Renaming a Franchise Means More Than Finding a New Mascot

April 14, 2010
By Ken Belson



New team owners often have their hands full hiring executives, meeting fans and sponsors, and adding or cutting players. Michael Jordan, the new majority owner of the N.B.A. Charlotte Bobcats, is no different, only he may have something else on his to-do list: a new team nickname.

“If I get the understanding from the community, from the public, that we need it and it signifies change, yeah, I would do that,” Jordan told reporters in Charlotte, N.C., last month after he took over the team.

Ownership changes and relocations are rare chances to rebrand franchises, especially if poor play in the arena or outside scandal has dogged the team. But changing nicknames cannot assure a winning team, is expensive and can alienate fans, all things Jordan will have to consider.

Jordan will also have to weigh whether changing the team’s name makes sense when the Bobcats are finally having success. The team is enjoying its first winning season and will make the first playoff appearance in its six-year history. Then again, Jordan may decide to scrap the name to distance himself from the previous owner, Robert Johnson, whose team was known jokingly as Bob’s Cats. The Nets, too, will play the name game when they leave New Jersey in 2012. For now, the team plans to be called the Brooklyn Nets to capitalize on the borough’s basketball heritage, which has produced stars like Lenny Wilkens, Bernard King and Stephon Marbury. But with a new owner and a new arena, the team could opt for a full makeover. (The Nets began their life as the New Jersey Americans in the American Basketball Association.)

Most name changes happen when teams make clean breaks, as when the forlorn Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals in 2005, or when hockey’s Winnipeg Jets, after many mediocre years, moved to Phoenix and became the Coyotes in 1996.

Some teams on the move keep their nicknames, even if they make no sense. The Jazz, named for the musical heritage of its native New Orleans, remained the Jazz when it moved to Utah, which is not exactly known for its blue notes. The Lakers, too, kept their name when they moved from Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes, to Los Angeles, the land of the Pacific Ocean.

There are also teams that change their city name, without changing cities, like the Angels (from Anaheim to Los Angeles) and the football Cardinals (from Phoenix to Arizona) for marketing reasons.

But few teams change names without moving. Fans, sponsors and city elders often have an intense, irrational attachment to their hometown teams. Franchises are usually privately held enterprises, yet they are treated like public institutions, so changing names can create an unintended backlash.

“For a team to step into that quagmire without a solid rationale would not be prudent,” said Allen Adamson, managing director in the New York office of Landor Associates, a naming consultant. “It’s really tricky, especially something where the public is involved because no name is going to be hands down better than another.”

Emotions aside, changing names alone does not guarantee positive results — usually. After 10 losing seasons in Tampa Bay, the Rays changed their uniforms and dropped the Devil from their name, which was not a hit in Florida’s Bible Belt. It worked, in a way: the Rays reached the World Series that year.

“This was a team that needed a rebranding, a total makeover,” said Rick Vaughan, a team spokesman.

In 1997, the Washington Bullets became the Wizards because of the negative association with the District of Columbia’s high murder rate. The Wizards’ record has been mixed since then. This season, the team’s biggest star, Gilbert Arenas, and his teammate Javaris Crittenton were suspended for taking guns to the locker room at the team’s home arena.

Either way, rebranding a team is a multiyear, multimillion-dollar process that Jordan figures could cost as much as $10 million — a reasonable estimate, according to branding experts. Given the logistics, a name change would not happen in time for next season.

The hardest part is typically the least expensive: finding a new name. Teams sometimes hire naming agencies to do market research, conduct focus groups and ask fans for suggestions or opinions on names that the teams drum up. Agencies charge about $50,000 to generate hundreds of possible names, said Laurel Sutton, a principal at Catchword Branding, a naming company in Oakland, Calif.

Good names should have grass-roots appeal, be alliterative, not conflict with another team’s name, and link to a team’s roots or be suggestive of its future, said Edward O’Hara, the chief creative officer at SME, which designs logos for professional and college teams.

“It has to serve as the anchor for all your marketing,” he said. “It has to signify a new era.”

O’Hara said that while Bobcats was a generic name, dumping it was risky because a new name was bound to offend someone.

Teams employ lawyers to make sure names do not conflict with those of other teams in the United States and overseas. Registering team names globally can cost as much as $1 million.

Graphic designers can charge $100,000 or more to create logos, names, fonts and color schemes, a process that can take months. Teams must also get approval from their league’s board of governors. In the N.B.A., a team must wait eight years between primary logo changes and four years between uniform changes. The N.B.A. has not commented on the possibility of a Bobcats name change because the team has not applied to the league to make a change.

Once approvals are obtained, the team has to replace merchandise, signs, media material, stationery and even cocktail napkins that have the team’s old logo. Then the team needs watchdogs to ensure the new name is being used properly and not being affixed to bootleg merchandise.

“You need to track every angle down,” Sutton said.

If Jordan decides to change the nickname, Charlotte Bobcats memorabilia will go into the trash bin of sports history, alongside New Orleans Jazz uniforms, Winnipeg Jets jerseys and Montreal Expos caps.

New team owners often have their hands full hiring executives, meeting fans and sponsors, and adding or cutting players. Michael Jordan, the new majority owner of the N.B.A. Charlotte Bobcats, is no different, only he may have something else on his to-do list: a new team nickname…


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