Leaders And Legends: Division Naming in the Big Ten (or Twelve)

By Laurel Sutton

December 22, 2010

The sports world has been buzzing about the names Legends and Leaders for the new Big 10 divisions. Since it’s a naming-type topic, our man at the NY Times, Ken Belson, called me for some colorful quotes for his excellent article:

Jim Delany, the commissioner of the 115-year old Big Ten, has tried to quell the ensuing firestorm by doing a dozen radio and television interviews, as well as a conference call with newspaper reporters, to defend the names.

In interviews, Delany said that the priority was to divide the conference’s 12 teams into divisions to maintain competitive equality and historic rivalries. Geographic designations like east and west did not work because the best rivalries defy neat boundaries. Great Lakes, Plains and other names were not chosen for similar reasons.

The division alignments have Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern in the Legends, and Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin in the Leaders.

Other industry experts said that Legends and Leaders are safe choices because they are unlikely to infringe on any trademarks, but also bland and thus open to criticism from fans who expect more meaningful names.

“It is a good business choice, but as a branding strategy it’s not a good choice,” said Laurel Sutton, a principal at Catchword Branding, which helps companies come up with names. “It seems like they wanted two words with the letter L that are positive.”

I said the stuff about trademarks, too. I like being identified as an industry expert!
Ken and I talked about the issues involved in deciding which teams go in which division. How do you know which ones are Leaders and which ones are Legends? If you’re a Legend, can you not be a Leader? And what are they Leading, anyway?

Also, these particular two-syllable names that start with “L” are confusingly similar. I personally get a bit of a Dungeons & Dragons vibe from it, or maybe Mazes & Monsters. Using these words is what I’d call a lowest-common-denominator decision – no one will love it, but it’s not offending anyone, either. I’d bet that Legends and Leaders was the safe choice out of a range of options they considered. a back-pocket solution they had to use when no one could agree on any of the other names.

But as I told Ken, I predict that this will all blow over soon; people will get used to the names and by this time next year, no one will be talking about them. I note, however, that while LegendsandLeaders.com is probably for sale, LeadersandLegends.com is registered and in use by a group celebrating men and women who helped shape the American West. I think I like their use better.

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