Branding. One little word, so much power. For you and me, it’s the difference between a “lucrative online presence” and sitting on your couch firing off angry tweets about a baseball team. And for that baseball team, it can be the difference between contender and pretender status.
But what do we mean when we say “branding?” Is it pure marketing strategy? Uniform design? Social media presence? Or is it just posting gifs of Willians Astudillo running the bases until the internet loves you?
The truth is, it’s all of these things (and especially the last one). It’s not easy maintaining an energized and successful brand in this fast-moving, volatile commercial landscape—but now more than ever, doing so is absolutely crucial for an MLB team trying to build momentum.
A good brand means more followers, followers mean merchandising and ticket sales, sales mean money, and money means more opportunities to invest in free agents, ballpark upgrades, and all the other little things that produce a winning culture. And culture—well, culture is everything.
This reality has been proven over and over in recent years. Since 2016, every team that’s reached the World Series save for the Dodgers and Red Sox—two mega-rich teams with “classic” looks and well-established winning cultures—has undergone a significant rebrand in the last 15 years.
The most dramatic example is last year’s A.L. champ, the Tampa Bay Rays, who dropped the “devil” from their shirts in 2008 and transformed from perennial bottom-feeder to A.L. pennant-winner (and a decade on competitive baseball in one of the sport’s smallest markets) almost overnight.
Sure, there are other factors involved, like committing to analytics and advanced scouting early on. But in an old-timer’s sport like baseball, you don’t get that kind of buy-in without good culture, and that includes good branding. Winning teams have winning vibes, plain and simple.
With these things in mind, it’s all the more baffling that the Cleveland Baseball Club held on to the racially insensitive “Indians” moniker for so long. Do you really think nobody told them that wearing the cartoon “Chief Wahoo” on their hats was bad until it was retired in 2018?
It’s not just gross, it’s bad business. And it’s no coincidence that they have the second-longest title-drought in North American pro sports (72 years and counting, folks).
Well, it would seem they’ve finally figured it out. As announced in December, Cleveland is taking the next step at last by moving on from the name itself in 2022. It’s an ugly situation that should have been resolved years ago, but here we are. (Hopefully) learning something.
With everyone wondering what’s next for the artist-formerly-known-as-the-Tribe, here’s the good news: opportunity is knocking, and it just might have eight legs.
Rebuilding the Brand
For most teams, the question of rebuilding after trading the likes of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, and now Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco in the last two years would be obvious. But somehow, Cleveland continues to churn out great pitching at an astounding rate. Their 2021 rotation (as of now) still projects well, led by 2020 AL Cy Young Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, and Triston McKenzie.
On offense, however, the picture isn’t quite so pretty. Outside of Jose Ramirez (who may be next on the trading block), the only returning player with an OPS over .700 in 2020 is Franmil Reyes; no one knows what to expect from Oscar Mercado, who regressed significantly last year; and replacing Lindor with Amed Rosario is like trading in Lightning McQueen for… well, Mater.
It seems clear now that Cleveland’s window of competition has slammed shut, and fans have every right to be furious with how it was handled. The 2021 season could be a rough one as we patiently wait to hear the new name choice.
But despite the PR debacle of the name change, the timing presents a unique opportunity for the Cleveland Baseball Club to regain their future standing in style—and as luck would have it, there are plenty of valuable lessons hidden in the attempted rebrands of franchises past. Let’s take a look at six recent examples of major MLB rebrands, what worked, and what didn’t.
The Tampa Bay Rays (of light)
As mentioned above, the Rays are the gold standard of rebranding. Following a third consecutive last-place finish in 2007, owner Stu Sternberg knew something had to change; so he reimagined the team name as simply the “Rays,” which would henceforth refer to St. Petersburg’s sunny climate, not the winged fish. This switch was accompanied by a smart shift from those comic book rainbow uniforms to the sleeker, solid-blue threads and color scheme they use today.
Their sudden success was clearly aided by a bit of luck, as the 2008 squad benefitted from the arrival of power-hitting Rookie of the Year Evan Longoria and 22-year-old southpaw David Price, who emerged as a lights-out closer in the playoffs. That duo would form part of a talented young core that propelled the Rays to win 90+ games in five of the next six seasons, after never surpassing 70 in the previous decade.
