Rules for Naming Professional Sports Teams

Sometimes any brand name will do. There are successful brands with names that are random (Apple), obscure (Starbucks), pronounced in unexpected ways (Fage) and silly sounding (Etsy). They may all have interesting origins and deep meaning for their founders, but their product offerings could not be grasped simply from the names alone.

Then there are sports teams. There are classic names (New York Yankees), names from fierce animals (Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!), names from not-so-fierce animals (Chicago Cubs, Miami Dolphins) and strangely, teams named after socks (Cincinnati Reds (from Red Stockings), Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox)

I’ve written that names can be like vice presidential candidates. They can be just fine as long as they do no harm. This past week, as the Los Angeles Dodgers were taking on the Los Angeles Angels in the Freeway Series, sports writer Arash Markazi made the case in a Los Angeles Times column that the “Los Angeles” part of the Los Angeles Angels was in fact doing the brand – and the people of Los Angeles – some harm indeed.

This was of particular interest to me, as I once wrote about how the “Angels” part of the name hurt the brand.

Markazi tags “Los Angeles Angels” as “disingenuous” and “laughable.” He makes the case that Anaheim, where the team plays, “sits behind Bakersfield as the 10th largest city in California. It’s not a suburb of L.A.” He argues that the brand is inauthentic and scattered, trying to have its cake and eat it too.

Renaming the team from the Anaheim Angels to the Los Angeles Angels was all about marketing – specifically to gain a larger share of national television broadcasts. But Markazi observes that if you “walk around Angel Stadium ad peruse the team store…you’ll be hard-pressed to find “L.A.” or “Los Angeles” anywhere. Not a sign, poster, hat, shirt, jersey. Nothing.”

He’s right, the name is a disaster, and this is branding at its worse. It’s true the New York Giants and New York Jets play in New Jersey, but  just across the river in what is clearly a part of the New York Metropolitan region. It may be only 30 miles from downtown L.A. to Anaheim, but if you live here, you understand that it’s a very, very long 30 miles. More than the traffic, the cultures of Los Angeles and Orange County couldn’t be more different.

Fans in both places are not well served. Where’s the O.C. pride? There was a hugely successful TV series called “The OC” and they even had their own “Housewives.” From the L.A. perspective, you will find some Angels fans scattered about, but not many. To me, and I would think many others in the L.A. area, the Angels are no more an L.A. team than the Pirates or Astros.

As for the Angels part, the team did originate in Los Angeles in 1961. Was it ever a good name? The Los Angeles Angels, in addition to sounding like a team of unthreatening pushovers, too nice to let the other team lose, is redundant and absurd. The naming convention for professional sports teams is always a location combined with a nickname. There are no teams called the San Francisco Franciscans, the Chicago Chicagos, The St. Louis Louies or the New York Yorks.

Still, “Los Angeles Angels” rolled off the tongue and directly related to the city where the team played. But when the Angels moved to Anaheim in 1966, the name no longer applied. The team has had several name changes over the course of its history. Starting with the Los Angeles Angels, they became the California Angels, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (no joke) and now once again, the Los Angeles Angels. There is clearly the need for some soul searching and strategic thinking here.

Names of sports teams are often problematic when they move. A team that got it right was the Minnesota Twins. Before major league expansion in the early 1960’s, the team had existed as the Washington Senators. Understanding that “Senators” would make no sense in the Twin Cities, they chose a name that resonated with the local community.

Yet so many teams get it wrong. The alliteration of L.A. Lakers is nice, but where are the lakes? They’re back in Minneapolis, where the team came from. How about the Utah Jazz (from New Orleans) or the Calgary Flames (from Atlanta)? They make no sense whatsoever.

There should be a rule. Team nicknames may not be imported. The excitement of professional sports teams moving to markets where none previously existed can be all that’s needed to build a healthy fan base and thriving business. There is no better example than the Los Angeles Dodgers, lovingly embraced by Angelenos from the time they arrived from Brooklyn to the present day. Despite the fact there are no trolleys to dodge out here.

Still, as in any other category, professional sports brands are fueled by emotion. Does anything bring diverse people together to celebrate community and pride of place as well as a local team?

Is there a jazz scene in Salt Lake City? Has anyone like Louis Armstrong or the Marsalis brothers come out of Utah? It’s a beautiful place, but you don’t think of jazz when you think of Utah. A better name for a basketball team from the Beehive State might be the Salt Lake City (or Utah) Stingers. A great name, if I say so myself. Competitive-sounding and locally relevant.

And how exciting would the “Battle of the Bees” be when the Charlotte Hornets are in town? Feel our sting!

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