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What's in a name: The implications of a name change in sports




What’s the value of a name? As the Washington NFL franchise looks to change its name, it will have to act fast before the 2020-2021 season begins. But what are the implications of a rebrand? We’ve seen name changes become an issue in entertainment with the recent trademark dispute between Anita White and the country music group from Nashville formerly known as “Lady Antebellum” over the rights to the name, “Lady A.”


Now there could be more trademark issues surfacing in sports as the Washington NFL franchise looks to change its name.

Rebranding Is Costly And Complicated


There are many costs associated with changing a brand name. From new uniforms to letterheads on buildings and the arena, there are many things to consider. There’s the replacement of old goods, but also the marketing involved with pushing the new name to familiarize fans with the brand. Another cost involved with the new name is through the United States Patent & Trademark Office -- the legal costs.

An organization looking to change its name must seek a new trademark to protect its brand. A trademark is any word, name, symbol, or device either used by a person, or which a person has the intent to use in commerce, to identify and distinguish their goods or services from others.[1]

A trademark is an asset. It carries a substantial weight as a source identifier, and the ownership of the brand is crucial for any business with a national influence. When trademarking a brand, an owner must decide what category of goods or services it currently is using the mark for, or for what purposes the owner intends to use the mark for.


For sports franchises, this involves several trademark categories. The more marks an organization has, the better protection. There are 45 classes of trademarks. Generally, classes 1-34 designate goods, while classes 35-45 designate services. Because sports franchises provide both goods and services to fans, they trademark in several different categories.

Of the categories, the most notable are: (1) Class 41 for providing entertainment services by competing in the sport; (2) Class 25 for the merchandise and footwear; (3) Class 35 for the team’s online store; (4) Class 18 for athletic bags; (5) and Class 16 for posters and other printed materials sold. These trademarks not only provide notice to the public of the use; they also provide a franchise with the protection necessary to operate as a source identifier. Most of all, they prevent confusion.

Sports Franchises Typically Change Names When Moving to a New Location


In addition to the economic costs associated with the name change, a sports franchise must also consider the emotional attachment and nostalgia the fans have with the memories of old. For new fans and new energy, it makes sense for a franchise to take advantage of the opportunity to rebrand. For fans from the previous location there is an historical value attached to the name and the city. As a result of this dilemma, most name changes have occurred when a team moves to a new location.


The Washington NFL franchise will not be the first NFL team to change its name. Several NFL franchises including the Texans, Titans, Eagles, Ravens, Bears, and Jets have had name changes as they moved to new locations.[2] Name changes have also commonly occurred in basketball.


In the year 2002, the Charlotte Hornets decided to move to New Orleans. Two years later, the Charlotte Bobcats, an expansion franchise, was formed.[3] After operating for ten years with the appropriate marks, the Bobcats decided to change their name to the much favored, “Hornets.” However, this name was held by the league at the time, who owned the New Orleans franchise. Without the rights to the name, Michael Jordan and his franchise would have been unable to move forward.[4]


To resolve this issue, Charlotte purchased the rights to the “Hornets” name from the league. The negotiations were less difficult because the New Orleans franchise wanted to change its name, and the league held the rights to the name. The Charlotte franchise paid the NBA nearly $3 million for the name change.[5]

What happens with the old names and records? The historical data -- such as statistics, records, and other information relevant to the franchise -- remains with the original team. However, in the case of the Pelicans and Hornets, the New Orleans franchise agreed to transfer the statistical records and historical data to Charlotte.[6]


The Washington NFL franchise is facing a very different situation as it looks to change its name because it is not relocating. For the team's fans, the emotional attachment to the old name and logo will have to be considered. Also, even though Washington will not have to go through the league or another NFL team to obtain the rights to its new name, there is another possible roadblock -- “squatters.” With the recent filing of more than 40 marks in reference to a Washington team name such as “Washington Red Tails” and “Washington Red Wolves," the Washington NFL franchise may have to negotiate with the filers of these marks to obtain a license or an assignment for the rights to use the name if registered.[7]

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Andrew is a rising second-year law student at Elon University School of Law.

[1] 15 U.S.C. § 1127.

[2] Bryan DeArdo, Washington Redskins appear destined to join list of NFL teams that have changed names, CBS Sports (July 3, 2020), https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/washington-redskins-appear-destined-to-join-list-ofnfl-teams-that-have-changed-names/.

[3] Ben Golliver, Charlotte Bobcats officially change name to Hornets, launch new website, Sports Illustrated (May 20, 2014), https://www.si.com/nba/2014/05/20/charlotte-hornets-name-change-bobcats-michaeljordan.

[4] Michael Jordan changing Bobcats’ name to Hornets, USA Today (May 20, 2013), https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nba/2013/05/20/charlotte-bobcats-hornets-namechange-michael-jordan/2344397/.

[5] Hornets all the Buzz in Charlotte, ESPN (May 20, 2014), https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/10958580/charlotte-bobcats-officially-change-nickname-hornets.

[6] John Reid, Charlotte Bobcats officially change their name back to Hornets, Nola.com (May 20, 2014), https://www.nola.com/sports/pelicans/article_44279277- 0c16-5810-a2d9-47f9895a6b3d.html.

[7] Michael McCann, Redskins Face Squatters And Trolls In Search For Name Replacement, Sportico (July 16, 2020), https://www.sportico.com/2020/law/analysis/washingtons-legal-strategy-redskinsreplacement-1234609346/.

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