Archive for the ‘Team Name’ Category

I enjoyed writing the previous article on the Washington Nationals so much that I decided to make another post along the same lines, this time on their fellow D.C.-residing basketball counterpart, the Washington Wizards.  Whereas the Nationals were so-named to avoid any potential political or public backlash, the Wizards provide an interesting counterexample as they have faced controversy over their name, and name changes, at several points during their existence, oftentimes ignored by team ownership.

The Wizards are a bit of an odd team, as the history behind this franchise, and especially the history behind their name, is fairly unique in the realm of major North American sports teams.  The Wizards have played professional basketball in three major cites under four different names, and the most recent name change came about as part of the owner’s decision to rebrand the franchise into something a little less contentious.  Ironically though, this renaming almost backfired, as the choice of their current name proved, at least temporarily, to be highly controversial in the District of Columbia when it was first unveiled.  Additionally, it is still somewhat unpopular, and to this day there remains a push to bring back their cherished older name.

The franchise began its existence in the Windy City as the Chicago Packers in the early ’60s.  While the team only lasted two years in Chicago, they still found the time to change their name to the Zephyrs for their second season, likely in response to the invariable confusion that surrounded a new team having the same nickname as the town’s primary rival in football (Chicago also had a football team called the Cardinals for over sixty years from 1898 to 1959, almost assuredly likewise causing some consternation among Cubs fans).  At the end of 1962-63 season though, the Zephyrs determined that things were just not working out for them and decided to skip town, leaving Chicago without a basketball team for three seasons until the Bulls were formed in time for the 1966-67 season.  They decided to move east to Baltimore, where they changed their name to the Bullets, paying homage to a previous Baltimore-based team that had folded over a decade prior.

Washington Bullets

The Baltimore Bullets logo. Call me crazy, but that's actually a pretty snazzy logo.

While they may have had high hopes for success in their new home, their inability to attract sustained fan support followed them from Lake Michigan to the Chesapeake Bay.  The Baltimore Bullets lasted a little over a decade in their new city before relocating again to Washington, D.C. in 1973 (okay, to a Maryland suburb, they wouldn’t move into D.C. itself until 1997).  Shortly thereafter, the Bullets won their first and only NBA championship in 1978 over the San Antonio Spurs.  In their third hometown, the Bullets finally began to settle into a groove and develop an active and loyal fanbase, something which had not been able to develop in either Chicago or Baltimore.  By the early 1990s however, the owner of the Bullets, Abe Pollin, grew increasingly uncomfortable with the violent connotations of the team’s name.

By this point, the nation’s capital had experienced a marked rise in their crime rates, especially in homicide and other violent crimes.  In 1995, Pollin’s longtime friend, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel was assassinated by a radical Israeli gunman in opposition to his signing of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Liberation Organization.  For Pollin, this would be the straw that broke his camel’s back.  Shortly thereafter, he announced that the Bullets would be changing their name and that a team naming competition would be held to suggest a new name for the franchise.

The Washington Bullets logo, which may very well be the least bullet-looking bullet logo I've ever seen.

Despite opposition from many of the team’s fans, D.C.-area residents flooded the team with 2,000 name suggestions, which they eventually narrowed down to five potential choices by the spring of 1997: the Dragons, Express, Sea Dogs, Stallions, and Wizards.  While there was vocal opposition to changing the name from diehard Bullets fans, as many found the finalists all inferior to their current name, the organization pressed ahead and, without releasing the final tally of how many votes each finalist received, announced that the team would be renamed the Wizards for the 1997-98 season to time in with the opening of their new arena in D.C., the MCI Center (now the Verizon Center).

But then things got ugly.  Local black leaders were quick to point out that “Wizard” was also a term used for a high-ranking official in the Ku Klux Klan.  Complaints were also directed at the Wizards’ new logo, which featured a hooded man, which also seemingly brought unintended comparisons between the team’s new identity and the KKK.  Finally, and less-racially (though still traditionally) controversial, the team changed its colors from red, white, and blue to blue, black and gold.  All of these changes lead to vocal public outcries against the team’s rebranding, especially in a city as predominantly African-American as Washington, D.C.

The Washington Wiz... wait, is the Wizard wearing a tuxedo?

