Cleveland Hits the Ball Out of the Park on Name Change

Thom Weidlich 07.29.21


The Cleveland Indians professional baseball team, like similarly branded clubs, has been pressured for years to change its name, which many Native Americans view as racist. Last week, it unveiled a new moniker with a campaign aimed at anticipating blowback. It wasn’t just good PR, but good crisis communications.

Baseball loves stats, and the team’s July 23 announcement that it would switch its name to the Cleveland Guardians had a lot of those. The organization was eager to show it had put a lot of effort into the project, which was a smart move.

To wit, it had surveyed 40,000 fans; conducted more than 100 hours of teammate brainstorming sessions and 140 hours of interviews with fans, community leaders and front-office staff; and gathered 1,198 appellation possibilities, which it narrowed to 14.

The new name comes from the “Guardians of Traffic” statues on the Hope Memorial Bridge near the team’s ballpark. Cleveland unveiled a new “Guardian Fastball” logo, yet the press release emphasized continuity in colors, typescript and its “C” symbol, which it adopted after dropping its controversial Chief Wahoo logo in 2019.

Tom Hanks

As part of the campaign, the team set up an information-rich web page, which includes a video with fans championing the new moniker. It also released a two-minute video voiced by actor Tom Hanks, and rolled out a number of tweets on the issue — it clearly wasn’t trying to bury the news.

As far as we can tell, there’s been little pushback, though there has been some. People even seem to like “Guardians,” though Cleveland may face litigation from a roller-derby team with the same name. The forward-thinking and skillful unveiling deserves at least some credit for avoiding an onslaught of criticism that could have become a crisis.

Cleveland has been more agile at the name-change process than the fumbling professional football team formerly known as the Washington Redskins. Both clubs said they would investigate the question around the same time, July 2020. In December, Cleveland said it would make the shift and, obviously, conducted intense due diligence to do so.

Washington Football Team

Washington owner Dan Snyder resisted calls to replace the team designation for two decades. Less than two weeks after the squad said it would investigate the issue last July, it announced a temporary change to the generic Washington Football Team until it picks a new name, which it still hasn’t.

Washington was goaded into action largely by pressure from corporate sponsors such as Nike, Pepsi and especially FedEx, which has the naming rights to its ballpark. During that time it was also dealing with its perennially bad performance and a sex-harassment scandal, which has since resulted in it being fined $10 million.

Other organizations are implicated in the questionable-name issue. What say you, Atlanta Major League Baseball team? Kansas City National Football League team? Anyone?

Image Credit: Cleveland Guardians

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