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Opportunities abound in changing Cleveland Indians name and brand, say experts

Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona speaks to the media at Fenway Park, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016, in Boston. Professional baseball, hockey and basketball teams change their names all the time so there's no reason for the Cleveland Indians to avoid ditching their long-controversial moniker, says one expert in sports marketing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Elise Amendola
October 13, 2016 - 3:18 PM

TORONTO - Professional sports teams have successfully changed their names before and there's no reason that baseball's controversial Cleveland Indians couldn't pull it off, say experts in sports marketing.

The team has battled controversy over its name, logo and mascot for decades, and now is the time to adopt a new identity, said Cary Kaplan of the Mississauga, Ont.-based marketing firm Cosmos Sports, as Cleveland prepared to meet the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Friday.

"People are generally afraid of change and they cling to tradition," noted Kaplan, whose clients have included the Canadian Football League, the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer.

"To me all those teams — the Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves —should all change their names. It's the times."

He pointed to the Washington Wizards basketball team as an organization that rebranded in 1997, when it was known as the Bullets and faced pressure to cut associations with gun violence. Kaplan called that a success story, even if the occasional fan might still turn up at a game in an old Bullets shirt.

Pressure from some Canadians opposed to Cleveland's name and logo has ramped up in recent days with broadcasters, including Jays announcer Jerry Howarth, vowing to never use the term Indians because it's offensive to many First Nations people.

Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro, a former longtime executive with Cleveland, respects Howarth's decision.

"I think it's great Jerry decides to infuse something that he feels is morally strong," he said. "But I tend not to either support it or reject it.

"So that's Jerry's opinion and I respect him for having the strength of that conviction."

Sportsnet host Jamie Campbell said he won't use the term either, and the hashtag #notyourmascot has picked up momentum on social media to protest a swath of team names.

Cleveland has faced calls to change its name for years, with demonstrators regularly turning up at the home opener to protest. The team's cartoon mascot Chief Wahoo, a toothy, red-faced character with a feather on his head, is especially offensive to some.

The team has said it is sensitive to both sides of the conversation but has no plans to rebrand.

But it can easily be done if the political will is there, said activist Niigaan Sinclair, who has worked to eliminate racial slanders in sports in Manitoba.

"They've gone the way of the dodo bird, they're pretty irrelevant now," said Sinclair, also acting head of the department of native studies at the University of Manitoba.

"We've mobilized to have headdresses banned at Chicago Blackhawk games here in Winnipeg when they play the Jets. The Winnipeg Jets have been extremely supportive and very engaged."

He urged Cleveland to drop the name Indians, which he associates with violence and hatred.

"It's an inappropriate and offensive word that has a whole bunch of baggage of history behind it. It's a term that's been used in demeaning ways in the past. And of course indigenous people have reappropriated the term and used it in various ways, but that doesn't make it acceptable."

Shapiro said he was troubled by Cleveland's logo when he was with the club.

"When we were here, the name was never an issue no matter how many native American tribes we talked to," Shapiro said. "The logo — chief Wahoo — is one that was troubling to me personally so when I was an official spokesman for the Cleveland Indians, I distanced myself from the fact that it personally bothered me.

"But we as an organization with strong support from ownership came up with the block C that you're wearing on your credentials right now. We gave that alternative for people and I think we established that as an important logo and now the primary logo for the Cleveland Indians and so I'm proud of that."

Shaprio said he can see the day when Cleveland will opt for change.

"I think there will be a day, whenever that is, that the people that are making decisions here decide Chief Wahoo is no longer fitting," he said. "But people in this city — over 90 per cent of them — are deeply, deeply passionate about Chief Wahoo and want him to be part of their team.

"So that's about all I'll say because I'm not really focused or care that much about that anymore. That's my opinion."

But ditching the name, mascot and logo would be a "huge undertaking" costing "tens of millions of dollars," said Ben Sturner, CEO of the New York-based Leverage Agency.

A revamp would require intensive research and a rethink of virtually every part of the organization, from logos to merchandise to colours to jerseys.

"There's a lot that goes into it," said Sturner, whose clients have included NFL Alumni, Women's Tennis Association, KFC and 20th Century Fox.

But he, too, said it's worth considering, seeing the opportunity to sell more jerseys. The worst case scenario is fans revolt and don't buy merchandise.

"But right now when they're winning, that's not going to be the case," said Sturner.

Kaplan also saw opportunities in a rebrand, arguing that Cleveland "could get a lot of mileage from a pure marketing/branding standpoint."

"Think of all the money you make on new merchandise," he said. "Whatever cost you would have to change it is superseded, if you do it well."

Fans should be included in the change, stressed Sturner and Kaplan, because that would ease any transition significantly. That could mean contests, lots of public consultations and a public vote to make the fans feel like they are part of the process.

And threats of desertion by hardcore fans who may be most opposed to change are probably empty, said Kaplan.

"You know what the irony is? Those are the least likely people to leave because a huge part of their life is going to those baseball games," said Kaplan.

"They might put signs up and say, 'We're really mad you changed the name,' but they're going to be buying their third-row tickets and their beer and their hot dogs."


With files from Gregory Strong in Cleveland.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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