In the end though, Pollin decided to stick with the Wizards, and the public outcry against the Wizards eventually died down.  As the years passed though, the Wizards began to fade into obscurity on the national level, even with a spike in popular attention when Michael Jordan was hired in 2000 as the team’s president of basketball operations and came out of retirement for the second time to play for them from 2001-2003.  However, Pollin would waste this positive press by shocking the team, fans, and media by firing Jordan after he retired from the team’s playing roster, leading many to angrily accuse the organization of only hiring the all-time great as a publicity stunt for as long as he was willing to play.  The franchise would get an even bigger public black eye in late 2009/early 2010 when Gilbert Arenas, an All-Star who had recently received a 6-year, $111 million contract to play in D.C., was charged with unlawful gun possession, storing the weapon inside the Wizards’ locker room, and even pointing it at other teammates.  Despite losing the violent connotations of their prior name, the Wizards seemed to be developing that reputation anew for their off-court antics.

Wizards secondary logo.

These distractions, among other factors, lead the Pollin family to sell the team to Ted Leonsis, the owner of the NHL’s Washington Capitals, in 2010.  As the sale was being finalized, the Wizards pulled an upset in that year’s draft lottery, winning the first pick of the 2010 draft.  The team’s new ownership wasted no time to try to rebrand the team away from its past shortfalls by trading Arenas as soon as was possible and drafting John Wall of Kentucky first overall in the draft.  While these moves have not exactly lead to any real improvements on the court, the Wizards are evidently interested in even more fundamental changes to the franchise.  On October 10, 2010, Ted Leonsis released a to-do list of 101 potential changes to the Wizards on his personal blog that his ownership group was considering or actively implementing moving forward.  Perhaps most notable among these ideas are the following two points:

28. Change Wizards’ colors back to red, white and blue
31. Change Wizards’ team name to Bullets

While these suggestions were enormously popular among longtime fans of the team harkening back to the red, white, and blue Bullets days, the proposal to change the name yet again also evoked another minor-name controversy, as some have expressed concern that it would revive the violent connotations that the former owners had desperately sought to avoid and remind people of the still-embarrassing Arenas incident.  If the Wizards move ahead with a return to their former name, they could very well be the only team in major sports history to face noteworthy controversy over two name changes.

Even with that in mind however, renaming the Wizards back to the Bullets seems like it would be a very popular move among longtime supporters, and obviously would generate an explosion in merchandise purchasing as all of the previously-owned Wizard and gold and black paraphernalia would suddenly be out of date.  Regardless, it will be interesting to see what, if any, name and color changes take place over the upcoming offseason, and if naming controversies continue to follow this sometimes beleaguered franchise.

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We all have our own favorite teams, and for many of us the team name plays a huge role in our identity as a fanbase.  As a result of this, it’s a fairly safe assumption that a lot of sports fans know the history behind their team names.  From my own personal perspective, I can tell you that the Cubs received their moniker from newspaper writers at the beginning of the 20th Century (after having previously been called the White Stockings, the Colts, the Orphans, and the Remnants, among others) due to the relative youth and energy of the club at the time.  The Bears received their name while they were playing in the Cubs’ Wrigley Field, when it was agreed that football players tended to be larger than baseball players, so they took the name in honor of the relationship they had with the Cubbies.  The Blackhawks, despite what you may think, actually were not named after the Native American Chief Black Hawk, but rather were named after a military unit that the original owner of the franchise served in during World War I (which took their name from Chief Black Hawk, so I suppose that may just be splitting hairs).  And finally, the Fighting Illini were not only named after the Illiniwek nation that originally inhabited the area that is now Illinois, but also in honor of the brave Illinoisans and University of Illinois graduates who fought and died on the battlefields of Europe in WWI.

The fan-named Chicago Express, a recent example of a new team taking advantage of the internet to develop early local support.

Almost every single older team has an interesting story about exactly how they got their name.  Newer teams, however, tend to have a bit more random naming system in place, as expansion and relocation franchises often take advantage of the internet to hold name your team contests in an attempt to try to develop a relationship with their future fanbase as early as possible.  Just recently, a new minor league hockey team was founded near where I live in Hoffman Estates, IL, and they went the route of holding a team naming competition to brand their new franchise.  That contest drew thousands of responses, attracted hundreds of fans on various social media networks, and resulted in several news stories in the local media, all before their very first puck drop.  As a result, the Chicago Express will begin play in the 2011-12 ECHL season, having beaten the other three finalists, the Blizzards, Hammers, and Knights, to become the new franchise’s name.  Sadly, none of my name ideas made it to the final four, so there would be no Chicago Rhinos, Chicago Druids, or Hoffman Maneaters, among the many other suggestions I submitted, but there can be no denying that the simple act of holding such a contest was a cheap, easy, and effective way for the Express to develop initial interest in the team.  Definitely the smart idea for any new team, whether they play in the major leagues or the minors and below.

Out with the old.....

.... and in with the new.

