In a letter to fans on Dec. 14, owner Paul Dolan said Cleveland will find a new name to “better unify our community” following a review that began in June. But, unlike the Washington Football Team, Cleveland will retain the Indians name until it determines its new identity. And given spring training is just two months away, fans will likely have to wait until 2022 to cheer for their new team.
It’s been a major year for the changing of controversial mascots. But unlike the half dozen CPG brands that have made similar moves in 2020, the challenge for Cleveland’s MLB team lies in forging a new identity that appeals to a broad base of fans who genuinely love the team—and, in some cases, consider it part of their own identity.
Like other sports franchises with names based on Native American stereotypes, Cleveland previously attempted an update without a complete overhaul by dropping its Chief Wahoo mascot following the 2018 season. This makes the choice to temporarily retain the Indians name easier to understand, said Joe Favorito, a lecturer in sports management at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies.
“Keep in mind there was no pressure to change now like Washington, so they will not need the transition step [using a temporary name] taken in D.C.,” Favorito added. “They can go from one brand to the next one.”
Indeed, the summer of 2020 was a time of reflection for many brands following protests against police brutality and racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s death. As a result, consumer support for Black Lives Matter was up markedly, prompting PepsiCo to acknowledge its Aunt Jemima brand was “based on a racial stereotype” and inspiring brands like Uncle Ben’s and Cream of Wheat—which are similarly rooted in nostalgia for slavery—to conduct internal reviews. Eventually, the once-defiant Washington Redskins bowed to the groundswell, too, in part because Nike stopped selling team merchandise online and FedEx, the title sponsor of its stadium, asked for a change.
Gartner analyst Chris Ross agreed the decision to temporarily remain the Cleveland Indians name is logical given how challenging it is to rebrand.
Estimates vary, but experts say the franchise rebrands will take about a year or two, and complexity will vary depending on whether the teams pick an existing name or opt for something new, which will require an entirely new brand identity.
“It would still be a huge effort to rebrand to an interim non-brand while waiting for the longer-term solution,” Ross added.
But that’s precisely what the Washington Football Team has pulled off this season, ringing in 2020 without a mascot and playing 13 games. The interim brand gave Washington additional time to carefully consider its next move, making it unlikely that they’ll get a new name until after the Super Bowl, according to Favorito.
“You never hear the Redskins name mentioned anywhere anymore,” he said. “[The Washington Football Team] has really taken hold, which has been a real surprise to people.”
In fact, Favorito said Washington has created a mascot-less sub-brand that could be on par with some of the biggest soccer (or football) teams in the world.
“Manchester United, or Arsenal or Real Madrid, are known by the club—they’re not known by their mascot,” he said.