- The Washington Times - Friday, September 1, 2000

It takes a lot for the World Wrestling Federation to shock anybody anymore, but thanks to just a few nicknames, they have managed to pull off the trick.

The recent announcement of the names and logos for the first eight teams for the WWF-controlled XFL led by the New York/New Jersey Hitmen, Orlando Rage and Chicago Enforcers has generated a sea of raised eyebrows and complaints for the startup football league.

But deeper yet, it has also highlighted the extreme lengths any new league must now go to find suitable team names. The XFL employed an eight-person design team, logged more than 3,500 man hours in design work, spent millions to secure legal clearances and copyrights, and conducted hundreds more hours worth of focus groups and fan surveying.

And the effort was by no means revolutionary. Thanks to the recent boom of startup leagues and overuse of geography and animal-based team names, devising a new batch of nicknames over a few simple brainstorming meetings no longer gets the job done. At risk is not only making a new team stand out in an ultra-crowded sports marketplace, but hundreds of millions of dollars in licensing fees for apparel and merchandise.

"Developing these names and these identities is a much tougher, much more thorough process than I think most people realize. It's more of a science than a creative endeavor," said Bruce Burke of Oneworld Communications. Burke led the development of each of the XFL team names and formerly worked for 12 years as vice president for NFL Properties, helping devise the identities for the Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans and numerous other teams.

"You want to create something timeless and on target. We didn't necessarily feel limited in this process for the XFL because of all the names that already have been used, but it did definitely force us to work even harder to break through," Burke said.

The eight XFL team names the other five are the Memphis Maniax, San Jose Demons, Los Angeles Xtreme, Las Vegas Outlaws and Birmingham Thunderbolts were each designed to convey the league's stated intent to create a far more aggressive, in-your-face brand of football than the NFL. Beyond staging a new type of outdoor football, a goal also was to reach many of the same young fans who passionately follow pro wrestling.

The naming process started in December, a full two months before WWF head Vince McMahon announced the XFL's formation. Posing itself only as an anonymous football organization, the XFL polled hundreds of football fans about the general opinions on the sport and what they would want from a new league.

Using that focus group data and McMahon's overall smashmouth theme, Burke and his team then went to work developing names and logos. While originality was a must, the over-the-top silliness of minor league baseball names such as the Lugnuts, RedStixx and Whoopee had to be avoided. Prospective names were read over stadium loudspeakers, displayed in mock advertisements and used in practice radio broadcasts. Several hundred names then were filtered down to 53 and eventually eight.

That final stage of the process was not dissimilar to name-the-team efforts for the Washington Wizards or Baltimore Ravens, in which now-forgettable names such as Sea Dogs, Steamers and Railers were considered and then rejected after testing.

But early reaction to the final XFL names has been mixed at best. The Hitmen in particular was immediately vilified by columnists and talk-shows hosts for its allusion to the Mafia and placement in a hotbed for organized crime. The league already ditched its plan to call the Birmingham team the Blast because the city was the site of several bombings during the 1960s civil rights movement.

"These are terrible names. Outlaws? Demons? We've seen these so many times already. They're working off an existing, tired, macho-oriented culture for naming teams," said Naseem Javed, a New York-based naming consultant. "We're tired of those images. It looks like some of the wrestlers were in the room with them picking the names.

"I understand the dynamic they're after, but why didn't they take that energy and create brand new images to fit the image, something like a Godzilla that didn't even exist before?"

Other leagues, such as the NHL, have faced similar trouble in selecting appropriate, commercially viable names. After falling into a deep rut of predatory animal nicknames such as Sharks, Coyotes and Panthers during its massive early 1990s expansion, its two newest teams starting play this fall went far in the other direction.

The Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets, while both relying on the time-tested base of local geography and culture, are both less obvious indicators of those areas. The Wild refers to Minnesota's vast undeveloped areas while the Blue Jackets denote uniforms worn by Ohio's troops in the Civil War. Fans played a role in selecting both names, but the jury of long-term acceptance remains out.

"With so many names out there, it was definitely a challenge and a key part of the process to create something that cuts through the clutter," said Ed Horne, president of NHL Enterprises. "Beyond that, the main idea was to have names that first work best at a local level and then have some national staying power."

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