Thursday, February 3, 2011

10 Simple Rules for Nicknaming a Franchise

If I ever accumulate enough money to buy a sports team, major or minor league, a lot of thought's going to be put into it's nickname. Time and again, I'm amazed at the sheer lunacy of the buffoons put in charge of creating mascots and "sellables" for our beloved sports teams. Over time as the number of appalling nicknames has risen dramatically and I've gotten more and more angry, I've compiled a list of rules, simple ones, that should be followed when creating an identity for a club. As more and more competitions vie for a slice of rich televisual chocolate cake, it so happens that ridiculous numbers of franchises ignore and disdain these principles as "focus groups" and surveys and competitions drive the selection of almost every new team's nickname.

It's worthwhile noting that several characteristics make up a good nickname and that any words chosen after the name of the locality make an impact on whether the casual fan chooses to follow a team or not. It's a lot easier to get excited about the Central Coast Mariners than it is the Buchan Cavemen. Before about thirty years ago, poorly named clubs just didn't survive; now as leagues become more regulated and owners grow in their awareness of potential pitfalls we see fewer failed teams. Hence more teams with rubbish nicknames cluttering my sporting landscape.

1980 or so was also about the time corresponding with the rise of marketing analysts and political correctness. We still see the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Redskins - references to native American culture and all because in the past sixty years or more they've been able to build a culture of their own; a history strong enough on its own to resist the PC age. It's only because of their identifiability that these nicknames persist from a less tolerant epoch. But the PC age has rightly cut into the total of nicknames available.

I've taken it upon myself to collate a list of rules which absolutely must be obeyed when post-scripting a location. It's not complete by any means but, should my Great Auntie Maggie deign to leave her millions to me, I'll be enforcing these rules when I buy a franchise.

1. No Concepts.
A hard and fast rule, but broken in as many sports as I can think of. The chief offenders are the WNBA (New York Liberty, the Atlanta Dream and Indiana Fever) and any professional soccer league founded in the past fifty years. MLS (New England Revolution, Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, ) and the A-League (Melbourne Victory, Perth Glory, North Queensland Fury) are also palpably culpable.
As fans, we follow fierce concepts, not proud ones - so, bye-bye Melbourne Victory & Perth Glory. Hello Melbourne Rangers and Perth Fire Ants. A few of these concepts work but do so because they sound fierce - and very cool - like the Alabama Crimson Tide.

2. Go Plural
Goes hand in hand with Rule 1. If your mascot can't be multiplied there is little chance the nickname will generate popular support in the casual follower. Why did the Houston Dynamo refuse to add an "s" at the end? Sure, the nickname still sucks, but at least it's better and you can yell "Go Dynos". Usually new fans are family-based, with parents ruled by what the kids like or dislike. It's hard to attract new fans, younger ones especially, with a nickname like "The Liberty". But changed to "Liberties" and, while not a good nickname by any stretch, it reads much better and is easier to cheer. It also better follows the next rule...

3. Local rules
When it comes to choosing a nickname in the American sporting culture, many of the best were chosen for geographic or native features of the team's home. Example: the Los Angeles Lakers started life as the Minneapolis Lakers, in the land of 1000 lakes, Minnesota. The Bulls of Chicago was chosen for that city's plethora of stockyards. Dallas' Cowboy is based on popular perception of the Old West. Locality matters - so choose local animal or phenomenon and go with it. If your most important local artefact is a date, then use that number. It works for the 49ers.

4. Coolness matters
Sport is increasingly pitched as family entertainment and it's usually Dad or the kids who's going to pick the sport. Not always, but mostly. And it just so happens that Dads and kids are much more susceptible to "cool" things. There's less chance of Dad's buying tickets to a team with a Butterfly mascot than of him taking the fam to a Bulldogs game. And for the tots, there isn't anything more awesome in the world than what's around you - birds, spiders and snakes. Appeal comes from the Awesome Factor.

5. Stay away from Alliteration
Alliteration is a tempting, but ultimately naff way of choosing a franchise mascot. It's OK when it's accidental - the Lakers again - but almost all the most famous nicknames in sports have nothing to do with the first letter of their locality. The Boston Celtics, Dallas Cowboys, Collingwood Magpies, Manchester United Red Devils - all chose a mascot which suited their city's roots, or their preferred colours. The prosecution calls the Port Adelaide Power, charged with violations of rules 1 to 5. Yeah, in the SANFL you were the Magpies and that was taken, boo-freaking-hoo. Apart from Power being a concept, alliterating to make it fit your locality just makes you seem sad and pathetic. There's no room for poetry.

6. No deliberate mis-spellings
You'd think this was a no-brainer, wouldn't you, but NOOOOoooooooooooooOOOO! As recently as the last half-decade clubs have tried to assimilate themselves into popular culture by mis-spelling their names, graffito-style. Yes, New Zealand Football Kingz, I'm looking in your defunct direction. And at your folded arses, Pennsylvania Valley Dawgs. No! A six year old monkey can spell "Kings" and "Dogs"; by mis-spelling them deliberately, you alienate 85-90% of your buying market - the people who hate "tagging" - and concentrate on the remainder who don't think mis-spelling is crass. There's a reason both your crappy franchises failed. And that's not even starting on the Pittsburgh Xplosion.

7. No in-jokes
You'd think this one was obvious. When in 2004 a new Charlotte NBA team was created to replace the departed Hornets, a competition was held to choose a nickname. The competition was won by a submission - The Bobcats - playing off the owner Bob Johnson's christian name. It was Johnson who was to select the winning entry. It's an in-joke, and since he recently sold out to Michael Jordan, a redundant one. Though perhaps unavoidable, sponsored nicknames don't work either: the MLS's New York/New Jersey Metrostars became the New York Red Bulls after their sale. By naming a team after a product is cheapens the franchise in itself - an unwitting message of "we need corporate support to survive" or "we're a planned tax loss". And the Toronto Raptors - naming yourselves after the bad guys in a movie? No wonder your franchise has sucked it's entire lifetime.

8. Any nickname over two syllables needs to be readily shortenable
Sounds complicated but isn't. Hockey's most (in)famous franchise, the Montreal Canadiens, usually go by the local diminutive The Habs. Hockey is particularly good at this shortening - the Pens, Isles, Hawks, Wings, Sens, Leafs, Preds, Ducks and Canes all easier forms of their mascots. diminutives for longer mascots. Case in point: being a Bostonian, it's impossible to cheer "GO PATRIOTS", especially after seventeen beers and a congential lack of teeth: "GO PATS" is much less of a mouthful.

9. Don't be afraid of colours

Many of the best nicknames are simply colours: the Reds, the Blues, the Whites, the Oranje. They are simple, they reflect a team's jersey and they are easy to say after a bunch of alcohol. You can even use colours to pep up another noun, like we saw with the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Man U Red Devils. Colours are your friend.

10. Moving franchises keep nicknames
There's never been a more inappropriate nickname than the Utah Jazz, who were named at the start of their five year stint in New Orleans. The Lakers, another basketball refugee, reside in a land almost devoid of inland water. But dammit, they work - each franchise has created a history for itself like the aforementioned Blackhawks or Redskins. If the franchise has a period of success or a transcendent player or two then the nickname must be kept. It's just the rules.

Using this set of rules, any new franchise can easily come up with a list of candidates so we don't have another Melbourne Heart, Miami Fusion, Indiana Fever or Perth Glory. By choosing a poor nickname, a concept or something based on pride rather than power never works and just ends up making attracting and keeping fans harder.

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