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An “Imperfect” Analysis of the Economics of Native American Mascots: Much Ado about Nothing?

A few days ago I came across an article in Forbes that discussed the continuing controversy surrounding the Washington, D.C. NFL franchise’s use of “Redskins” as a team name.  As a University of Illinois graduate and fan, the issue of Native American mascots is something that hits close to home.  As many may know, the University of Illinois dropped the “Chief” in 2007 while keeping the Illini name.  There are many Illinois fans that view the decision with derision, and think of it as political correctness gone wild.

One nice consequence of the Emory Sports Marketing Analytics (ESMA) project is that we have assembled a significant amount of data that provides opportunities to address many topical questions.  The issue of how Native American Mascots affect a team’s revenues and brand equity is (almost) one such question.  I say almost because while the team name currently in the news belongs to an NFL franchise, the most relevant data we have available comes from NCAA basketball.

Here’s the upshot of our study examining the impact of changing the Native American mascot: Schools experience a very short (1 or 2 years) negative financial impact and then quickly recover.  Furthermore, in the long-term, the shift away from a Native American mascot yields positive financial returns. Now, an examination of our study, and all of the caveats associated with it.

NCAA basketball includes numerous examples of teams that have dropped, kept or adapted Native American mascots.  For example, St. John’s and Marquette have dropped Native American mascots and changed the team nickname.  Illinois and Bradley have retained their team names but dropped all Native American imagery.  Other schools such as Florida State and Utah have received permission from tribal representatives and made no changes to their mascots or team names.  But, it is not perfect data because there are only a relatively small number of examples where teams change names (and as noted above there are a large number of special circumstances such as the Seminole tribe’s embracing of FSU).  The approach we have taken to analyzing the impact of Native American mascots and switches away from using a Native American mascot therefore requires some creativity and several assumptions.

Our first analysis involved predicting men’s basketball revenues as a function of a wide variety of factors including: season winning percentage, tournament success, stadium capacity, enrollment, historical successes (championships, final fours, tourney appearances), and conference affiliation.  For this analysis, we also included variables related to the school’s history and current status with regard to Native American mascots.  Specifically, we included a variable that indicated if the school had ever had a Native American mascot, the time since a change had been made and whether the school had kept a Native American mascot (for this analysis we treated Bradley and Illinois as having dropped the Native American mascot).  This analysis yielded a marginally significant negative term for the variable that indicated if the school had ever had a Native American mascot, and a significant positive term for the time since a shift away from a Native American mascot.  (We should also note that as always we experimented with a large number of alternative specifications, such as log transforms of time since shift and quadratic formulations.  The findings we report are robust in that they occur across these various specifications).

In terms of financial impact, the model results suggest that school’s experience a very short (1 or 2 years) negative impact and then quickly recover.  The results also suggest that in the long-term the shift away from a Native American mascot yields positive financial returns.  As a follow up, we used the brand equity measures created here as a dependent variable and regressed this value against the previously defined variables related to the school’s use of a Native American mascot.  In this analysis we found NO significant effects.  The key implication is that switching away from a Native American mascot has no long-term negative effect on brand equity.

The preceding analysis requires a fair amount of caveats.  For instance, it may not be reasonable to assume that findings from college basketball translate to pro football.  College fans often refer to their teams based on the name of the institution (Illinois beats Maryland) while pro fans might more often refer to team names (The Bears crush the Redskins).  It should also be noted that the data available for studying the effects of mascots is limited.  For example, there are only three schools that have received permission to use tribal names.  This is too small of a sample to make conclusions about the effect of tribal permission on the outcomes generated by Native American mascots.

All that said, we believe that our findings have a great deal of face validity.  While the use of Native American mascots is controversial, it is not clear to us that the consequence of a shift away from a Native American mascot is that big of a deal.  While some fans may complain, it is not clear that these fans actually change their behavior or their shopping habits.  It might also be that merchandise sales become more appealing to segments that did not like the previous Native American mascot.

Mike Lewis & Manish Tripathi, Emory University 2013.

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