This post focuses on what Sport Change deems to be some of the best brands in Minor League Baseball. We’ll explore our favorite teams and try to get a hold on why they are so appealing. For the Sport Change attempt at defining a sports brand, click here.
The teams that are mentioned in this study are members of these leagues: International, Pacific Coast, Eastern, Southern, Texas, Florida State, Carolina, California, Midwest, South Atlantic, New York-Penn, Northwest, and Pioneer. That makes 150 teams. We’re not going to rank or even talk about every team. Just cherry picking teams of interest.
Here are the criteria used in this study:
-History. As in all sports, having a well-established brand tends to make a team automatically classy. As an example: If an MLB expansion team in 2012 were called the Yankees, the name would be ridiculed mercilessly. Instead, we see that everything about the Yankees brand has become a worldwide phenomenon. Even a boring name like the Harrisburg Senators has a certain appeal simply because they have been around since the 20s.
-Geography. Having a name that reflects specific aspects of a city or region definitely earns a team some bonus points. The Nashville Sounds, for instance, are representative of Music City.
-Fun. In the Minors, fun is key. Teams that realize this (Lowell, Charleston, etc.) find success despite playing in small or unusual markets. People from many walks of life are interested in sports for a variety of reasons, but the bread-and-butter of many MiLB teams comes from being family-friendly and fun. When you think of a team, you should smile inside.
-Uniqueness. Unlike pro sports, uniqueness is acceptable and even welcome in a farm club. Even when a team fails (and looks ridiculous) trying to be fun or unique, it’s O.K. Why? Because farm clubs are temporary stopovers. A young prospect should look in the mirror before a game and think to themselves, “Boy, I’ll be glad to not be a Midland RockHound much longer.” Save the broader brands such as Bears and Suns for pro teams. Additionally, I think that unless a team goes all-in (as Atlanta Brave-ly attempts) with every affiliate at every level, teams should avoid naming their affiliates after themselves.
Let’s use categories to pick out our favorite teams:
Classic & Classy
-Durham Bulls. Bulls is definitely a broad-stroke nickname, but Durham owns it as much as Chicago does. The Bulls are an old team that draws well and has movies made about them.
-Toledo Mud Hens. Corporal Klinger’s favored squad is in an ideal farm-club town and has a great farm-club nickname, no pun intended.
-Buffalo Bisons. It’s great that Buffalo owns this nickname and has since 1877. It’s a fun play on words, and the Bisons have kept fans engaged for many years. The NFL’s Buffalo Bills have more of a goofy minor league-type brand. Perhaps the two teams should switch nicknames.
-Birmingham Barons. You’ve got to love how this team used to be called the Coal Barons. I doubt that name would be too popular these days. The Barons will forever be remembered as the team that Michael Jordan joined in the 90s.
-Chattanooga Lookouts. A unique brand that’s been around since the 19th century. Fun Fact: In a 1931 exhibition game against the New York Yankees, a 17-year old girl named Jackie Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
-Rochester Red Wings. The former Orioles affiliate (featuring a young Cal Ripken Jr.) once played in the longest pro baseball game ever. The game lasted 33 innings over multiple days in 1981. Wade Boggs and the Pawtucket Red Sox eventually toppled the Wings. Baseball lore at it’s best.
-San Antonio Missions. An older team with a region-specific nickname and a long roster of all-star alumni.
-Columbus Clippers. There may be an NBA Clippers, but Columbus owns this nickname. For a few years, the two teams averaged about the same attendance per game. Columbus used to be the Yankees AAA affiliate and there are many future MLB Hall-of-Famers who once donned the blue and red.
-Eugene Emeralds. The Ems were a charter member of the Northwest League in 1955. A great name and one that is representative of the minors: unique and alliterative. The Emeralds keep things fun for fans, including this recent Grateful Dead tribute night.
