A mix of factors in and out of the Washington NFL team’s control will shape the ultimate effect of its bid to rebrand itself as the Commanders.
The team likely will continue securing rights in the U.S. and elsewhere for the name, which appears not to run afoul of existing registered trademark registrations, and continue a media campaign to tout its new moniker and imagery, trademark attorneys say. But the public will have a say in how the new name impacts image and goodwill—the cornerstones of a brand—and even in how its fans refer to it.
Sports teams are often nicknamed, and most with three or more syllables have one. All four already existing in the NFL have developed organic shorthand nearly as iconic as the full name: Bucs for Buccaneers, Pats for Patriots, Niners for 49ers, and Cards for Cardinals. The path from the new Washington name appears less obvious, attorneys say.
“What’s the shorthand? ‘Mandos? I’m at a loss for what the nickname is going to be,” sports law attorney Daniel A. Etna of Herrick Feinstein LLP said.
On social media, “Washington Commies” has already become a common jab, with some noting the team has a shade of red as its main color. Hammer and sickle imagery abounds on an internet quick to jump on meme potential.
“Whether you’re a team owner naming a new football team, or whether you’re a parent naming a child, it seems like common sense to think about how others will perceive the name and what they will use as shorthand for it,” trademark attorney Catherine M.C. Farrelly of Frankfurt Kurnit Klein + Seltz PC said.
The team hasn’t registered new trademarks in the U.S. yet, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark online system. Nothing in the trademark registry appears to threaten the team’s rights, attorneys said.
The team kept its burgundy-and-gold color scheme, which “I’d think the team would argue, and probably very forcefully, is itself a trademark,” trademark attorney Marsha G. Gentner of Dykema Gossett PLLC said.
Trademark concerns guided the team away from what had emerged as a fan favorite, Red Wolves. Consumer confusion for the core business of sports tickets may be unlikely, but merchandise broadens the potential for conflict.
An existing college Red Wolves, the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves—which owns “Wolves” trademark registrations—and college Wolfpack teams create a crowded space that could lead to litigation threats, attorneys noted.
“You want a clear path,” Gentner said.
But generally, similar team names may not necessarily fully block out options, trademark attorney Ian Block of Neal Gerber & Eisenberg LLP said. Settling infringement disputes incorporates more context than evaluating registration applications, so differences in things like colors and logos that clearly distinguish one team’s merchandise from another’s can be decisive.
“It’s very hard to be the first one to use something, across all sports. And a team doesn’t need to be,” Block said.
Attorneys say the team likely hopes the rebrand will provide a reset button on that and other issues: The House Oversight Committee Thursday is scheduled to hold a roundtable discussion with five ex-employees of the team about the organization’s allegedly ‘toxic’ culture. The team didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The new name avoids the image problems of the old one, ties in Washington’s role as the seat of the U.S. military, and “evokes strength and assertiveness,” Block said.
“It has that local connection that gets away from the issues the previous name had,” Block said.