Rebranding in the NBA: Where Bullets Become Wizards

In honor of tipoff to the NBA season, I’m returning to my favorite blog topic: rebranding in sports. For those of you that have followed my blogging exploits (thanks, mom and dad), you may recognize this as my go-to subject. Today, we tackle the Washington Bullets rebranding to the Washington Wizards. It is one of the most polarizing rebrands in the history of sports – so polarizing that even the star Wizard’s guard John Wall has expressed a preference for the old name and logo.

The team, originally named the Chicago Packers, was founded in 1961. It moved to Baltimore in 1963, adopting the name the Baltimore Bullets, which was the name of the city’s prior NBA franchise. The name was eventually changed to the Washington Bullets. That lasted until 1995 when the team’s owner, Abe Pollin, announced that the team was rebranding. The owner claimed it was in response to gun violence in D.C. and many people speculated it had something to do with the assassination of Pollin’s close friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (although other sources have produced evidence demonstrating the decision was made prior to the assassination). Most people believed this reason, while others felt it was a money grab. A contest was held to pick a new name and the options were narrowed down to Dragons, Express, Stallions, Wizards, and Trust Tree favorite, Sea Dogs.

After the Wizards moniker was chosen, it immediately fell under controversy because “Wizard” is a rank in the Ku Klux Klan. In addition, the money grab truths found additional ammo for their position when the new team logo was unveiled and the team colors had been changed to the same colors as the Washington Capitals NHL franchise, which was also owned by Pollin. Since that time, a debate has raged about the reasoning behind the rebrand and whether the team should go back to its old name. Most branding experts view the Wizards rebrand as a cautionary tale for sport franchise rebranding.

Rumors constantly swirl about a possible return to the Bullets name and branding. There are fiercearguments on bothsides. The rumors and debate picked up steam in 2010 when the team was purchased and the new ownership expressed a willingness to return to the old name. While it is anyone’s guess whether the team will undergo another rebrand, there is one thing we know. Rebranding again would be expensive. In 2010, when discussing the Michael Jordan’s desire to rebrand the Charlotte Bobcats (a team that recently returned to its prior iconic name, the Hornets), the New York Times reported that trademark registration alone for a franchise can cost $1 million, which does not even touch the price of overhauling facilities and merchandising.

This, however, may not be an issue. For those holding out hope that a return to the Bullets may happen, look no further than the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, where the team has continued to maintain a number of Bullets-related trademarks (for example, here). At a minimum, the continued effort to keep certain Bullets-related trademarks indicates the franchise intends to use the name in some capacity moving forward, even if it is just to sell throwback items.

Speaking of throwback, let’s throw it back to last year and check out some of the Wizards top plays.