Speaking of fun, let’s switch gears to some of the more recently added teams. The nineties saw a bit of a sea change in MiLB branding, with novelty names becoming the new standard. When done correctly, these names can re-energize a dormant fan base and help a team to become economically viable. This tends to allow a team to stay in the same city with the same parent club for many years. A-ball and lower is when the names get really experimental. Here are some that of those happy-go-lucky brands that have popped up since the nineties.
Goofy & Great
-Asheville Tourists. A funny name that just about anybody, anywhere can chuckle at. There are tourists everywhere, after all.
-Lansing Lugnuts. Everybody’s favorite disgruntled piece of hardware hops to a town near you.
-Charleston RiverDogs. The R-Dogs stand out from the dozen or so cat/dog brands because they are owned by the Goldklang group; Bill Murray, Mike Veeck, and a handful of goofballs. Clever promotions and gimmicks are commonplace at Goldklang games.
-Everett AquaSox. AquaSox–talk about a team birthed in the 90s! Everett is a Seattle suburb that came on the scene when Junior was in full aqua glory. Hat logos from the AquaSox have included a tree-frog, literal aqua-colored socks, and an ingenious retro Mariners trident M rotated ninety degrees to form an E for Everett.
-Albuquerque Isotopes. This is such a great story. When New Mexico lost their beloved Dukes, a new team moved to fill the void. The nickname is based on the episode of the Simpsons in which the Springfield Isotopes were moved to Albuquerque. Unbelievable. Especially for a AAA team.
-Inland Empire 66ers of San Bernardino. The 66ers is a reference to old Route 66. The long-winded moniker is a reference to a certain parent club with an identity crisis. Now that’s cheeky.
-Lakeland Flying Tigers. This cracks me up every time. They used to be simply the Lakeland Tigers. Apparently that was too boring, so they game the tiger a pair of wings. What’s next? The Palm Beach Swimming Cardinals?
-Carolina Mudcats. Catfish, that is. A big grinning catfish working it’s way through a letter C. The Mudcats are so popular that when the old team moved to Pensacola recently, the Kinston Indians immediately relocated and reclaimed the Mudcats brand.
-Portland Sea Dogs. That’s Portland, Maine and a reference to an aquatic mammal. This very popular Red Sox AA affiliate was introduced in 1994 as an affiliate of new Florida Marlins and at one time sported the ubiquitous tell-tale teal of that decade. They’ve since gone to red. Good move.
-Brevard County Manatees. The quintessential Florida team. I’m still waiting for the Broward County Hanging Chads.
-Richmond Flying Squirrels. A winged mammal glided into Richmond recently and has enjoyed tremendous success. Forget the Richmond Braves. This little guy is like a furry superhero.
-Savannah Sand Gnats. Who says annoying insects don’t make great MiLB nicknames? Honorable mention to the fellow Sally leaguer, the Augusta GreenJackets. Oh, and also the…
-Greensboro Grasshoppers. When Jeter and company played for Greensboro they had a great nickname: the Hornets. Then another swarm of Hornets came to North Carolina and stole all the thunder. No problem: an excellent rebrand to the 90s staple, the Greensboro Bats. Then Louisville wanted Bats, so an even better rebrand: the Grasshoppers. They just keep getting better. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Grasshoppers will not be co-opted by any other team. Good for Greensboro!
-Louisville Bats. I’m glad that the Bats moniker found a good home. Double meaning in the land of the Slugger.
-Missoula Osprey. Birds of prey make good nicknames, and the Osprey found a unique one. Other great names could be the Kestrels, the Merlins, and the Harriers.
-Idaho Falls Chukars. What’s a chukar? A type of prairie partridge that is often hunted and sometimes domesticated to be raised for meat. Hmm…I must be getting hungry.
-Hickory Crawdads. Speaking of hunger, I’m not sure whether I should give this fella a hug or toss him in a boiling pot.
That’s a great segue into another group of fun brands. In the upcoming Sport Change post about Minor League rebrands, I’ll have another to add to this group:
-Cedar Rapids Kernels. Nothing says Iowa like corn. That’s because there’s nothing in Iowa except corn. Acres and acres of corn. All tended by Kevin Costner.
