The process of rebranding the Washington Commanders took years. Now a huge snag could pressure the team to rebrand once again,
This week the Commanders were denied their federal trademark application by the United States Patent and Trade Office (USPTO), which could force the team’s hand at either moving forward without trademark protection — which would be a death knell in terms of merchandising.
The USPTO had concerns that granting the trademark would “likely cause confusion” with the “Commander’s Classic,” the yearly college game between Army and Air Force. This is due to both organizations sharing the name “Commanders,” and being involved in football. If this ruling stands it means the NFL’s Washington Commanders wouldn’t be able to defend its name when it comes to merchandise, potentially opening the door for knock offs to flood the market. These couldn’t use the team’s logo, which is protected — but the name and colors could be duplicated.
It’s important to note that it’s very early in the process. The team has already begun a three month appeals process to argue that there is no confusions between the NFL’s Commanders, and one college game. To be honest, there seems to be a leg to stand on here, because I don’t think many football fans would honestly confuse the two entities — but this is a federal government agency, and logic isn’t always a strong suit.
The team is confident they’ll win on appeal. However, there’s always an outside chance they could be rejected again — which would likely lead to another rebrand. The advantages of holding onto the Commanders name without trademark are considerably worse than the embarrassment of rebranding.
It’s here where things get awkward. Martin McCauley, a 64-year-old realtor from Alexandria, Virginia became the pre-eminent trademark holder when the team initially announced it was moving away from its prior racist nickname. Filing dozens of potential team names under his ownership, McCauley has been branded a “trademark squatter” by fans who believe he held up the renaming process. Over the years McCauley has hit back, saying it was in the name of altruism — and that he wanted to protect potential team names rather than a real squatter holding a name hostage. He’s reportedly offered to give up any of his names to the team for free, but it’s unclear if that’s really true or not.
This is why the rebranding process is more complicated that it might initially seem. With favored names like Red Wolves, Veterans, Americans, and Arrows all being held by McCauley, there’s significant risk he could delay the process further.
The USPTO is set to hear the Commanders case again in August. Regardless of what happens we won’t see a rebrand in 2023, but should the team lose their appeal there’s a very real chance we see the Washington Commanders play in 2023, before announcing another search for a new name.