- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Now comes the hard part. After all of the pleading, the politicking, the bribing of certain grumpy club owners to the immediate north, the folks behind Major League Baseball’s return to Washington face their toughest task yet.

Renaming the Expos.

“It’s going to be a huge decision for the team,” said Diane Prange, a consultant at Strategic Name Development, a Minnesota-based naming firm. “What are we going to call ourselves? They have such a nice opportunity.”

What’s in a sports nickname? Only the following: Team and brand identity. A probable merchandising gold mine. The future look of your lovable mascot.

Oh, and the potential for deep and lasting embarrassment, provided you screw things up.

(That means you, Detroit Trojans and Bay Area CyberRays. Rest in peace).

“Names are critical,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “Teams are so much a reflection of the community. You’re seeking people’s investment into the franchise.”

In the interest of getting District baseball off to a good restart — and avoiding a catastrophic misnomer like Virginia Fury — here are four questions to ponder, lest the city’s newest team settle on claptrap like Generals, Potomacs, or, God forbid, Sea Dogs:

Does the name fit?

First things first. Keeping Expos just won’t do. Not when the name is associated with failure, empty seats and acting as the New York Yankees’ de facto farm club. And not when it refers to the 1967 World’s Fair, an event so historic, so steeped in tradition that most Montrealers don’t even remember it.

“Look at the Pittsburgh Steelers,” suggested David Burd, head of The Naming Co., a Pennsylvania-based firm that has worked with Microsoft and Disney. “Clearly, only the Steelers could come from Pittsburgh. You’re not going to get the Houston Steelers. You might get the Houston Oilers.”

Some of the best nicknames in professional sports evoke a city, a region, even a way of life. The Yankees would never reside in Atlanta. The Miami Dolphins wouldn’t swim in Detroit. And the Jazz … well, they play in Utah, but only because they moved from New Orleans (also, Tabernacle Choir is too long to fit on the front of a basketball jersey).

Ideally, Washington’s baseball moniker should reflect the uniqueness of the nation’s capital, without literally being Capitals, since that’s already taken. Think majestic marble monuments. The bumper-to-bumper Beltway. Fat-cat lawyers eating steak.

OK, so maybe some sources of local inspiration are better left untapped.

“Do you want them to be the Washington Lobbyists? The Political Action Committees?” Burd said. “Maybe it would be better to use an animal name, or something more abstract. Particularly in an election year, you’re going to get somebody mad.”

Christopher Rehling has a different idea: name the team after the Homestead Grays, Washington’s former Negro League club. In June, the 31-year-old civic educator from Alexandria started an online petition to do just that, and so far has collected more than 500 signatures — as well as an endorsement from Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

“The Grays were the best Negro league team of their time,” said Rehling, whose petition is at rememberthegrays.org. “They paved the way for what Jackie Robinson did. To have an opportunity to honor great players like Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell, who have so often been neglected and ignored, would be tremendous.”

Will anyone object?

One problem: Harkening back to the days of racial segregation might not be the way to go. That said, taking the name of Washington’s former big league team, the Senators, is equally problematic for a number of reasons:

• The Texas Rangers still own the rights to the name.

• The Senators were really, really lousy.

• District residents don’t actually have senators, or any sort of real federal representation in our so-called democracy.

“Nostalgia shouldn’t trump reality,” said WTOP political commentator Mark Plotkin. “We don’t have senators. So we shouldn’t be named that. Call us the Serfs, the Non-Voters, the Washington Disenfranchised.”

Like Rehlig, Plotkin has support from Mayor Williams. Yet Senators isn’t the only nickname with troubling baggage. Between political correctness and unintended associations, almost any handle could be taken the wrong way.

The Washington Redskins have provoked ongoing ire from Native American groups. The University of Hawaii dropped “Rainbow” from its 77-year-old Rainbow Warriors nickname because of concerns over implied homosexuality.

The now-defunct Philadelphia Charge nearly took the name Speed, until WUSA league officials realized it invoked both an illicit drug and one of the worst sequels in Hollywood history.

“If a name reminds you of a disease, or the name of a bug, or a famous serial killer, that’s bad,” Burd said. “You want to avoid unpleasant associations.”

Not to mention trademark violations, both inside and outside of sports. Before becoming the Wizards, the Washington Bullets solicited roughly 3,000 fan suggestions for a new name. Hundreds were already in use.

The WUSA nearly named its Bay Area team the San Francisco Rock — a nod to Alcatraz — before settling on CyberRays. Why the switch? They feared a lawsuit from the wrestler of the same name.

Is it catchy?

Washington baseball’s new name should be short. Easy to pronounce. Hard to truncate into something borderline-risque, like Gamecocks or Wizards.

Most of all, it should be marketable.

A nickname can set the tone for a team’s entire brand identity — colors, logo and all the rest. Born in 1991, hockey’s San Jose Sharks were an overnight merchandising sensation even though the club finished last in its division and didn’t make the playoffs until its third year.

“San Jose had this great logo with the Shark chomping on the hockey stick, and they immediately zoomed to the top of the licensing pile,” said Rick Burton, former director of the Warsaw Center. “Right name, right colors, right graphic design. They made millions.”

Does it invoke the XFL?

This one is simple. If a potential name brings to mind Mafia gunmen, the mentally disturbed or a fast-acting triple-bladed razor, Washington baseball would do well to keep looking.

Maniax. Hitmen. Xtreme. Such are actual names from the XFL, the Vince McMahon-helmed pro football league that folded after one inglorious season.

“Naming a team is just like naming your child,” Swangard said. “If Mom hates the kid’s name, he’ll pay the price. And if the fans think the team name is ridiculous, it will have an impact.”

Which is why the District’s newest team has its work cut out. Still, club officials should keep in mind a crummy moniker isn’t a franchise death sentence. They can always change names more than once, then reap the rewards of selling all-new merchandise. Plus suddenly hip throwback gear.

Hey, it worked for the Wizards.

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