Lessons from the Seattle Kraken and the Washington Football Team

The naming of a team is possibly the most overlooked, but essential, part of a team’s brand-building. It can define a team’s connection to its fans or drive an irreconcilable divide amongst them. Team names are sometimes so entrenched in the culture that, although the team might move to a different city, with a different setting and fan base, the name remains with the team, and the new city, as well as the team and its fans, embrace it. Therefore, when deciding on a team name, decisions cannot be taken lightly. Team names are chosen once, but live on forever.

“Team names are chosen once, but live on forever.”

2020 has been an interesting year in sports worldwide. While the world deals with the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, sports have been pushed to a halt. The United States has not been an exception, seeing sports come to a complete stop since early March.[i] While July 2020 has been the month of sport’s return worldwide, it has not been a seamless transition.

Never say Never. The Washington Redskins Rebranding Issues

On July 2, 2020, FedEx, the Washington [Redskins] NFL team’s top sponsor threatened to cancel the remainder of their stadium naming rights contract, worth $45 million, if Washington did not change the name. This announcement comes on the heels of the social uprising taking place in the United States since the May killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. The Black Lives Matter movement that has taken place in the United States has also given rise to a call for racial equality among all races, which has inevitably taken center stage in sports.[ii] As such, Black Lives Matter has ignited a fight for racial equality, for all races, which has led to some people questioning the validity of select team names, like Redskins, as a reference to Native American people. On July 13, 2020, due to the mounting pressure from its fans and sponsors (mainly sponsors), Washington announced that it was going to change its name and logo but didn’t announce the new name.[iii] On July 23, 2020 Washington announced that it would use “Washington Football Team” as a name for the 2020 season while it underwent a formal name change.[iv] Various reports indicate that the reason for this temporary name change is a legal hiccup, namely in the way of a trademark issue with the team names they want to use in Washington.[v]

Washington Redskins Logo. Then and now.

In 2013, in response to mounting pressure from fans and media for the then Washington Redskins to change their team name, team owner Daniel Snyder said that the team would never change its team name: “NEVER, You can use caps,” Snyder said.[vi] The fact that this team name issue has been ongoing for seven years is important, because it has basically meant that the possibility of a name change has been out there (even with the famous never having been uttered), and this has allowed savvy business people to take advantage of it.

In 2013, in response to mounting pressure from fans and media for the then Washington Redskins to change their team name, team owner Daniel Snyder said that the team would never change its team name: “NEVER, You can use caps,”

For seven years, the Washington Redskins have declined to react to the pressure to change their name. For seven years this has been an issue. In 2020, faced with the possibility of losing millions of dollars, the Washington team finally caved, but this came at a cost. Since 2014, a man by the name of Philip Martin McCaulay, has been what some people call a “trademark squatter,” a person who registers a trademark with the intention of keeping someone else from registering it first and then offering to sell it at a steep markup.[vii] In the years since the famous NEVER quote came out, McCaulay has registered over forty (40) possible nicknames for the Washington team, including what some consider to be the favourites to become the new names; the Washington Redtails and the Washington Redwolves.[viii] The intricacies of trademark law in the United States, require a mark to be registered only if it’s used in commerce or intended to be used in commerce, so McCaulay actually made memorabilia with the names he registered and put them up for sale online.[ix] While McCaulay has come out to say that he is offering the names to the NFL for free, the fact that he registered these names has slowed the name change process down so much, it’s practically stopped.

The Washington Football Team had one big issue in front of them since 2013, an issue they ignored. Ignoring the issue caused them to try to “buy” the goodwill of the fans and sponsors by basically telegraphing their every move regarding their brand. This has caused now-famed-trademark-squatter McCaulay to get ahead of them and register every possible name the Washington team could want, thus resulting in the team having to go with “The Washington Football Team” for the 2020 NFL season.

Naming a Team

A team name represents more than just the name on the jerseys or on the courts, it is the foundation upon which a team builds its identity. A team name is the way a team engrains itself to a community and relates to the people that will turn into fans and support their sporting activities. Naming a team is not an operation that should be taken lightly, it should be an intensely thought through endeavor, and while most teams only do it once, if they do it right, once is enough.

Team names come in all shapes and sizes, and while (fun fact) most team names end in “S,” this is by no means a rule or a guide. There are no guidelines to choosing a team name and most teams go about this in very different ways; the successful ones, however, take time in doing so. The only unwritten rules in naming your team seem to be (1) don’t pick anything that offends people, and (2) pick something that relates to the community, which seems simple enough, but in reality it is not.

In 1993 Steven Spielberg’s hit movie “Jurassic Park” came out.[x] That same year, the NBA officially decided to expand into newer markets and awarded Toronto, Canada a franchise, set to begin play in 1995.[xi] In 1994 the Toronto team had to choose their team name and decided to run a fan voting contest called the “Name Game”.[xii] This contest resulted in over 2,000 different options that were later narrowed down to ten (10) options that included the Raptors, Dragons, Grizzlies, and T-Rex.[xiii] Toronto was a hockey city in the 90s, the idea was to name the basketball team something that the young fans could relate to, and have them grow with the team.[xiv] The link between the basketball world and pop culture, through the Jurassic Park movie, enabled the team to grow in popularity with its young fan base. This led the team to, not only keep the name through the years, but grow exponentially into one of the biggest fan bases in the NBA, transforming Toronto into more than just a hockey city. This is the idea behind a team name, for fans to feel connected to it in an unexplainable way, but with such magnitude that they will be loyal to it.

