What’s in a name?

Published on November 15th, 2011

James takes a look at how sports teams get their names, be it through a city’s culture, blockbuster films, or Edgar Allan Poe.

The MacGuffin Men is primarily about film, although we tend to touch on things that aren’t movies but would just be defined more broadly as ‘popular culture.’ Although nothing is set in stone, popular culture is loosely defined as all the entertainment that the ‘average’ person is exposed to and enjoys. This usually breaks down to TV, movies, music, sports and (increasingly) video games and whatever the hell is happening on the Internet at any given moment. One thing that defines any culture is the interconnectedness of it, that certain themes and ideas show up in various sections of it, and pop clture is no exception. Different forms of media in popular culture play off of and inform each other. Sports is definitely part of pop culture but is different from a lot of media products in that it is sort of unpredictable. Most music, movies and TV shows are created in a certain way that suffers little or no changes outside of the creators’ control. Sports programming varies greatly from this format. A game is set up by coaches and general managers and commissioners, but once the whistle is blown it mostly becomes a reality TV show or an improv activity. What is under control of owners, and executives, is the marketing of the team and at the centre of that, the very foundation of a franchise is the team name. Once you get a team, deciding on your name is a big decision. You may mess up the draft, but those players will retire or be traded one day. Of course, names can be changed, but they rarely are. Names are what your fanbase will rally around and how you will be identified for the rest of the team’s existence. As The MacGuffin Men’s mandate is to bring you analysis of pop culture, I’m going look at where these names come from, and more importantly, which ones come out of other forms of pop culture that aren’t sports.

As I stated above, professional sports can be viewed as one big, expensive reality show, most accurately in some kind of Survivor/X Factor hybrid, with David Stern and Roger Goodell playing the roles of Jeff Probst and Simon Cowell. A group of (often arrogant) people become famous and compete against one another. We cheer for the ones we like and it’s news when they get a DUI or fail to pay their taxes in favour of buying a replica of Knight Rider (complete with an authentic David Hasselhoff). But sports are different because, while we have our favourite individuals, the focus tends to be on the success or failure of teams. When deciding on the names of these teams, the goal is usually to get citizens of the city you’re in to go from potential fans to die hard fans willing to spend $200 on a licensed jersey. There are a few ways to do this. There is overlap in these categories, but your basic options are:

1) A team name influenced by local culture.

2) A team name based on pop culture more broadly about something that is popular at the time.

3) A team name that has no obvious influence, but just sort of sounds cool.

Options 2 and 3 can be interesting because of the lack of connection to the city that chooses. It always amuses me when I see fans getting dressed up like their logo, painting their faces with it or (always smartly) getting it tattooed on their body as it was once a totally arbitrary decision as to what to call the team. While many teams are named as a result of a fan contest, many of them are so old now that the current fans probably didn’t get to vote in that contest, and the team you’re cheering against just as easily could have that name.

Or, the team is so old that people forget their team name is extremely racist.

This arbitrary nature isn’t the case, however. Many teams are named after some local factor. There are team names that evoke local industries, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, Detroit Pistons, Edmonton Oilers, or the Denver Nuggets. A lot of teams are named for animals but they often try to pick one that is local or relevant to their city like the San Jose Sharks, Florida Marlins, Indianapolis Colts or Phoenix Coyotes. Some are based on local weather and geography like the Tampa Bay Lightning, Colorado Rockies and Avalanche or the Carolina Hurricanes.

I wonder about Carolina Raleigh, a city that has seen so much destruction and death as a result of hurricanes loudly cheering on their team, the Hurricanes. I suppose if you survive enough of them, you’ve earned the right to use the word however you want. It’s better than the alternative, which would be a city that never has earthquakes naming their team the Earthquakes and then beating the shit out of San Francisco; that’s just uncomfortable and probably tastless. One team felt their name reflected the tragic reality of their city to the point that they changed. In the early 1990s, Abe Pollin, owner of the NBA’s Washington Bullets had expressed his growing discomfort with his team name. At the time, Washington was plagued by violent crime and had one of the highest homicide rates in the country. He felt the Bullets name could be seen as either making light of or capitalizing on the local tragedy of gun violence. When Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli Prime Minister and close friend of Pollin’s was gunned down on November 4th, 1995, the name was changed. Although the assassination was the last straw, it was Washington’s established climate of violence that was the issue. I imagine a team in a relatively non-violent area could have a violent name and kept it through an assassination. The Patriots could have kept with their Revolutionary War theme and called themselves the Musket Balls from the get go and stayed with it but in Washington, Bullets touched an understandably sensitive nerve. Also, Musket Balls sounds way too much like a gay sex act.

