Choosing a name and mascot for a sports team presents one of the most important challenges a franchise must face. For every great team name, like the Florida Gators (not that I’m biased or anything), there’s an equally terrible name, like the Washington Wizards. In 1997, Washington changed its basketball team name from the Bullets to the Wizards due to the negative and violent connotations with the Bullets name. While the Wizards name improved over the Washington Bullets, the name remains objectively strange. Now, just over 20 years later, Washington faces another call to rebrand a team name; finally, ownership appears to be willing to change.
Trademark Rebrand Present Challenges
As we’ve previously written, rebranding can be challenging. The purpose of trademark law is to build up brand recognition and strengthen commercial impressions. In general, the longer a brand is used consistently in commerce, the stronger the brand. When a company rebrands, its trademark rights reset and those commercial impression must be reformed. As such, getting a name right from the beginning is paramount to long-term trademark strategies.
However, at times, companies have no choice but to rebrand. For example, when the public and major sponsors turn on a name, a change must be made. Washington finally reached that breaking point last week. The team received increasing calls across society to rebrand, including from FedEx, Washington’s stadium sponsor. Finally, Washington’s ownership started a process to at least explore a name change, a long overdue first step to the process.
Since owners cannot materially change a registered trademark, Washington will have to file brand new trademark applications once ownership elects a new name. This highlights the importance of choosing an inoffensive and catchy trademark from the start of building brand recognition. While offensive trademarks can register at the USPTO, public opinion matters a lot more than what the Trademark Office allows. Hopefully more teams consider name changes away from offensive language and rebrand with stronger IP rights moving forward.