-Jamestown Jammers. I absolutely love this story. For years, the Jammers were identified with a bizarre, cheaply-drawn furry mammal. What was it? A jackal? Hyena? Tasmanian Devil? Chinchilla? And what is a Jammer, anyway. Brilliant rebranding came into play by making the logo a baseball-playing blackberry. For blackberry jam, of course. Brilliant.
-Montgomery Biscuits. Perfect name for team in the minors: fun, funny, lovable, and regionally relevant. Well done. No pun intended.
-Modesto Nuts. The Modesto A’s was a pretty boring name. Hmmm…what’s the Modesto area known for? Why, growing almonds, walnuts, and other nutty delights. Double entendres aside, this is a great brand for the whole family.
Let’s get serious for a moment. Another group of great brands is flavored with the salt of the earth. Like the Packers or the Steelers, the everyday workingman (and woman) can be honored in a moniker. Let’s roll up our sleeves and go to work:
-Tulsa Drillers. It may not be eco-friendly, but neither is Tulsa. The old Drillers are representative of their region, and you can bet that at one time there were actual oil drillers on the squad.
-Lowell Spinners. One of the most exemplary community-minded teams in the Minors gets it’s name from the historic textile industry of the “Spindle City.” Lowell’s ridiculous “Spinnertainment” promotions set the bar pretty “darn” high.
-Williamsport Crosscutters. When the Bills left for Binghamton in the 90s, the city that hosts the Little League World Series needed a new identity. Enter the Crosscutters, an homage to the timber industry that works much better than the LumberKings.
-Frisco RoughRiders. This is one Texas team I can agree with, and it makes sense that the former Shreveport (LA) Captains are a member of the Texas league. Rough Riders is just a pretty cool name for a baseball team.
-Lake County Captains. When Shreveport moved to Frisco and then reincarnated themselves in the independent American Association, there was an opportunity for the great name of Captains to be restored. Enter Lake County, Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie.
-Bradenton Marauders. Pirating is an occupation of sorts, and how appropriate for the Florida State League affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. I think Pirates is one of the best nicknames in pro sports, and Marauders is on par with Raiders or Buccaneers. The FSL has pretty embarrassing attendance figures, but Bradenton does alright. They look pretty good, as well. Shiver me timbers!
Now that we’ve grounded ourselves, it’s time to slip back in time…and space…and imagination. Here are some supernatural names:
Flighty & Fictional
-Las Vegas 51s. I have to mention them because they fit here so well, but I’m actually not a big fan of the 51s brand. It’s blatantly gimmicky, and we should expect more from a AAA club. (don’t get me started on the Omaha Storm Chasers.) It’s also worth noting that the Las Vegas, the sexy choice for pro sports expansion, struggles to fill seats at 51s games. As Will Smith once said, “Welcome to Earth!” *punches alien face*
-Great Falls Voyagers. Don’t get me wrong, I love aliens. Just do it right. The Pioneer League’s successful Montana franchise gets it’s identity from the Mariana UFO incident in Great Falls in the 50s. The general manager of the Great Falls Electrics baseball club (old Brooklyn Dodgers affiliate) and his secretary saw flying saucers over the baseball field. They actually films several seconds of footage. Awesome. Awesome logos too.
-Ogden Raptors. Many raptor skeletons have been found in Utah; including the cleverly named Utahraptor. Because of this, I forgive Ogden and it’s choice of nickname. In fact, I celebrate it. The Toronto Raptors…please. Talk about market research blowing up in your face. Raptors was the best nickname to pick in 1995. Now all these years later, it’s the best nickname to pick…in 1995.
-Dayton Dragons. Dayton is such a successful franchise that they would be celebrated even if their name was the Dayton Pink Unicorns. It just so happens that Dragons is a very cool name and the alliteration is perfect. One of the best (if not the best) brands in the minors–at least according to Sport Change.
