What Makes a Team Nickname Good or Bad?

Sport Change has just launched the Moniker Monitor.  This a new venue for ranking sports nicknames and keeping abreast of changes or change proposals in pro and semipro leagues.

Before we get into the rankings, here are the Sport Change established criteria for what makes a moniker good or bad in both pro and semipro sports:

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Alliteration, intimidation, generality….hats off to the Pittsburgh Pirates for having a great monik-arrr.

WHAT MAKES A GOOD MONIKER IN PRO SPORTS?

History.  If an expansion team were to be named the “Red Sox” I would deride the name profusely.  At face value, “Red Sox” is a terrible nickname for a pro team.  It’s a vague reference to an inanimate article of clothing, and it’s gimmickly pluralized using a campy X.  That being said, the Boston Red Sox (and the Chicago White Sox, for that matter) are so firmly entrenched in the annals of baseball that the nickname is a good one.

Generality.  Pro sports are the top of the pack, and monikers should strive to be the quintessential word to represent the mascot.  For instance, “Pirates” is a more general and respectable name than “Buccaneers” which in turn is more respectable than “Marauders.”  They all mean the same general thing, but the most universal word should be used for the pro teams.  The players deserve it.

Regional Relevance.  Having a good nickname that also reflects the geographic location of the team is often a plus.  In pro sports, this can work for or against the moniker.  The Dallas Cowboys, for instance, have an ideal name for their region.  Conversely, the San Francisco Forty-Niners have a regionally relevant name that’s more anecdotal and bizarre than respectable.

Alliteration.  Like regional relevance, alliteration should not determine the course of a moniker, but it is often a bonus.  Examples of this working well are Pittsburgh Pirates and Tennessee Titans. On the other hand, alliteration can enable monikers that are questionable in pro sports such as Jaguars, Seahawks, and Wizards.

Teeth.  Within reason, it is often beneficial for a moniker to have a certain level of intimidation.  At the very least, the moniker should incur a healthy respect for the opponent.  A nickname like the Bears will always command a certain reverence, simply due to the fact that bears are large and intimidating.  It often helps if the moniker is a reference to a masculine archetype, as well.  A nickname like “Rams” works much better than “Sheep.”  That’s a good segue into the next topic of this post.

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Ugh. Where to start? It’s a questionable moniker in New Orleans, and it at least had regional relevance there. Ugh.

WHAT MAKES A BAD MONIKER IN PRO SPORTS?

Inappropriate Level of Generality or Specificity.  On a pro level, over-specification leads to goofy nicknames, and these nicknames are often less respectable than more-general nicknames.  For example, the Detroit Tigers are immediately respectable due to the fact that tigers are fearsome and awe-inspiring animals.  “Bengals” means essentially the same thing, but the level of specificity (i.e. bengal tiger) waters down the nickname and causes it to loose it’s teeth.

The Non-Plurable/Non-Singularable (NP/NS) Epidemic.  It’s too simple to say “nicknames that don’t end in S.”  For example, you could use the phrase “Frank Thomas was a White Sock,” or “the rookie White Sox are making an impact.”  Perhaps the most heinous example (and the trail blazer of the phenomenon) in pro sports is the Utah Jazz.  It’s very difficult to say “John Stockton was a Jazz….player…..Jazzer?,” or “the rookie Jazzes are making an impact.”  These monikers are commonplace in many semipro leagues, and they only make the team and league less respectable.  There are very few examples of NP/NS monikers that work well, and none of them are in the Big Four sports leagues.

Regional Irrelevance.  We’ve already mentioned the Utah Jazz, so let’s look at another example of an inappropriate nickname for a region: the Memphis Grizzlies.  On the surface, the “Grizz” get away with this nickname since grizzlies are big, fearsome animals, right?  Not so fast.  That is only acceptable when the nickname is quintessentially general, such as “bears.”  When the moniker is a general archetype, it doesn’t matter that there are no lions native to the Detroit area, for instance.  Grizzlies are a region-specific nickname that worked very well for Vancouver.  The Mississippi delta is a long way from the Pacific Northwest, and Memphis should’ve chosen a better nickname when the Grizzlies were moved.

Overdependence on Alliteration.  Sometimes a moniker is chosen because it is alliterative.  As noted above: alliteration is a bonus, not the driving force of a nickname.  Some of the most inappropriate monikers in pro sports are apparently results of this thought process.  Jacksonville Jaguars and Washington Wizards seem to fit this bill, and both monikers would be better suited for semipro leagues.

Blandness.  Perhaps in response to the proliferation of zany monikers unveiled in the nineties, those unveiled in the aughts erred toward bland, boring nicknames and team brands.  The conservative approach is certainly less risky than the alternative, but Texans and Nationals are just…boring.

Disrespect.  A moniker should never be disrespectful to a group of people.  This is common sense. It’s not to say that any nickname can’t be named after a group of people, but if it’s offensive it’s a throwaway.