Sure, they got lucky, but that’s the key: to build momentum with a new brand, the pieces must be there. As Sternberg put it at the time, “We were tied to the past, and the past wasn’t necessarily something we wanted to be known for.” And as goofy as the whole “Rays of light” logic may be, it worked like a charm for Tampa Bay, as they were able to totally rebuild their public perception going forward.
Lesson learned: timing is everything.
The Miami Rainbow Fish
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for their Florida neighbors and fellow expansion team, the Marlins. Unlike Tampa, Miami started off hot, winning two World Series titles in their first 11 seasons, but they quickly realized this wasn’t sustainable.
Eight mediocre years later, owner Jeffrey Loria implemented a full-scale rebrand as “Miami’s team,” abandoning the ’90s-style teal-and-black colors for a look that can only be properly described as “rainbow sherbet.”
How did that work out for them, you ask? Not great. What followed was a four-year stretch during which they lost an average of 92 games, third-worst in baseball. They seemed close to turning the corner in 2016, when a young Marlins team led by Jose Fernandez, Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, J.T. Realmuto and Marcell Ozuna hovered six games above .500 as late as August 26 before falling off. A month later, Fernandez was killed in a tragic boating incident, and Loria lost his nerve. He sold the team to Derek Jeter’s group, and before you knew it, the entire roster had been disassembled once again.
The Orange Crush Marlins era officially ended in 2019, when the team announced yet another new color scheme: Miami Vice-style blue and pink, which admittedly looks a lot better on their black threads.
Lesson learned: do it right, or don’t bother. (Oh, and avoid building hideous giant outfield sculptures.)
The Washington Curly W’s
For all the annual rebranding hubbub, no team has actually changed their nickname since 2005, when the erstwhile Expos relocated to D.C. and became the Washington Nationals. The Nats didn’t win much in their early years post-rebrand, but Ryan Zimmerman & co. were able to build a strong foundation that helped them put together the strongest decade in franchise history in the 2010s, culminating with their 2019 World Series run. This success was powered largely from the ground up, as Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasberg and Anthony Rendon were all first-round draft picks by the club, and Juan Soto signed as an amateur; but they also invested in pitching, signing Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin in free agency.
The Nationals rebrand was significant for two reasons. The first was that it closed the book on the troubled Expos, who had just one playoff appearance to their name in 36 years. The second was that it marked the first time in over a century that an MLB franchise not named the Senators operated in the nation’s capital. It wasn’t the most original choice in the world, but it was something new nonetheless; and in retrospect—Walgreens controversy notwithstanding—I think it’s safe to say this move was a success.
Lesson learned: try new things and be patient!
The All-American League Houston Astros
For their last decade in the National League (following the “Killer B’s” World Series run in 2005), the Houston Astros were, politely speaking… not good. They finished 4th or worse in the N.L. Central six times in seven years, before being unceremoniously flipped to the A.L. West in 2012 because MLB wanted to balance the two leagues.
The new division seemed like an obvious place to rebrand, and that’s exactly what the Astros did. They embarked on “a complete corporate rebranding campaign,” starting with their colors and logo (a return to the orange-and-navy look of the ’70s) and extending to a vigorous marketing campaign that emphasized hard work, energy, and community building.
Meanwhile, the team took advantage of their poverty by drafting Carlos Correa #1 overall in the 2012 draft, soon pairing him with rising stars Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Dallas Keuchel. They made enough smart choices that even the questionable ones (oof, Mark Appel…) didn’t slow them down.
We all know what happened next. The Astros’ well-timed rebrand preceded an unprecedented period of success, as they won their first championship in 2017 and are currently riding a streak of four straight trips to the ALCS. But in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal, the Astros’ shiny new winning brand became almost universally vilified overnight. Was it worth it?
Lesson learned: if you’re gonna talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk (and by walk, I mean don’t f*ing cheat).
The Slam Diego Padres
Call it recency bias if you like, but I think there’s no better example of self-driven branding initiative than the current San Diego Padres. For over a decade, the Padres had one of the worst brands in baseball: a dull blue-and-white color scheme with tan undertones, of all things, and a plain white overlaid “SD” on their caps.
This entirely forgettable style choice came to envelop the Padres brand and they suffered through nine consecutive losing seasons, taking any sense of relevancy they’d earned from their late-nineties run with Tony Gwynn and Kevin Brown and dropping it in the dust of mediocrity.
Thankfully, A.J. Preller had a plan. Hired in 2014, the Padres GM quickly set the tone, making moves fast and loose in an effort to improve his roster. He traded for Wil Myers, Justin Upton and Craig Kimbrel in the first year.