The best example of a fan base being loyal to its team name might be the Los Angeles Lakers. In 1947 the Detroit Gems of the National Basketball League moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota and joined the Basketball Association of America.[xv] The team name was changed to “Lakers” as a reference to Minneapolis’ nickname as “The Land of 10,000 Lakes”.[xvi] Prior to the 1961 NBA season, the Lakers moved to Los Angeles.[xvii] Because the team had already established such a rich history of winning, the team was not renamed, and in 2020, the team is still known as the Lakers, even though Los Angeles has nowhere near 10,000 lakes. The Lakers team name runs deep through their fan base, no matter if it is based in Los Angeles or Minneapolis, an example of what naming looks like when done properly.

Official Logo of the Seattle Kraken

Seattle Kraken

In 2018, the NHL, much like the NBA in 1993, decided to expand, and awarded an expansion franchise to Seattle.[xviii] The award gave Seattle’s ownership ample time to work on brand building for the team, since the franchise is set debut during the 2021-2022 season.[xix] Ever since, 2018, NHL fans, have been obsessing over the new team name and brand, but the team has done an amazing job of ‘playing it close to the vest.’ Given that Seattle had sufficient time to work on their new brand, the process has been a thorough one, although definitely time consuming.

The Seattle team was secretive during the entirety of the process, but they were extremely thorough. Tod Leiweke, the Team president, wants to make sure that the Seattle team is a fan-driven franchise; by his own words, “[t]he fans are going to be involved in every decision,” and so, with deciding their team brand, in 2019 they launched an interactive portal for fans to offer ideas.[xx] Team officials would spend hours on end looking at Social Media mentions of new team name possibilities and how fans reacted to them.[xxi] They also sat periodically with groups of fans to get feedback and ran polls on newspapers to understand the average fan’s mindset.[xxii]

Around December 2019, the team had decided on Kraken.[xxiii] “There are a lot of obvious connections to Seattle — part because of our maritime history, part of because we have so much water around us — but there is longtime folklore in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest of this mystical Kraken creature that lives just below the surface of the sea, which really captivated people for many years. That mystique, that intensity and that power that people have long talked about with the Kraken is what we expect our NHL team to play with,” said part-owner Andy Jassy.[xxiv] The process took over a year, and not even the name had been revealed yet.

The team officials were extremely careful, maybe even paranoid, concerning leaks. Team officials used code words like “Seattle K” or “Seattle Cascades” in emails.[xxv] The team officials signed many Non-Disclosure Agreements of different levels with people working on the branding process, so much so that the team had to keep a spreadsheet with the names of every person and the access they had, just to keep track.[xxvi] The team also used shadow domains and a firm from Hawaii to register domains for them.[xxvii] Interestingly enough, the team filed three (3) different trademarks and registered five (5) different domain names, in order to use some as decoys.[xxviii] Lastly, in order to avoid any leaks, the team has withheld from producing merchandise and, although it will take longer to release team merchandise, they have been successful in keeping the brand a secret.[xxix] On July 23, 2020, the team finally, and masterfully, announced that the new NHL franchise in Seattle is going to be the Seattle Kraken. The Seattle Kraken has been well received by fans and the media alike.[xxx] The best part about the unveiling of the Kraken has been that, even with fan participation, there were no spoilers, and without spoilers, and a good due diligence, legal issues have been kept to a minimum.

Release the Kraken!

Naming a team is one of the most important aspects of brand-building teams face. Team names can add value to a franchise or take value away from a once powerful team. If we look at the Washington Redskins example, we can see a franchise that was once proud of a name that recently caused the fans shame, especially to some Native Americans, the people that the name actually references. When a name no longer represents your fan base it is best to move on, but it might also be best to do it the proper way. While the Washington Football Team has attempted to raise their goodwill with the fans by letting them know their every move before they make it, it may not have been the smartest move, as it has cost them time and will undoubtedly cost them a lot of money.

The Seattle Kraken, on the other hand, have built a brand they can be proud of, secretly while maintaining fan involvement. This has allowed them to build the brand the way they want, at their own pace, and avoiding all legal issues possible. The team was able to do their own, thorough, due diligence, involve fans in a discreet way, and build a complete brand before unveiling it. Teams looking to build a brand, or rebuild their brands, should look at what Seattle has done in 2020, especially in contrast to what the Redskins attempted to do, and understand, that the correct way to build a brand, is to “RELEASE THE KRAKEN!”

Gilberto Oliveiras

Attorney graduated from the University of Puerto Rico with a Masters in International Sports Law from ISDE Madrid. He is the Founder of Oliveras Legal. His articles for Lex Sportiva include Puerto Rico: Sovereign Olympic Colony?“Shut Up and Dribble”? and Athletes > Medals. Video includes Setting Up A Sports Law Practice.

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