Inappropriate Cleverness.  Buffalo Bills….get it?  Get it?!  I’m sure that was a good joke back in 1960 when it won a name-the-team competition.  The Bills may claim that it was a reference to a male buffalo or “billy,” but I doubt it.  They would be the Buffalo Bulls if that were the case, just like Buffalo University.  The Bills are lucky to be in Buffalo, where they can draw from the city’s name to give them a mascot.  If they were say, the Boise Bills, it would be a real headscratcher.  They obviously chose the name due it’s connotation with Buffalo Bill Cody.  Very clever, but inappropriate for pro sports.  That said, the Bills have been around long enough that I wouldn’t suggest changing their name.  Although, it’s too bad that Buffalo Bisons is already taken.  That’s another good segue…

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It’s fun, it’s goofy, it’s alliterative…it’s even rust-belt relevant. Perfect for the Minors!

WHAT MAKES A GOOD MONIKER IN SEMI-PRO OR MINOR LEAGUE SPORTS?

Fun and Goofy.  Minor leagues are all about fun.  That’s what sells tickets and keeps fans interested.  While researching minor league and independent league baseball teams for previous posts, I noticed that teams with fun and goofy brands seemed to draw more fans simply because they were fun and goofy.  The Montgomery Biscuits, for example, put a smile on just about everyone’s face.  It works.

Regionally Relevant.  A great part about minor leagues is that they can draw attention to oft-overlooked cities and regions.  It’s like a geography lesson, and having a regionally relevant moniker show a facet of a specific area.  The Lowell Spinners, for example, take their name from the history of the textile industry in Lowell, Mass.  It’s a name that you couldn’t get away with at a pro level, but works well in the minors.  The Reno Bighorns of the NBA’s Developmental League show a side of Reno that is respectable.

Alliterative.  In the minors, alliteration is a big bonus.  Greensboro Grasshoppers, Lansing Lugnuts, Manchester Monarchs…these names work.  There is a lot more leeway for having alliteration drive the moniker than in the pros.

Alternative.  When talking affiliation with pro club parents, it’s sometime nice to have the affiliate’s moniker be a synonym for the parent club’s name.  Examples are: Manchester Monarchs (LA Kings), Bradenton Marauders (Pittsburgh Pirates), and Memphis Redbirds (St. Louis Cardinals.)

Diminutive.  If a minor league team is a direct affiliate of a pro team that has an appropriate diminutive form, it should be explored.  There are few examples of this currently, but I can think of some name changes that would be nice: Connecticut Tiger Cubs (baby Tigers), the Tuscon Hijos (sons of Padres), Princes for Kings, or if the Chicago Bulls get their own D-League franchise: the Calves.  OK, that might be more cute than it’s worth.  Which brings me to….

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Patrick Ewing recently turned down a job opportunity for the NBA’s Development League. I wonder if he was repulsed by the boring monikers he found at that level.

WHAT MAKES A BAD MONIKER IN SEMI-PRO OR MINOR LEAGUE SPORTS?

Overseriousness.  There’s no need to intimidate opponents to sell tickets in minor leagues.  Lighten up, Kannapolis Intimidators.  Teeth aren’t necessary; these are baby teeth.  In fact, I suggest that a minor league same should be so goofy that players are going to work harder to ascend through the ranks to avoid the embarrassment that comes from being a member of the Modesto Nuts, for example.

Overgeneral.  The minors should be specific.  Boise Hawks?  That should be a pro team name, just like Seahawks should be a minor league name.  I bet I would be very bored at a Boise Hawks game.  Another rookie-ball Pioneer League team, the Idaho Falls Chukars, are also named after a bird.  What’s more fun: a Hawk or a Chukar?

Two or More Words Just Jammed Together.  What is a BayBear, precisely?  A BayHawk?  A Sound Tiger?  A Valley Cat?  Ugh.  Just ugh.

Same as the Parent.  It just feels like a cop-out for an affiliate to have the same moniker as the parent club.  There are three instances where this is OK: 1. If it’s temporary until the team comes up with a better name.  2. If every affiliate of the parent club has the same name, but have somewhat creative brands.  The Atlanta Braves have nearly accomplished this.  3. If every team in the semi-pro league (such as in the Appalachian League) has a chip-off-the-old-block name.  Random copycat names are really cop-out cat names.  I’m looking at you, Connecticut Tigers.  Or should I say Connecticut Tiger Cubs!  Boo-yah.

If Sport Change ruled the world, they would be called the Tiger Cubs. An adorable baby tiger kitten would peer out from behind the T.

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Boo-yah.

This post will be basis for some upcoming fun: ranking monikers in the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, MiLB, and other leagues that nobody really cares about.  Moniker madness, baby.  Boo-yah.

SPORT CHANGE

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