad it’s good' name

<span>Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP</span>
Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP

So much rides on the Washington Football Team’s rebranding “journey” that Jason Wright, the president of the NFL franchise, announced last week that 15,000 suggestions that the club has received from 60 countries and all 50 US states were not quite enough. The only decision the WFT has settled on, apparently, is that the team colors will remain the same.

“Seeing the results from our analytics,” Wright wrote in a letter on the team’s website, “we know that the burgundy and gold are deeply important to folks, so I can confidently say the color scheme will remain the same.

“Cue the cheers/sighs of relief,” Wright added, without the slightest hint of sarcasm.

So if you think you have a better name than Washington Football Team, you’d best hurry up and get it to by 5 April. As Wright wrote to the fans: “We do not take this task lightly. Before we get to the stage of narrowing down names, we understand the insights of what matters to you in a name.”

Related: Snyder took an age to drop Washington's racist nickname. And he'll still profit

Nothing, Wright wrote, has been ruled out – including the existing name itself. Washington Football Team is the generic name the club came up with when it announced last July that it was “retiring” its nickname and logo, widely considered to be offensive to Native Americans, after 87 years.

The WFT went on to win the NFC East in their first season with the name. Washington played in a wretched division, lost more games (nine) than they won (seven) and were dispatched in the first round of the playoffs – admittedly by the eventual champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – but a division title is a division title. Ron Rivera, hired a year ago as coach, has a building block, if not a star quarterback.

So Washington Football Team remains in play. Keeping it would mean the franchise would not have to change names twice in two or three years, forcing the most ardent fans to buy yet another new burgundy-and-gold hoodie. The nickname, or lack of a nickname, is different for the NFL, which does not go for the singular nicknames – like the Jazz or Avalanche – seen in other US sports.

So why change it at all? Well, consider two factors: hoodies and kids.

“I think they can do better than ‘Football Team,’” Scott Rosner, a sports business professor at Columbia University, tells the Guardian. “It’s too generic.”

Rosner goes on to say that the nickname could stick because it is so counterintuitive, and somewhat defiant: “It’s so bad that it’s good,” he says, adding, “It’s just awkward.”

Washington Football Team is apt, he says, but is it really the best name the team could come up with? Maybe it doesn’t matter. “It all comes down in this particular club what the ownership decides they want to do,” Rosner says, referring to Daniel Snyder, the team’s famously stubborn owner. “I’m thinking about how long it took to pressure the team to change the name in the first instance.”

Snyder bought the team in 1999 but held on to the old name despite it being seen as a racist slur for decades. He grew up as a fan of the team, as he explained, and the nickname and colors and logo and fight song had been parts of the team’s identity since the 1930s. “Football Team” replaced the nickname last year because the club had to use something.

“WFT was able to test a brand in real time and see if it stuck,” Joe Favorito, a longtime sports marketing consultant and professor at Columbia, tells the Guardian in an email. “And so far it has, coupled with a team on the rise and a changing image in DC.

“Now if they stay with WFT, why does that mean they can’t have a mascot as well? Most clubs have a nickname and all the pieces are just not part of their formal name, so it’s not that crazy and they have had a year of equity already in.”

And what a wild year it was. Because of Covid-19 protocols, Washington played before 3,000 fans at home – all season. They played Tampa Bay in their first home playoff game in five years before no fans in January at FedEx Field.

“The days of ‘we have to do things this way’ are really gone,” Favorito says. “While we can’t throw all tradition away, what we have learned in the past year is the way things were always done doesn’t hold water as much, especially with younger fans who think and act and engage differently. The real power in their brand isn’t in the second name, it’s in the first: Washington. That’s the name that has global resonance, and by putting Washington forward, the nickname is a distant second in importance.”

There are professional sports franchises in North America without even a singular nickname like Heat or Dream or Sky. Consider Major League Soccer, which has moved away in recent years from traditional nicknames to titles more common in Europe: think Atlanta United, Inter Miami CF and Nashville SC.

WFT owner Dan Snyder.
WFT owner Dan Snyder. Photograph: Susan Walsh/AP

And, besides, Washington are not required to have a nickname. Rosner says there are advantages to keeping the name as it is. But he also makes a critical point: If fans bought Washington Football Team hoodies after owning the hoodies with the team’s old name, why wouldn’t they buy hoodies with a third name? As long as they are burgundy and gold.

“Keeping the colors is a bit of a compromise: ‘We’re not going to forget our roots, but we recognize the need to move forward as a franchise,’” he says.

Red Hawks or Red Tails, a hat-tip to the old nickname, have been mentioned as possible successors, though Wright mentioned with some intrigue that “a lot” of younger fans prefer Warthogs – alliterative with Washington and a play on the “Hogs,” the longtime nickname for the team’s unglamorous but beloved offensive linemen.

“Is the warthog tied to a desire to exude strength and ferocity?” Wright wrote. “Does she [or her parents] think it’s important that the historical reference to the ‘Hogs’ offensive linemen is linked in the name? We want to get that second level of information and test it with other fans to move things forward.”

The analytics will be crucial. Rosner says, also without the slightest hint of sarcasm, “It’s a really complicated process.”