Experts weigh in on Cleveland name change

By Joe Noga -

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Last week the Cleveland Indians updated their fans on the research phase of their move to determine a new team name.

But those who have been following the saga closely since the potential for a change was first hinted at back in July have wondered why the process has dragged on for nearly a year with the very real possibility that a new name won’t be announced until some time 2022.

Make no mistake, the change is coming. Vice President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti said in December on MLB Network Radio that the organization spent a lot of time reflecting on how it can be a part of positive change for social justice and equality in the community.

“After hearing from leaders in a variety of different spaces, we thought it made sense for us to have a new name moving forward that could allow us to do a better job of unifying our fan base and bringing people together around a common good, which is when sports are at their best,” Antonetti said.

All of that makes sense, but expecting club owner Paul Dolan or team executives to snap their fingers and come up with a new name overnight is ludicrous. Meanwhile, the machinations of a total brand transformation remain a bit of a mystery to the average fan.

Charles Campisi, chair of the marketing and sport management department at Baldwin-Wallace University, said one reason the process is moving slowly is because it’s a tremendous undertaking, encompassing every aspect of the franchise’s existence.

It’s also a delicate transition that the club only wants to make once and that means getting it right while giving fans something new and fresh that they can point to as a source of unity and pride.

“From a marketing perspective, it’s not just about changing the name and logo,” Campisi said. “It’s about how to replace a 105-year-old brand and get fans to buy in at the same time.” consulted Campisi and experts from Case Western University and The Ohio State University for their thoughts on the Indians’ name change and why the process can seem so daunting while taking so long to get it right.

What are the costs associated with re-branding?

One of the biggest obstacles is the financial aspect of re-branding once the team committed to its name change.

“This is not just about changing the name on the jersey,” Campisi said. “It’s everything in and around the ballpark, too.”

When Seattle changed the name of it’s ballpark from Safeco Field to T-Mobile Park prior to the 2019 season, the Mariners had three months until opening day from the time their contract was signed. The Mariners hired an outside firm to go around the park and figure out every single spot that read “Safeco Field.” Campisi said the Indians will have to undertake a similar cleanse, if they haven’t already begun to do so.

“There are so many places where if you’ve been at the park, you don’t even see it anymore because you’ve seen it so many times,” Campisi said. “You’re going to have a lot of instances of that around the park with ‘Indians.’ If you want to do it right, you take your time during this season.”

From a practical perspective, taking the entire 2021 season with the blessing of local and national Native American groups allowed the Indians to uphold contracts with vendors for jerseys, hats T-shirts and other items that were already on order.

“If they changed it right now, I’ve got to imagine either MLB or the Indians would have to eat all of that cost,” Campisi said.

Jonathan Ernest from the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University says the economics associated with a name change of this scope are relatively unprecedented.

“A lot of those costs are associated with the fact that this brand has been built up,” Ernest said. “When you’re thinking about switching, especially in baseball, it’s more difficult because of the local market appeal.”

Ernest says there are few examples of teams switching names that are not new teams or existing teams relocating to new cities.

“It’s hard to disassociate the effects of being in a new stadium with a new fan base from effects of just changing your name,” Ernest said.

The closest examples could come from minor league baseball teams, who tend to change names and brands more often, as in the case of Akron’s Double-A team which changed from Aeros to Rubberducks in 2013.

“Studies that have taken place in minor league baseball and other sports abroad have shown when teams change names it’s important to have a local appeal or tie-in — a regional identity associated with it,” Ernest said.

In baseball, even more so than football, you’re dealing with a regional appeal rather than a national fan base.

“In Washington’s case, they’re trying to find a name that plays well all across the nation and they may not want to choose something that’s so specific as the ‘Potomacs’ that people elsewhere wouldn’t understand,” Ernest said.

Is that an argument for tying the name to the Rock Hall or something regional like that? It seems like the last thing a lot of people want to see is another guitar-themed logo.

“Having a somewhat regionally identifiable name makes a lot of sense in baseball in particular, just with how small regional markets are,” Ernest said, “But you don’t want to get burned out seeing the same kind of logo or design over and over.”

Ernest said studies have indicated minor league teams that change their name to a regionally themed tie-in see less of a drop-off, more sales and more attendance than if they change it to some kind of bland national name.

“It’s a fairly strong argument for making sure you understand the costs of making the change and making sure you get it right,” Ernest said.

“You also get into all the same issues with trademarks and who is squatting on what web site and those sorts of things. needing time to work all those deals out to make sure you own all the rights to the proper avenues to your name change.

What about the idea that they’re just changing the name to make money selling T-shirts and caps?

Jesse Walker, an assistant professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, says that after 105 years, the Cleveland Indians brand is incredibly valuable, and changing direction is not the easy choice.

“There’s no natural profitability reason to make this change,” Walker said. “The only reason to do it, in their minds, is to do the right thing.”

The Indians may view the move as being worth the expense in the long run, but it’s costly in the short term. And selling merchandise is likely not a deciding factor.

“There’s no way they’re doing this to sell more merchandise,” Walker said. “That anti-change segment of the fan base — for the most part — is going to be buying that merch regardless of the social implications of it.”

And don’t look for a huge influx of cash on the merchandising side for the Indians once a new name goes through, Campisi said. Most of the merchandising profits in Major League Baseball go into one big pot that’s shared by all 30 teams.

In MLB, 48% of local revenues are subject to revenue sharing and are distributed equally among all 30 teams, with each team receiving 3.3% of the total sum generated. In 2018, each team received $118 million from this shared pot.

Why not go with an interim name like Cleveland Baseball Club, similar to what Washington’s football team did?

The Indians have gone to great lengths to give themselves an open-ended timetable from the very first announcement that they would pursue a name change. Doing so means they can decide on one new brand and move on from there, rather than going with an interim title.

Re-branding twice adds more headaches to the process, Campisi said.

“You don’t have to sell this kind of weird, nebulous team name, whatever it would be — Cleveland Baseball Team or Cleveland Baseball Club,” Campisi said.

By Joe Noga

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