Native American Mascots Part II: Deconstructing the use of the “Chief” as a Marketing tool

Of all of our posts on the Emory Sports Marketing Analytics website, we have been most surprised by the reaction to our work on Native American Mascots.  We have gotten a good deal of feedback regarding the use of Native American mascots by professional franchises in general, and the Washington Redskins in particular.  We have wanted to revisit the issue to make a couple of additional points.  A recent “minor” controversy regarding a group of University of Illinois’ football team members dressing in headdresses provides an opportunity to revisit the topic.

In 2008, the University of Illinois bowed to pressure and retired its long time mascot who was known as “Chief Illiniwek”.  This decision was, of course, a controversial one.  A vocal group of alumni has been very clear in their dissatisfaction and efforts to reinstate the Chief continue.  This latest incident involving “Chief” related imagery was a recent charity “strongman” event during which multiple Illinois football players donned headdresses and war paint.  Given our earlier material on the economic value of “Indian Mascots” we decided to spend some time deconstructing this story.

First, it is important to note that the event was run by a group of players rather than the university.  This is important because I suspect that the issue of Native American mascots is not a significant issue to players in their late teens or early twenties.  I also suspect that these players view a lot of what has occurred with the Chief as political correctness gone wild.  So from the players side, and this is really just my speculation about the players motives, the use of Indian imagery has two main benefits.  First, they realize that using Chief-like symbolism will give the event a higher profile.  Second, it is a somewhat rebellious decision to use these images.  From the players perspective this is likely a win-win proposition.

From a marketing perspective, there are some interesting issues at play.  There still exists a sizable group of alumni that are very pro Chief.  For these fans, the Native American imagery is very much appreciated.  These fans are likely to be extremely vocal in terms of their opinion.  However, I think we need to be careful with how much importance we place on this vocal segment.  Our earlier analysis of mascot economics suggested that replacing Native American mascots has a negligible impact on revenues.  Our results mean that, despite what this segment says, when it comes to attending games and spending money there is little impact.  Of course, we can’t say whether the pro Indian mascot fans fail to follow through on their threats, or if these fans are replaced by other fans that previously stayed away because of the mascot.

One objection to our results was that the University of Illinois fundraisers have noted increased difficulty in raising funds since the Chief was retired.  And while we don’t doubt that fundraisers hear the retirement of the Chief as an excuse, I do know that all university fundraising has become more difficult since the economic slide of 2008, and I feel very confident in stating that if the football and basketball programs had not imploded at Illinois, that the “Chief” issue would be heard less frequently.

Thus far, I am not placing any blame on the student athletes, and I am suggesting that the use of Chief like symbolism can have a positive marketing impact.  So what is the issue?  While it isn’t an issue that can be addressed using data it is useful to consider why Native American mascots are important to fans and why they create anger or sadness in groups that want to see these mascots eliminated.  I would conjecture that in the case of fans, these mascots are associated with instances of team success or to memories of past enjoyment of games.  In the case of the University of Illinois it is the alumni and local community members that continue to lobby for the Chief.  I believe that they are fighting for an image or symbol that brings back happy memoires of their time on campus.  In the case of the Redskins, when fans think back to happy memories of watching games with friends, tailgating or championships these memories could be linked to the team name.  It’s not too far away from the old Seinfeld bit about how fans are really rooting for “the clothes.”  It’s not that fans care about the clothes; it is that the clothes trigger associations that bring happiness.  The relevant question is that if the team mascot is changed, will fans no longer have these memories?

For anti-mascot foes, I think the concerns move in the opposite direction.  By and large these anti-mascot advocates are concerned about how Native Americans are viewed by other segments of the population.  In this case the use of a Native American Mascot, and particularly a slur like Redskins, it is viewed as dangerous because they feel it associates a real population of people with a negative image.  This is important because it means that the anti-mascot forces are largely concerned about these mascots having a negative effect on current and future Native Americans while the pro mascot forces are mainly focused on preserving an element of their memories.

So where does this leave the University of Illinois or the Washington Redskins? For Illinois, the problem is that this mini-controversy results in an embarrassing and predictable course of events for the football team, and therefore the school.  Coach Beckman has promised to speak to the team about the issue and has stated “When dealing with the Chief and things involved in this program, in this university, we need to make sure we understand everything that’s involved in that. When making decisions on this, we need to make sure we’re making it in a way that’s right for the university. Everything we do, we do for the university.”

This puts Beckman in a no win situation.  He is placed squarely between the pro- and anti-chief segments.  He is either an insensitive, out of touch middle aged Caucasian male; or he lacks a backbone and he is just giving in to political correctness.  I have sympathy for Coach Backman and Chancellor Wise on these issues. Not because this is a difficult decision in that they are, guaranteed to offend a segment of the Illini nation with any decision, but because of the pointlessness of the discussion.  We just don’t have any evidence that it is worthwhile for Universities to fight this battle.  Retaining a Native American mascot seems to offend a portion of the community without providing any real benefits.

For the Redskins, our guess is that a change will eventually need to done and it is just a matter of when.  The tides are only moving in one direction as no new professional franchises have selected Native American mascots and college programs are moving away from these mascots as well.  It probably is a matter of whether the Washington NFL franchise wants to get ahead of the issue or if they want to have changed forced on them.