-Vermont Lake Monsters. Have you heard of Champ? He’s America’s answer to the Loch Ness Monster and he lives in Lake Champlain, right near Burlington, Vermont. The Vermont Expos even used to use champ for their logo before they went belly-up along with their parent club. Great brand: regionally-relevant, fun, and even a little intimidating.
-Lexington Legends. Moving on to human-like tales, the Lexington Legends apparently are paying homage to Casey at the Bat. Nicely done, and love the alliteration. The last attempt at this was when the Stockton Ports (a good brand anyway) temporarily changed to the Mudville Nine. That’s just gimmicky and cheap. Leave it to Lexington.
-Fort Wayne TinCaps. Another tall tale makes the list. This time it’s Johnny Appleseed. The old Fort Wayne moniker, the Wizards, was pretty cool as well. However, a certain NBA team sort of claimed that name. TinCaps is a fun name. The logo is an apple with a frying pan for a hat and their unis are an attractive combo of green and red. Caps off to the TinCaps.
-Auburn Doubledays. This is a reference to Abner Doubleday, the man credited with inventing baseball. Just like how the Tennessee Gores are a reference to Al Gore, creator of the Internet. In all seriousness, isn’t it a coincidence that Doubleday was from Auburn and his name Abner sounds similarly to Auburn. Whoa. That’s some weird, wild stuff.
-Casper Ghosts (deceased). This is a posthumous reference to the now dead Pioneer League franchise that while living played their games to pitiful crowds in Casper, Wyoming. I think they only existed as a team because some pun-loving guy wanted to call a team the Casper Ghosts. Very clever, but unfortunately the Casper Ghosts faded away in 2011.
Now for a dose of reality. There have always been teams in the minors that simply have the same nickname, and essentially the same brand as their parent club. Sometimes the parent club actually owns the teams and wants to spread the brand around. Entire leagues, such as the Rookie ball Appalachian League are comprised of teams with the same name as the big leaguers. What fun is that? This is the minors, for crying out loud. Don’t be so serious. Generally, I think it only works when an entire (or at least close to entire) farm system has the same name. Here are a few clubs that I think do it right:
Chips off the Old Blocks
-Atlanta Braves System. AAA-Gwinnett Braves, AA-Mississippi Braves, A-Lynchburg Hillcats, A-Rome Braves, R-Danville Braves. I think this is the best example of how this method can be done right. If Lynchburg became the Braves, the set would be complete. They might as well, since Hillcats is a very boring brand that gets lost amid the dozen or so cat and dog nicknames. I really like how the different affiliates put some spin on the logos. The Roman column in particular is terrific.
-Chicago Cubs System. AAA-Iowa Cubs, AA-Tennessee Smokies, A-Daytona Cubs, A-Peoria Chiefs, SS-Boise Hawks. There’s only two here, but they’re both good. Here’s how I’d swing it: The AA Binghamton Mets are likely moving. They move to I don’t know, Decatur, and become the Decatur Cubs. The Mets can have the Smokies and they should change the name of the St. Lucie Mets while they’re at it to get out of the Same Name business. Let the White Sox have the Chiefs. Right now they have the Kannapolis (NC) Intimidators–give ’em old Peoria. The Cubs get the Clinton (IA) LumberKings and call them the Clinton Cubs. The Hawks simply become the Boise Cubs.
-St. Louis Cardinals System. AAA-Memphis Redbirds, AA-Springfield Cardinals, A-Palm Beach Cardinals, A-Quad Cities River Bandits, SS-Batavia Muckdogs. Redbirds works as wells as Cardinals, so really this is the only team with the top three affiliates named after the parent club. “Muckdogs” is truly a terrible name and Batavia struggles to sell tickets. Might as well be the Batavia Cardinals. The River Bandits have a successful brand and won’t be changing, and in Low-A ball, unique names are the norm. However, if I’m changing Clinton to the Cubs, we’ll have St. Louis and Arizona switch Midwest League teams. The Bandits go to the D’Backs, and St. Louis rebrands the South Bend Silver Hawks to the South Bend Cardinals.