During the 2016 season, he swapped James Shields and Fernando Rodney for top prospects Fernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack. And in December 2019, 10 months after inking Manny Machado to the biggest free agent contract in history, he made an under-the-radar move that brought in Tommy Pham and Jake Cronenworth for Hunter Renfroe. Not every move was a success, but he did enough right to build the makings of a contender.
Then, sensing the potential of the 2020 Padres squad, the front office announced a return to the old yellow-and-brown look and swingin’ friar logo that made the pre-1985 Padres brand so distinctive. It’s retro. It’s weird. Most importantly, it’s different.
And of course, Preller didn’t stop there. Trading for Clevinger, Blake Snell and Yu Darvish within five months is exactly the kind of utterly insane all-in thinking of someone who understands the power of momentum and maintaining a good brand. The future is golden brown in San Diego.
Lesson learned: go hard or go home, baby.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (of Los Angeles)
Now compare this, if you will, to another California team that underwent an identity crisis: the Los Angeles Angels. The franchise began as the L.A. Angels, then switched to the “California Angels” after moving to Anaheim in 1965. Nothing wrong with that. Thirty years later, they had to change it again to “Anaheim Angels” due to the terms of a new ballpark lease. That was okay too. Under the ownership of the Disney Co., the Anaheim Angels won the 2002 World Series.
Then along came Arte Moreno, who had other ideas. He wanted to market the team to the whole L.A. metropolitan area, so he brought back the “Los Angeles Angels” handle—but because of that lease agreement, he had to keep “of Anaheim” tagged in there on the end.
The result was a confusingly long name that most fans didn’t like, tapering the momentum and goodwill Moreno had built by signing high-profile free agents like Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon, and Kelvim Escobar.
The Angels had some sustained success, reaching the playoffs five times in Moreno’s first six years, but never made it past the ALCS. They finally dropped the “of Anaheim” in 2013, and won the division the next year, but haven’t sniffed the postseason since (despite employing a guy by the name of Mike Trout).
Lesson learned: please, just don’t overthink it.
What About Cleveland?
So, what does this mean for our favorite ex-tribesmen? I think the above lessons can be summarized by three handy bullet points:
1.) Be Original – But in Good Taste
As the Marlins learned, it is possible to be a little too original when it comes to logo design. Nobody wants to watch a team dressed up like an ice cream truck, especially if they’re already bad—and in Cleveland’s case, there should be at least a few rebuilding years ahead. But at the same time, no one wants to see another lazy nickname that’s been done before, like the Rockets (that’s Houston’s thing guys, and they already messed it up).
Personally, I’m all-in on the Cleveland Spiders, because spiders are cool. But whatever it ends up being, it has to be fresh, and the quirkier the better (don’t believe me? They’ve done studies on this). A safe play like the Nationals made should be the bare minimum.
2.) Timing Matters
Unless Nolan Jones turns into Nolan Arenado, it’s unlikely that Cleveland will be able to execute a quick turnaround to glory, à la the Rays, when they debut their new look in 2022. But if their recent history of pitcher development is any indication, it shouldn’t take too long to return to the mountaintop—and the gap year should help mitigate this. One would hope, optimistically, that the fact they waited this long to announce the change shows that they understand this already.
The best case here is probably most similar to what the Astros did, minus all the cheating. But even if things go wrong (they will) and the rebuild drags on (it might), they can look to Washington’s example and see that long-term plans can work too. That brings us to point No. 3….
3.) Make a Plan and Follow Through
If you happen to work in the Cleveland front office—first of all, thank you for reading, and may I recommend signing up for PL+? It’s great value!—take this one and underline it until your magic digital pen runs out of ink. There is nothing more important to successfully rebuilding a brand than commitment. The Rays had it; the Nats had it, and the Padres have spent the last six months plastering money-lined flyers to our faces announcing that they have it.
You know who didn’t have it? The Marlins, who jumped ship as soon as things got sticky; the Astros, who tried to take a shortcut; and the Angels, who waffled so much their own fans didn’t know their name. Those teams share a legacy of inconsistency (among other issues) that seeped into the very Twitter-fabric of their brands, brutally exacerbating the already onerous process of team-building.
So yeah, maybe try and avoid that.
It could be a long few years, but Cleveland fans should rest assured that for all the heartache, they’ve taken the first step toward success. The threads are there, and now it’s time to spin the web.