What the Cleveland Indians' Name Change Means for Merchandise
It took years of action for the Cleveland Indians to finally get rid of the Chief Wahoo logo. But in one decisive action, the team announced that it would change its identity all together, abandoning the name it’s used since 1915. On a societal level, this has enormous implications. But it's also a big deal in the merchandise space.
EXCLUSIVE: For the past 105 years, the team was called the Indians. That will be no more as Cleveland has decided to change its name. Announcement from team could come as early as this week. w/@DavidWaldstein https://t.co/Nnw2nAoKcJ
— Michael S. Schmidt (@nytmike) December 14, 2020
Franchise officials told the New York Times that the team originally planned to change the logo by 2022, but the decision by the Washington Football Team to discontinue the “Redskins” moniker lit a fire under them. According to the New York Times, Cleveland officials started the official review of the nickname in July of this year, consulting with Native American groups in both Ohio and across the country.
“We are committed to engaging our community and appropriate stakeholders to determine the best path forward with regard to our team name,” the franchise said at the time.
This decision has been a long time coming. Critics have long been trying to get the team to take the racist Chief Wahoo caricature logo off of any official team branding. In 2016, the team announced that it would start phasing it out, replacing the hat logo with a block “C.” In 2017, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred joined the anti-Wahoo movement, working with the club to remove the logo from their jerseys.
In 2018, the team officially removed the mascot from jerseys, which took effect for the 2019 season.
The wave of social justice movements working to create a sports community where racially insensitive mascots are no longer used—which stretchs far beyond the Washington Football Team or even the borders of the U.S.—caught up with Cleveland, giving the team little choice but to finally distance itself from the Native American imagery completely and ahead of schedule.
As with other teams that have done the same thing, there will no doubt be people who love the Indians name and don’t want a change. For those people, Cleveland Indians gear (including that which includes Chief Wahoo) just became more valuable. This happened in the D.C. area, too, with Redskins gear selling out fast following the team's official announcement about its name change.
That flash sale might happen soon, as Cleveland might go the route of the Washington Football Team and continue without a mascot until it settles on something permanent. In that case, all Indians-branded gear would be gone for good once it’s sold out. The Times reported that the name change could come this week, giving very little time for new Indians gear to hit the shelves.
Collectors and fans alike will no doubt try to snatch up everything with the Indians branding they can, as the sentimental value just increased noticeably this morning. But, looking ahead at possible Indians branding in the future brings up some fun branding opportunities without the risk of offending anyone.
On the other hand, maybe Cleveland would put something in place like the University of Illinois did when it retired its own racially insensitive mascot, and give fans a chance to trade in their outdated merchandise for new stuff.
The next steps and branding rollout is going to be interesting to watch for sure.
The Times also gave some backstory of the original Indians name, intended to honor Louis Sockalexis, who played for the Cleveland Spiders and was a member of the Penobscot Nation. Because of that, there have been rumblings of bringing back the Spiders name used in the 19th Century.
There’s also this suggestion from the Ringer’s Cespedes Family BBQ Twitter account, which fans of the “Backyard Baseball” video game franchise will probably appreciate.
— Céspedes Family BBQ (@CespedesBBQ) December 14, 2020
Regardless of what Cleveland lands on, this is huge news for sports and branding. Just like that (well, after years of criticism), a well-known sports franchise will change its entire identity, upending a century of branding and all existing marketing efforts.
As the Redskins did with different T-shirt designs, maybe Cleveland plays around with a few different looks and gauges fan reaction to see what direction they could go in.
No matter what they do, we'll be paying especially close attention to all stadium giveaways in Cleveland next season to see how a franchise revamps its new look and endears itself to the Cleveland faithful.