-Boston Red Sox System. AAA-Pawtucket Red Sox, AA-Portland Sea Dogs, A-Salem Red Sox, A-Greenville Drive, SS-Lowell Spinners. This one won’t go all the way. The Spinners and Sea Dogs are great, well-loved brands located in Red Sox country. They stay put. The terribly-named Greenville Drive become the Greenville Red Sox and we call it a day.
Well, before we actually call it a day with this post, I’ll just touch on a few other interesting brands. Some are good, some are weird, and some are good-weird.
Outliers & Oddballs
-Wilmington Blue Rocks. The Blue Rocks have become a model for how to be a successful club. Delaware denizens flock to see the Rocks compete in the Carolina League. The Blue Rocks are a reference to locally-sourced blue granite and the team has two main mascots: Rocky Bluewinkle the moose and Mr. Celery, a stalk of celery that comes out after a win to “celery-brate.”
-Lakewood Blue Claws. Speaking of blue, this New Jersey outfit is named after the blueclaw crab, a regional delicacy. The Claws are the top draw in the South Atlantic League, despite being a bunch of yankees from the Land of Bruce.
-Brooklyn Cyclones. When I first heard of this short-season team, I thought it was a strange name for a Brooklyn team. Cyclones would make more sense in Kansas. Then I did a little research and found out that it’s a reference to the Cyclone roller coaster in Coney Island, visible in left field. Another ride, the parachute drop, prominently towers over right field. Playing in Brooklyn pays off–the ‘Clones draw more fans than plenty of AAA teams.
-Lehigh Valley IronPigs. It’s always surprising to see that the top draw in all the minors (more than Indianapolis, Columbus, San Antonio…all of ’em) is the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. The Lehigh Valley is a high-population area that includes the blue collar cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton, Pennsylvania. Possible reasons for the success of the ‘Pigs: being the Phillies AAA team in Phillie country, having a nice new stadium, and having a large amount of working-class families in the area. The name is a reference to pig iron and a tip of the hat to local industry.
-Winston-Salem Dash. Speaking of pigs, the Dash used to be called the Warthogs. I was disappointed to see the ‘Hogs change to the Dash. I despise non-pluralable, non-singularable nicknames like Heat, Magic, and Thunder. Additionally, I thought Dash was just another throwaway name like the Greenville Drive, but then I realized that it’s a reference to the dash between Winston and Salem. Forgiven for cleverness.
-West Virginia Power. Here’s another nickname that sounds terrible at first, but can be forgiven for being clever. This team used to be called the Charleston (WV) Alley Cats. They played in the Sally League alongside the Charleston (SC) River Dogs. Alley Cats is not a good nickname for the Minors. There are already Rock Cats, River Cats, Hillcats, Fisher Cats, Mudcats, and closest of all: Valley Cats. The West Virginia title can speak for the whole state, and since Charleston is the capital, the Power name and Capitol building logo carry some clout.
-Northwest Arkansas Naturals. The Naturals may be a veiled reference to Roy Hobbs, but their logo says otherwise. They are a force of nature. They will beat you with lightning, waterfalls, and a rampaging Sasquatch.
-Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. This other natural-force team is already cool just because Rancho Cucamonga is so much fun to say. If it were the the Lancaster Quakes, it wouldn’t be that great. The Quakes are one of the most successful teams in the California League, and they have a dinosaur for a mascot.
-Lake Elsinore Storm. A highly successful and unique brand that stands out from the crowd. The eye cap is iconic and the Storm draw very well. As Hamlet said, “What make you at Elsinore?”
-Vancouver Canadians. Just being from Canada makes the Canadians an oddball. At least for now, they are the only Canadian team left in the Minors. If you’re ever in Vancouver, go to a game. Canucks really know how to have a good time.
Thus concludes this lengthy yet fun exploration. That’s a good way to kick of the two-week “Boys of Summer” stretch here on Sport Change. Feel free to leave comments and watch for plenty more upcoming baseball posts.
Thanks for reading!