Wednesday, July 27, 2016

All about the name

The new NHL franchise in Vegas is struggling to come up with a name for itself, which puts the significance of team names in the spotlight. After all, the history of North American sports is filled with ones that range from great and inspired to dull and unimaginative.

Some are so common they fall into the ho-hum category despite being superficially good, chief among them the ubiquitous "Tigers." That means I have to include the teams of my beloved Auburn University among the ranks of the ho-humly named. Heck, three of the SEC's fourteen schools call themselves Tigers.

Up in the NFL, however, you have to give the Cincinnati Bengals credit for naming themselves after tigers without calling themselves tigers. That gives them a distinctly cool name to go with their eternally cool uniforms. 

*     *     *     *     *

How sweet it is when a team hits a home run with its name, regardless of whether it's in the professional, semi-professional, college, or even high school ranks.

Some of the best belong to semi-pro squads -- especially semi-pro hockey, which has given us the Macon Whoopee, Kentucky Thoroughblades, and Orlando Solar Bears. Give those three an A+ for creativity, especially the now-defunct naughty one, whose logo contained a visual entendre if you can spot it.

If you think those names sound too kitschy, kind of like an outdated roadside attraction, well, you might have a point. So I ask you to simply look north of the border, for how can you not like the Manitoba Moose, Fort McMurray Oil Barons, and Saint John Sea Dogs? (If only the WHL team from Medicine Hat, Alberta would call itself the Medicine Men!)

Not to be outdone, minor league baseball offers up alliterative gems like the Savannah Sand Gnats and Lansing Lugnuts.

Then there are the Asheville Tourists, who play in a mountain city that draws vacationers like moths to a flame. Not only do they have an appropriate name, they also have the best scoreboard of all time -- rather than saying "home" and "visitors," it says "Tourists" and "visitors."

*     *     *     *     *

I prefer team names to have something fearsome about them but I don't think it's necessary. There is something weirdly endearing about a hockey team called the Penguins, football team called the Dolphins, and baseball team called the Cardinals.

Which leads me to some weirdly endearing names from the collegiate ranks, like the UC-Santa Cruz Banana Slugs and Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. If not for the former, I might never have known that a nine-inch-long, brightly-colored species of slug inhabits the damp forests of our West Coast; and as for the latter, it is certainly unique to see a sports program named after a character from The Canterbury Tales.

*     *     *     *     *

I believe it is important for a team's name to reflect something integral about the city, region, or school it represents.

On that score, I am proud to say that the monikers of my hometown NHL and NFL franchises are ideal. The Tampa Bay Area has long been known as "the lightning capital of the world," so it's spot-on that our hockey club is the Tampa Bay Lightning; and piracy is a big part of our pre-twentieth-century history, so it's spot-on that our football team is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Our baseball team, the Rays, is also well-named since our local beaches are collectively known as the Suncoast.

But I'm not here to talk about my own teams, I'm here to talk about ones from across the fruited plain, so let me proceed by giving a shout out to the Baltimore Ravens.

Yes, the raven is a fine sports symbol to begin with because it is a big, spooky bird associated with death and war. But for Baltimore to call a team "Ravens" is to turn the volume up to 11, because Baltimore is where Edgar Allan Poe ("Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore'") died of delirium tremens and is buried at Westminster Hall. And turning the volume up to 12, the team's mascot is named Poe.

Three of Dallas's professional teams -- the Cowboys, Rangers, and Mavericks -- have names befitting the culture and history of that braggart city on the edge of the American West.

The NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves draw on the fact that Minnesota has by far the largest wolf population in the United States outside of Alaska; while the NFL's Minnesota Vikings draw on the fact that much of that state's human population is descended from Scandinavian immigrants.

Meanwhile, the Portland Trailblazers bring to mind the fact that Oregon was settled by people who arrived in covered wagons after traversing an untamed continent on a wilderness path called the Oregon Trail.

