Bottom Line: The Oneida Nation is meeting with the wrong people about the Washington football team.
Name changers have few levers to push to force a change of the Washington Redskins team name. That reality is bound to hit them when representatives of the Oneida Indian Nation meet senior NFL executives today.
That meeting took on added significance when news broke that team owner Daniel Snyder met with league Commissioner Roger Goodell in New York Tuesday. Breathless headlines suggested a name change might be imminent.
A follow up story in The Washington Post reported that the meeting was not about a plan to change the name. Goodell wanted background on Snyder's plan to deal with the issue.
Therein in lies the problem. The Oneidas brought the fight to the halls of the NFL, further than it has gone before. It misses the mark, however. There are few ways anyone, including the league, can make Snyder change.
Here are five business reasons why the Redskins name won't change in the foreseeable future.
No. 1 ‒ The Redskins already won the court battle
The U.S. District Court reversed a ruling by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) that withdrew trademark protection for "The Redskins" brand. The Court reversed the ruling on a technicality. More telling, however, was the Court's opinion about the Trademark Board's decision.
U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said that the TTAB's findings were insufficient to sustain a legal ruling of disparagement. She also wrote that "perceptions of the general public are irrelevant to determining if the [trade]marks are disparaging to Native Americans." What matters under the law is whether the Washington Redskins used the trademark to disparage Native Americans as they built their brand.
A new case winding its way through the TTAB is brought by younger plaintiffs to defeat the technicality, but would face the same legal hurdles in Federal court where it is surely headed.
Both side have already shown they are prepared to fight this all the way to the Supreme Court, who refused to hear the plaintiff's appeal, by the way.
This could take years, meanwhile…
No. 2 ‒ Daniel Snyder is insulated
I read fan reaction sometimes that suggests people confuse Commissioner Goodell for a public servant . His voters are the 32 owners of NFL clubs. Daniel Snyder is one of his bosses. It's unclear if Goodell summoned Snyder to New York as early headlines implied, or if Snyder demanded the meeting.
The Oneida meeting is billed by the NFL as a listening session. Ray Halbritter and the Oneidas are to meet with senior NFL executives. The problem is none of those executives are named Goodell or Snyder. Goodell already said Snyder is the only one who can change the name.
The NFL broadcast contract is further insulation for Snyder. Broadcast revenues are distributed evenly to the franchises. Isolating Washington's revenue to use as leverage is neigh impossible.
The meeting is a practice session for Halbritter and his allies to gauge first-hand reaction to their argument. Harvard-educated Halbritter should be smart enough to know he will go farther by offering a business case for change than by racist finger pointing. The NFL is always looking for new partners.
Watch your wallet, Mr. Halbritter.
No. 3 ‒ Love to be a fly on the wall for that meeting
If it reaches a point where the NFL does ask Snyder to change the name, the executives who will ask the favor are Goodell and John Mara, chairman of the NFL Management Council – the same duo who docked the Redskins for $36 million of salary cap space that impairs his team (thus the headline of this section).
If Daniel Snyder is like me, and I know I am, I would be thinking about compensation for the loss before we get to the part about name changes.
Internal fences have to be mended first.
No. 4 ‒ The Redskins fan base does not want to change
The Redskins and the NFL spend more attention to a money-spending fan base that than on a public that does not. Redskins fans are clear they want to keep the name. They see Snyder as something of a hero for defending it. For a man whose local reputation is so often in the gutter, that's burgundy and golden.
The next generation of fans, those who are now 12 years-old, may buy into the argument. It will be several decades before they are buying their grandfather's season tickets.
Snyder is responding to real fans who overwhelmingly want him to keep the name.
No. 5 ‒ The hard dollar value of Redskins goodwill
Sports teams do not have a lot of tangible assets. They may have rights to use real estate, or even own their stadiums as the Redskins do. They have contract rights to the talent of their players. A good portion of team value is based on an intangible, their their brand reputation and how it attracts business in their markets. The business asset is goodwill.
Goodwill has a hard dollar value. Every team's brand attracts revenue, much of that flows from league broadcast and merchandise contracts. Other parts are based on the team's marketing in its home region.
The Redskins are privately held. They do not have to report the value they place on goodwill, but there is a real dollar value. Publically held General Electric Company (GE) reports the value of its goodwill as $73 million.
Forbes Magazine estimates the value of the Washington Redskins as $1.7 billion. The hard dollar value of the team's goodwill may be several hundred million dollars, a fact lost on critics who say the team could easily afford the $15 to $20 million cost to change the name.
I suspect Snyder has business covenants with lenders and partners to maintain the value of the team at a certain level. For a business with few tangible assets, loss of goodwill value could be a hidden show stopper.
The real solution
Here's a way out. Buy the team name and retire it. Snyder says he won't be forced to change the name, but he might be persuaded. Everything has a price. Opponents can prove their sincerity by putting their wallets where their hearts are.
It's the American way.