If you are a Sarah Palin fan, you probably don't want to know what those numbers mean.

It’s logical for your name to have some kind of relevance and importance to the city they play in. It makes the fans feel as though the team is a local, an ambassador who really represents something unique or special to their city. However, such region-specific names can lead to some awkward pairings when the franchises change cities but keep the old team name. In Baseketball, the narrator describes how the greed of team owners has hurt sports, making them less enjoyable and logical.

“The Minneapolis Lakers moved to Los Angeles, where there are no lakes. The Oilers moved to Tennessee where there is no oil. The Jazz moved to Salt Lake City where they don’t allow music.”

Such deep social commentary. I wonder what deep social injustice or societal those balls are supposed to represent? Oh, wait. Testicles. They're supposed to be testicles.

It is true that Minneapolis, the Land of 10,000 Lakes once (logically) was the home of the Lakers before they moved and no one playing word-association would ever connect the Land of 1,000,000 Mormons to music until, oddly, the South Park dudes made a musical about it. And that’s what I want to talk about. While it’s often something local like an industry, wildlife, weather or even crime that causes a team to chose (or change) their name, sometimes it can be traced back to media. As the above joke was referencing, the Utah Jazz used to be the New Orleans Jazz, which made lots of sense, as the Big Easy is famous for that genre. Another team from that city has even more specific jazz roots, as the New Orleans Saints got their name from the jazz standard When The Saints Go Marching In. The jazz genre is an integral part of that city’s identity and that song specifically is seen as something of an anthem for them.

Although this is their slogan. Well, at least they got the team name thing right.

The Saints aren’t the only team that can trace their name back to a specific piece of media*. That’s not even the only song responsible for a team name. The St. Louis Blues of the NHL are named after 1914 W.C. Handy song St. Louis Blues. Admittedly, I wasn’t even aware such a song existed but it seems to be extremely famous in certain circles, even being responsible for the foxtrot, which you know is a dance even if you don’t want to admit it. The original sheet music is in the Library of Congress and has been referred to as ‘the jazzman’s Hamlet,’ as it is one of the most-played and revered songs in that genre. Kind of like how The Notorious BIG’s Juicy is often referred to as ‘the rapper’s A Tale of Two Cities.’

*When people say media they seem to use it as the big bad entity that tries to control or negatively influence. People say media pejoratively to mean Fox News, magazines that make girls anorexic and video games that make people violent. I’m using media in the broad, neutral sense meaning all the movies, music, TV shows, books, etc. ever produced. Even Heavy Metal. Actually, especially Heavy Metal.

Possibly my favourite example of a piece of media becoming a name of a pro sports team is the Baltimore Ravens. While many teams are named after a bird, this one has some interesting history. The name Ravens is a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s 1845 poem The Raven. This isn’t my favourite example only because I love Poe, it’s my favourite because I love the idea of a bunch of meathead Baltimore fans cheering for a character in a 150-year old poem about a guy who misses his girlfriend. And the idea of Terrell Suggs celebrating a sack by doing a brief poetry reading is kind of hilarious, too.

More recently, movies have become a source for team names in professional sports. When the NBA decided it wanted to expand into Canada in 1993, they chose Toronto and Vancouver to get teams. Toronto formerly had an NBA team named the Huskies until 1947 so the logical choice was to revive that name and respect local heritage. Unforunately, Minnesota now had an NBA team named the Timberwolves and no one was able to come up with a logo that was able to distinguish a Husky clearly enough from a Timberwolf, so a fan contest for a new name was held. We all know where this story goes. The team ends up being named the Raptors (and being really unremarkable if you don’t watch them, disappointing if you do watch, and frustrating if you actually care). I was pretty young when this happened, so I didn’t think about the name choice too much. I was six, so I was wondering why every team ever wasn’t named after a dinosaur and why anyone would choose to eat something that wasn’t a Chicken McNugget*. It was literally only in 2011 when someone pointed out that the Raptors name was a result of the early 90s resurgence in the popularity of dinosaurs – which was a result of Jurassic Park hitting theatres – that I made the connection. It is certainly not a direct connection where money was paid towards either the team or the movie to promote the other. There was no deal struck between Steven Spielberg and the basketball franchise (although Spielberg and the Raptors have had similar runs of shittiness since the naming), and there is no mention of Jurassic Park in the press releases I read about the team name, but I believe the connection is there and in researching everyone seems to agree they were trying to cash in on the dino-mania months after the film’s release. In fact, after the fans sent in their choices for a new team name, the entries were narrowed down to 10 names, including Raptors, T-Rex and – further proving Jurassic Park’s runaway popularity – Dennis Nedry. Another bit of evidence for this connection is that there were no professional sports teams (that I know of, at least) who were named after dinosaurs before the release of the movie.

