Inclusive sports mascots are good business, says professor
“Within not only my personal life but also in the sports world, I think this time is a call to action,” says Zachary Binkley, sport management lecturer at the Quinlan School of Business. “Action should be focused on trying to change or make better our societies and to take steps to create a better system that’s working for everyone, that’s inclusive.”
Binkley sat down with Quinlan’s Rick Sindt for a conversation about the role of mascots in sports, and how those brandings operate in the world.
1. A mascot rebrand needs to be pushed
Binkley grew up in a rural Illinois farming community, and while he was going through middle school, the sports teams moved away from its racist mascot.
“It was based on the Confederate soldier,” says Binkley. “It’s crazy that two hours south of here [Chicago] we still had mascots that were resembling the Confederacy.”
It took a newly hired athletic director to make the final push to get rid of the Confederate mascot and get the town on board with the rebranding efforts.
“He told me that he walked into the gym on his interview and he saw the mural and the branding,” said Binkley. “His words were, ‘I won’t accept the job unless the rebrand is done.’”
2. Rebranding can be best for business
When sports brands choose to modify or completely rebrand away from discriminatory language, they open the brand to be more inclusive to potential consumers and fans.
“The more customers that you can get your product in front of, the better that is for potential business,” says Binkley. “A brand that works for everyone, that doesn’t discriminate against certain people or eliminate them from being a fan of that brand, that’s [avoiding] a lost customer.”
New teams that launched with inclusive branding show high potential for success. One example is Seattle’s new NHL team, the Kraken.
“For a new franchise that needs to get that brand up, they really gave no reason for people not to get on board with it,” says Binkley. “They really hit a home run here and they’re seeing the benefits of a new brand being created that’s inclusive, that’s dynamic, but is also familiar and has some nostalgia with it because it does connect to the Seattle area with their design and color scheme.”
3. Thoughtful rebranding is crucial
In 2020, the Washington Football Team dropped the Redskins name and logo after years of backlash. However, Binkley believes the team missed the opportunity to change their brand proactively.
According to Binkley, the team missed the opportunity create new names and logos that would revitalize the brand. “Not only did they not necessarily see the issue with their branding, but they weren’t prepared for that change,” says Binkley. “A rebrand is not just getting rid of the past, but it’s about building a better future, and they should have been ready for this.”
4. Past successes can pose a challenge
The Chicago Blackhawks NHL team similarly could reinvent the brand to be more inclusive. However, past successes seem to make it harder to update the brand, while the team also appears ambivalent to the need for change.
“Nostalgia is a very powerful mechanism,” notes Binkley. “I understand with past successes, you’re going to have those identifying factors to your brand. You can still honor that; you can still show that. But moving forward we need to be more cognizant and mindful of trying to make sure these brands are more inclusive to everyone because we want our fanbases to grow.”
5. Fans should be considered
The Chicago Fire soccer team also went through a rebrand, though not due to a need for increased inclusivity, but to revitalize the team and show change. However, the new logo and crest bothered some fans who were passionate about the originals.
“I’m not sure if the fans’ voice was actually considered or brought into discussions,” says Binkley. “So, any time you pivot, you have to think [that] the rebrand is not only for business, but that business impacts or influences your fans. Doing some interviews, collecting data from fans on what they want from the brand, what they think is a successful brand, what modification they can be making, that can go a long way.”
Rebrands shouldn’t be done for the sake of rebranding. Instead, they should be focused on energizing and growing what the brand is already doing well.
“It’s not only for fixing a problematic brand, but it can also be modified or enhanced to make that brand stronger, to be more influential, to be more inclusive, to get the fan base bigger.”