Cleveland Indians: Is it Time for a Name Change?


Should the Cleveland Indians be proactive in changing their name?

I have two daughters, both in their twenties. When they use the term “Indian” it is in reference to people from India. That’s not because they are obsessive about being politically correct, it’s just how people in their generation look at things. Ten years from now, those are the people who will have families and make the bulk of the decisions about buying baseball tickets. If the Indians, who don’t look to be facing a problem with overcrowding at Progressive Field any time soon, are seeking a way to be proactive in their marketing strategy, they should not wait until the team name begins to alienate potential customers.  They should change it now.

I am not taking a position on whether Chief Wahoo is derogatory, or on whether Native Americans have a right to dictate the marketing strategies of professional sports franchises. I could make a case either way, but I have no special wisdom that entitles me to pass judgment or that you would find particularly profound. What I do know is something of how the world works. I grew up in a time when Archie Bunker was on television and George Wallace was a plausible candidate for president. I had a grandfather who would have taken a back seat to neither of them in racial and cultural insensitivity. To go, in less than half a century, from a world where my grandfather reflected the feelings of a substantial portion of the population to one where same-sex couples can have their relationships legitimized through marriage is evidence of a rapidly evolving society.

Regardless of whether you view that as a good or bad thing, if you are trying to sell any product you need to understand the direction in which society is moving. Forty years ago it was completely acceptable to use slang terms, either in a derogatory or humorous way, to refer to people of various races, ethnic groups, or sexual preferences. Now the use of those words in a public setting can get you fired from most jobs.  If you look at how much has changed since then, does it seem likely, or even plausible, that the evolution of cultural sensitivity will simply stop where it is right now and go no further?

The Indians face a choice. They can change their name now. There will be those who get upset about this, and some of them may even express their disapproval by not buying tickets. I suspect, however, that the lost revenue will be more than offset by the marketing opportunities a new name will afford. After all, that Lindor jersey with Chief Wahoo on it will immediately be outdated, at least until enough time passes that it becomes fashionably retro.

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The other choice is to wait. That may work out just fine but if things continue to evolve as they have in recent decades, then ten years from now the Indians will be getting the same heat that the Washington Redskins are now. The Redskins aren’t losing actual ticket sales because if anyone gives up an NFL season ticket there are four people waiting to scoop it up, but they are facing legal bills fighting to retain copyright protection of the name and may be barred from building a new stadium in the District of Columbia until they change their name. Not to mention all the time and effort they spend defending themselves from criticism which could be better spent finding a decent quarterback. One way or another, circumstances are going to make hanging on to that name more trouble than it’s worth.

Ultimately, it will be the same for the Indians. It may be ten years from now, it may be thirty, but it will happen. The only difference is that it probably will affect ticket sales. An NFL team merely needs seventy thousand people to stay loyal enough to buy season tickets; a baseball team needs a million people to be interested enough to go to one or two games, so pissing off the marginal fan is much more impactful to the bottom line of a baseball team. This is especially true for the Indians, where the marginal fans, for the most part, seem to have already taken a hike.

If you’re not convinced that this is the right thing to do, and the marketing argument doesn’t sway you, then there’s always karma. Anyone who witnessed the 1997 World Series, the career of Grady Sizemore, or the Nick Swisher debacle knows that fortune hasn’t exactly smiled on this franchise. It flies in the face of all the analytic wisdom on which the organization prides itself to suggest that the mascot is the problem, but let’s be honest, analytics haven’t exactly gotten us to the promised land. Besides, one essential tenet of Moneyball was exploiting market inefficiencies, so if all thirty teams are relying on analytics, there’s an opening for someone to win through superstition and randomness. So how about we take a name that has been historically associated with baseball greatness in Ohio and on Opening Day next year we have a ceremony to christen our team the Cleveland Mud Hens?

Maybe not? Well, we’ve got all winter to think about it. Anyway, not sure what all of this means for the name of this website, but that’s an issue for people who get paid to think about it.

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