In the end, it wasn’t sentiment or public opinion that pushed the Washington Redskins to rename the franchise. It was money.
Once FedEx and Nike – two club sponsors worth a combined $220-billion – announced they’d like the nickname changed, Washington bent immediately. The NFL club announced “a thorough review” of the name (”What’s the name again? Redskins? Got it”), which gives them time to think up something new.
Apparently, this literary effort is being led by coach Ron Rivera and owner Dan Snyder.
“We came up with a couple of names,” Rivera told The Washington Post. “Two of them I really like.”
Lemme guess. The Washington FedExes and the Washington Nikes? Because that would solve a couple of problems.
Baseball’s Cleveland Indians are doing a similar review. The CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos said the club will “ramp up our ongoing engagement” with Inuit communities. I don’t know what that means. Maybe they’ll call more.
These falling dominoes are being advertised as a reckoning for sports. What they are instead is a reminder that the almighty dollar is what matters. For a long time, leagues have gone where the money leads them. Now that everything’s falling apart, they are going where the money shoves them.
By giving in to a pressure that’s existed for years, Washington has created a new multimillion-dollar market. Fans who owned the old merch now have to buy new merch.
Once the rest of sports figures that out, everyone short of the Yankees and Cowboys is going to want to change their name. Some bright bulb will stumble on the idea of selling those rights – the Seattle Bezoses, maybe. Eventually, all clubs will be named after conglomerates or rich people. This is the natural order of things.
The pandemic hasn’t created any new problems for pro sports. Viewership has been declining across the board for a while. The exponential growth in franchise values has stalled. As a business, sports is rationalizing, becoming less of a dream factory and more of a widget manufacturer.
What the pandemic and its societal ripples have done is speed up the change. It’s exposing foundational cracks in sports leagues that are weakening or cresting the rise.
We’re not culling any herds here. This is about a few less million for businesses worth billions. But we are figuring out which herds need some culling.
Institutionally, the big-time pro sport that’s come off best is soccer. Various European leagues and their multinational staffs have been back at work for weeks. Germany finished its domestic season without incident. England, Spain and Italy – three of the countries hardest hit by the virus – are getting there.
All of this came off without a lot of fuss. Clubs explained they were taking a financial bath and the players lined up to help out. There was no hand-wringing about salaries or collective agreements. Everyone understood that the bread doesn’t get buttered when people are arguing about who’s paying for the butter.
Likewise, the NBA’s doing fine. No public fights. General agreement that the season needed to be finished. Labour and management arm-in-arm. Things about to get going in the next couple of days.
Soccer and basketball – the two biggest pro sports by pan-global viewership. The pandemic has proved their health as businesses. Their confidence in themselves shows.
Everyone else is having issues.
The NHL is supposed to start in … well, no one’s saying. The players are too busy leveraging their momentary advantage to get a new labour agreement pushed through. Apparently, the Olympics are back on the table. So much for the World Cup of Hockey (pours out a bottle of vinegar and points vaguely at the sky). The salary cap will be kept artificially high.
This all presumes things will be back to normal in a few months. Are you presuming that? No, me neither.
Good luck with that deal in three years time, when the Maple Leafs feature Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and a dozen guys from Group Sales.
COVID-19 is popping up like chicken pox among NHL players. At this rate, they won’t make it into quarantine, never mind stay there for months.
Football’s got it worse. Through some nifty marketing, it has managed to position itself as the enemy of the revolution. The NFL lost sight of the fact that while Red States fill your stands, Blue States are where the corporate money is.
Now that the stadiums are empty, the NFL is having a political “On the Road to Damascus” moment. This is a bit like jumping between flatbeds on the freeway. Let’s see if they all manage it as clumsily as the Washington Whatevers.
But everyone looks like geniuses when lined up against the basketcase that is Major League Baseball.
Baseball has everyone else’s problems, plus a few it came up with itself. Baseball is hemorrhaging cash. Everyone hates everyone else. They can’t keep their family squabbles private. And their restart plan – flying clubs back and forth across North America for months – sounds like an effort to kickstart herd immunity.
All of baseball’s pernicious problems – its overreliance on crowds to make a buck, its too-long season and far-far-too-long games, its wacky economics – are becoming existential.
Everyone involved knows it. This is why they’re scrambling to get as much as possible for themselves. Nobody has confidence in the robustness of their business. It’s the tragedy of the commons.
This won’t be the end of baseball. Boxing and horse racing collapsed, but people still box and race horses. But you can now see that baseball (and, to a lesser extent, hockey and football) needs major structural change in order to thrive. The pandemic has provided them with the rationale to do so.
Switching up team nicknames is easy, which is why they’re doing it. It pleases the money you already have and makes you even more money.
But if this all goes on a lot longer, the money will run out. And then things get hard.