*OK, admittedly I’m a bigger dinosaur fan than most people who aren’t six year olds, but where are the dinosaur team names? The University of Calgary has teams named the Dinos but I can’t find any pro teams ever named after dinosaurs. They’re so badass. My best explanations: The animals are cool but the names linguistically tough. Tyranosaurus Rex is the obvious choice but too long. So you can go to T-Rexes but that sounds a looks awkward. Teams don’t end with X for a reason. ‘T-Rex’, like one of the Toronto NBA candidates, is weird and abstract, like all the players combine to make one T-Rex as though it’s some kind of prehistoric Megazord. Also, their arms are so silly. The next most famous dinos are the stegosaurus, the pterodactyl and the triceratops. These are all too long to say and hard to spell. ‘Raptors’ may seem overdue, but they weren’t cool until Jurassic Park turned them from an 18-inch tall animal to a 6-foot tall killing mastermind.

I’ll admit the connection between Jurassic Park and the Raptors name is a bit tenuous but ultimatey undeniable. Of course, it cannot compare to the Holy Grail of Team Names Based on Movies: The Anaheim Mighty Ducks. As you probably know, The Mighty Ducks was a 1992 non-animated Dinsey movie about a lawyer who is caught drinking and driving and is sentenced to coach a peewee hockey team… because when a judge finds out you have an alcohol problem and make poor life decisions, the first thing they do is force you to spend time with unsupervised children. The movie was a smash hit, making $50 million on a $10 million budget and was a small cultural phenomenon for Canadian (and plenty of American) kids. In 1993,  The Walt Disney Corporation got a brand new NHL franchise which they chose to name The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to create some good synergy between a successful fiction movie and a hockey team in California which could use all the help it could get. So what began as a fictional sports team became a multi-million dollar ongoing business venture of a pro sports team. After this, things just get out of control. A fan contest was held to name the mascot, a duck/human hybrid, of the (real) Mighty Ducks and the winner was the name Wildwing. Wildwing’s face was used to make the logo of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks which was then used as the logo for the fake Mighty Ducks in Mighty Ducks 2. After Mighty Ducks 2, Wildwing became the star of an animated show called The Mighty Ducks, which also spawned a direct-to-video movie. So to get this straight, a live-action film was made, which was parlayed into a real professional hockey team, who then created a mascot, who inspired the logo for the movie’s sequel, and then was given his own TV show, which was spun-off into its own movie. I don’t know if that’s Walt Disney’s synergistic wet dream, Naomi Klein’s corporate takeover nightmare or the inspiration for Inception but it’s… it’s something. It’s impressive, albeit in a creepy way.

When we look at the Mighty Ducks story as exemplar of the larger idea of the intersection of sports name and pop culture as a whole, it shows just how hard corporations are willing to work to milk every cross-promotional dollar out of these teams, characters and ideas, or as they see them, properties. Of course Edgar Allen Poe didn’t intend for his poem to spawn an NFL franchise but the idea only requires one connection. There’s something charming about choosing a single song, poem, business or animal to represent you and your city, as it’s something you probably grew up valuing, or at least being exposed to. The Ducks example seems more focused on exploiting something to death, milking it until it’s dry, and on top of all that, it’s a connection that was never really genuine in the first place.

New franchises have been handed out only sparingly since the late 1990s, but if the names of stadiums are any indication, there will be a lot money behind trying to lock in the next team name, too. I don’t think the future of pro sports will see the Ducks as an exception, but a precedent. People often point the Green Bay Packers as a great example of sports surviving and succeeding without corporate interference. The team is owned by the citizens of Green Bay and their stadium is staffed by volunteers. The reality is that this team got their name from the packing plant that bought their original uniforms. The intersection of sports and commerce is inescapable, and pop culture is more powerful than ever.  The Anaheim Mighty Ducks were purchased from Disney and renamed simply the Anaheim Ducks, but this may prove to a corporate step backwards. A near-lockout of the NFL and what is looking like a lost season in the NBA will cause leagues to monetize everything about existing teams and get in on the ground floor of making money should the leagues ever see the need to add new teams to be added to the mix. The corporate renaming of stadiums was once seen as tasteless, but now its common practice. The Mighty Ducks, by their very name advertising an external property, may soon prove to be the rule, not the exception. ‘What’s in a name?’ used to be an extremely abstract question. As time passes, the definitive answer will probably just continue to be ‘money.’


  1. Posted by Matt on November 15th, 2011, 20:47 [Reply]

    There is no city of Carolina they play in raliegh north Carolina. Just sayin


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