But sometimes teams are relocated or founded in areas that actually have a very long history with the sport.  Nowhere was this more evident than in Washington, D.C in late 2004/early 2005 when the Expos abandoned Montreal.  Even though our nation’s capital had been without a Major League Baseball team for over three decades, there was an initial and very strong push for the team to become the fourth incarnation of the Washington Senators (the first folded in 1899, the second relocated to Minnesota to become the Twins in 1960, and the third relocated to Texas to become the Rangers in 1971).  In fact, the assumption that they’d take up the old Senators banner was viewed as an inevitability by many fans, so much so that when the team instead became the Nationals there was actually a decent amount of surprise at the decision.  What may not be known though is the fact that the owners of the team were actually considering three separate name ideas, all of which would have been in homage to past teams that played in D.C.  The three potential names were the Nationals, the Senators, and the Grays, and any one of these three names could have very easily become the newest member of the MLB, but politics played a huge role in the naming-decision.

The history of the Senators has already been discussed above, so I’ll instead focus on the other two possibilities.  The Nationals were actually a name that goes back hand-in-hand with the Senators to the initial foundation of baseball in Washington, D.C.  All three Senators teams were also known as the Nationals or nicknamed the “Nats” by newspapermen at points throughout their existence.  While the Senators name eventually became more popular and stayed in our public memory, the name Nationals actually has just as long and storied of a history in D.C. baseball as the Senators.

The Grays, on the other hand, have a bit more of an interesting story to tell in Washington, D.C.  The name comes from the Homestead Grays, the historic Negro League team that played in eastern Pennsylvania for almost four consecutive decades from the early 1910s to the late 1940s.  Throughout the tragic history of segregation in professional baseball, the Grays are quite possibly the second most famous Negro League team of all, behind only the fabled Kansas City Monarchs.  Despite the fact that they were based primarily on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, the Grays actually considered Washington, D.C. as a sort of home away from home, even going so far as scheduling some of their home games in the nation’s capital in the ’30s and ’40s.  As a result of this, the Grays have a strong legacy in both D.C. and Pittsburgh, and both the Pirates and the Nationals routinely wear throwback Grays uniforms whenever either team plays in the select few regular season games per year that honor the memory of the Negro Leagues.

After the Expos moved to D.C., the team quickly settled upon these three names as their potential identity moving forward.  At this point, however, politics crept into the naming decision.  Despite the Senators being the seemingly-obvious choice among many baseball fans, many D.C. residents and the city council officially objected to it, arguing that it was inappropriate to name the team after the U.S. Senate when the District of Columbia does not have representation in that body.  Despite the history of that team name in the city, the owners were unwilling to go against the city council and local groups on this issue, especially as they were in the process of getting municipal support in funding the construction of a new stadium to replace the aged RFK Memorial Stadium (which they eventually were successful in receiving, with public money funding a significant portion of the $611 million pricetag for the new Nationals Park).

The Grays moniker was the next to run into a trap, this time out of fear of not being politically correct.  Despite being the name originally supported by then-D.C. mayor Anthony A. Williams, and in spite of the fact that it would be so-named to honor the legacy of a Negro League team in a city that is majority black, the name made some residents of the city and the team uneasy for the simple fact that “gray” seemed to draw negative connotations to the American Civil War.  There was a palatable and obvious sense that naming a team in the nation’s capital after the same color that a significant number of rebel soldiers wore during a war fought primarily over the issue of slavery could be viewed as inappropriate.  For the team to financially succeed in Washington, D.C., they would need to receive the support of the district’s black population, and the franchise simply was just not sure that the “Washington Grays” would be whole-heartedly embraced by the local population and the national media with this possible stigma in mind.

So, as a result of the civic opposition to the name “Senators” (and, of course, the desire to not bite the hand the would feed them hundreds of millions of dollars for their new stadium) and their sense of unease over possibly unleashing still painful memories of the old Confederacy by naming their team the “Grays,” the new team simply fell back into their only real remaining option and went with the Nationals.  Despite the fact that the “Nats” (or, as their detractors would say, the “Gnats”), have just as long and a storied history in D.C. as any other baseball name you could imagine, it seemed like an odd and haphazard fit for the newly-relocated franchise.  The name, even in short form, seems almost awkward in the National League, and the team has never really gotten off the ground when it comes to fan support, aside from brief moments of excitement over the potential for pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg.  Obviously, I am not even trying to claim that their situation would be any different if they were the Washington Senators or the D.C. Grays….

…. but all I know is that, as an outsider looking in, as a lifelong fan of baseball, and as a student of history always fascinated by the Civil War and actively against the ideals of the Confederacy, I was definitely rooting for the Grays.