Then there is the best team name in the history of sports: the New Orleans Jazz. That name completely captures the culture and history of the city, and the improvisational nature of jazz completely relates to the improvisational nature of basketball. The Jazz played NBA hoops in New Orleans for five seasons, from 1974 to 1979, then relocated to Utah, the most unjazzy of these United States. They should have left the name behind when they moved.

*     *     *     *     *

At this point I could go on a tangent about affixing American Indian Native American names to sports teams, but that would be, well, a tangent, and would make this post way too long, so I will get back to where I started: The yet-unnamed NHL franchise in Las Vegas.

I always figured that trademarks and copyrights had some kind of a place in the sports world. But since there are the New York Giants in football and San Francisco Giants in baseball; the LA Kings in hockey and Sacramento Kings in basketball; the New York Jets in football and Winnipeg Jets in hockey; the Detroit Tigers in the pro ranks and approximately 42,729,689 Tigers in the college and high school ranks, I figured that the space occupied by trademarks and copyrights was fairly small where sports are concerned.

Turns out I was wrong.

Bill Foley, owner of the Vegas hockey club, is a proud West Point graduate and Army buff who never hid the fact that his preference was to name his team the Black Knights, just like West Point's NCAA teams -- or, failing that, to call them the Knights in a shorthand nod to his alma mater. It was reported far and wide that Foley's team was pretty much destined to end up with one of those two names, but he is now learning that legal issues are likely to prevent that from happening.

He shouldn't fret, however, because Vegas's location in the Mojave Desert gives him many distinct choices.

If it were up to me, I would name the team the Roadrunners, preferably the Nevada Roadrunners. For one thing, roadrunners are native to the area and are an unmistakable desert species. For another, the team's main geographic rival will be the Arizona Coyotes, and how cool it would be for that rivalry to be Coyotes vs. Roadrunners! Just imagine the marketing possibilities in a nation where so many of us were raised on Looney Tunes...

Unfortunately, the old/new bugaboo of trademarks and copyrights might make that impossible. Back in the 1970's, when the WHA made its run as an alternative to the NHL, Phoenix had a WHA team called the Roadrunners. That team only existed for three years, but its name has continued to be associated with hockey in Arizona, of all places, through a number of incarnations in semi-pro leagues: the PHL from 1977 to 1979; IHL from 1989 to 1997; ECHL from 2005 to 2009; and starting this year in Tuscon, as the Coyotes' own AHL affiliate.

Assuming the Coyotes have some kind of ownership of the Roadrunners name, I highly doubt that they will relinquish it to a new franchise that will be competing with them for the loyalty of hockey fans throughout the Southwest.

But like I already said, Foley shoudn't have to fret. He could go with Bighorns or Pronghorns, both of which are desert animals endemic to the area. (And since marketing types are enamored with words that can be shortened into single-syllable vernacular nicknames, it's worth noting that a team called the Bighorns would probably come to be called the Sheep.)

Sticking with endemic wildlife, a Vegas team could also go with Jackrabbits (speed is important in hockey!) or Gila Monsters (which would get shortened to Gilas before the first game). And there are many other possibilities, including the Scorpions, Sidewinders, Kingsnakes, Cougars, or Pumas.

Then again, you don't have to stick with wildlife. Dallas probably has a legal claim on the Cowboys nickname, but Wranglers would give a nod not only to Vegas's Western spirit but to this famous icon in front of the Pioneer Club downtown.

Keeping with an Old West theme, Foley could also go with Rustlers, Outlaws, Bandits, Renegades, Lawmen, Sheriffs, or Shootists.

But going back to extinct teams from extinct leagues, could it be that the USFL's Oklahoma Outlaws and Tampa Bay Bandits have those two nicknames locked up three decades after the league's demise? Who knows?

But no matter what, there are plenty of good names out there waiting to be used. I hope Foley abandons his hopes of recycling West Point's name, and instead uses one that is new and invigorating in the world of professional sports.

No comments: