In an always-on, media-saturated world, Dan Snyder won’t be able to run out the clock for much longer.
Less than a decade ago, teams like the NFL’s Washington Redskins, which Snyder owns, and other sports franchises with names many people find offensive, could dig in their heels and stall indefinitely. They were safe in the knowledge that other headlines would soon push those periodic charges of racism and demands for a name change out of the public consciousness. Kind of a punting strategy for handling bad press.
But the digital mediasphere just won’t let these stories die. Not only will decisions to keep or change allegedly offensive names be covered exhaustively in the press, now social channels join with traditional media and advertising in determining how these stories will play out.
These disparate media are feeding into and drawing from one another, propelling controversy from week to week, inspiring parking-lot protests at Redskins games and keeping the pressure on more than ever.
Baseball’s Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians, football's Kansas City Chiefs and hockey franchises like the Chicago Blackhawks have likewise come in for criticism. But the Redskins have far and away drawn the most ire, and some question whether clinging to the name, rather than engaging the opposition in meaningful dialogue, will be possible much longer. (These teams either declined or did not respond to Adweek’s requests for comment.)
Native Americans and other advocates for change have any number of channels available, ranging from traditional media and blogs to Twitter and Facebook. “Conversations that used to happen around the watercooler now happen all over the world in real time,” says Chip Rives, CEO of TRP Sports and Entertainment Marketing. “It gives a bigger voice to those who are more active and passionate about the issue … they can keep the conversation alive and vibrant for a long time and grow the number of people who are passionate about getting rid of the name.”
In social media, passions run high on the sports team name-change issue. A representative example from the “change it” camp comes via @blackswan305, who recently chimed in on Twitter:
— Black Swan (@blackswan305) September 20, 2013
Meanwhile, @OverstreetJimmy distills the argument for the other side:
— broncofaninfla (@OverstreetJimmy) September 17, 2013
Still, some say that Snyder’s supporters might actually be doing more harm than good, as keeping the debate alive ultimately fuels the fire and puts more pressure on the team.
NEVER SAY ‘NEVER’
So far, Snyder’s been content to play defense, maintaining that the Redskins name is a source of pride and tradition to fans, and insisting that it was never intended as an insult to Native Americans. His style has at times been brusque, most notably when he told USA Today: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.” (Tweeter @ttopcat3 recently did just that, mocking the Redskins owner with the upper-case hashtag #NEVERINALLCAPS.)
“The comment that they will never change the name is offensive in and of itself,” according to Julie Hall, managing director, Havas PR N.A. “What may happen organically and seems to be happening already through mainstream, traditional media like Peter King is that the name may evolve socially, like ‘frankfurters’ became ‘hot dogs’ in World War II.”
Mainstream media are not staying on the sidelines. USA Today, Sports Illustrated, Slate and Mother Jones are among the many publications, websites, blogs and broadcast outlets that refuse to use the team’s name. Joining them is the Redskins’ own hometown paper, The Washington Post, whose editorial board recently wrote: “The team’s name is a racial slur of Native Americans so offensive that it should no longer be tolerated.”
Advertisers joined in the debate this month, when the Oneida Indian Nation launched a radio blitz challenging NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to denounce the Redskins name. Goodell subsequently told local radio station 106.7 The Fan: “If one person’s offended, we have to listen. … I want all of us to go out and make sure we’re listening to our fans.”
POCKETBOOKS and PLAYBOOKS
With an estimated annual revenue of $381 million and an overall valuation of $1.7 billion, the Redskins rank as the NFL’s third most valuable franchise, according to Forbes. Some have suggested that the team’s ability to generate that kind of cash is one reason why Snyder is so obstinate and why Goodell has remained so reluctant to force the issue. Neither can afford to risk alienating their core customers, after all.
The media’s ultimate role in the name-change playbook might rest in its ability to galvanize more consumers to put pressure on Snyder’s pocketbook. “We have seen a minority of people effect change, but usually it comes by disproportionately hitting a party in the wallet,” says Ian Schafer, CEO of the agency Deep Focus, who believes this particular run to daylight will be tough because “teams are not retail chains, and are much more difficult to organize a meaningful boycott, or ‘buycott,’ of.”
Doug Bailey, president of DBMedia Strategies and a communications professor at Boston University, proposes that the ultimate “way in” for those seeking change is “through the companies that sell products to consumers and advertise on the air or in the stadiums. Social media boycotts or threats of boycotts of consumer goods and services have been very effective.”
Experts agree that we are close to a tipping point where teams will have no choice but to at least consider making changes. “The question,” says Tom Megginson, who writes about social issues marketing for Osocio, “is how long it will take. I think your five-year window seems like a pretty good average.”
Change cannot come soon enough for Native American author and activist Suzan Shown Harjo, who doesn’t mince words when suggesting why Snyder is so loyal to the Redskins name: “It is a toy of racism—he’s clinging to it as if he’ll never have another toy again.”
That’s strong condemnation, and there is little doubt Snyder should prepare to absorb more hits moving forward. “The Native American activists and allies I’ve seen are fighting the long fight now,” says Megginson. “I don’t see them ever giving up on this issue.