June 9, 2004 -- -- Hockey is a game of speed, body checking and tough-guy enforcers, so what would fans think of a team called the Peoria Prancers?
"People would laugh," remembers Bart Rogers, current president and general manager of Peoria, Ill.'s minor league hockey team team, which bore the unfortunate name in the early 1980s.
"[Opposing] fans that would come in would do a kind of prancing," he says. "[The name] just didn't show toughness."
A newspaper contest renamed the team the Peoria Rivermen after two seasons, and the players, coaches and fans could start rebuilding their shaken egos.
After all, a team's name, its logo and its uniform help shape a team's or league's image, sell T-shirts and hats, and draw and keep fans.
These days, many teams consult with marketing, image and apparel companies to get just the right image, and the process could be one reason why, in the modern era, prevailing styles of team names are changing.
"With new leagues and new teams, I don't see a lot of teams naming themselves Lions and Tigers and Bears," says Trey Fitz-Gerald, a spokesman for Major League Soccer, a decade-old league with team names like Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, New England Revolution and Dallas Burn.
"A shocking logo or an irreverent name [can be] something that makes people take a second look or ask a question" about a team seeking media exposure, he adds.
‘Weird Name Like a Rock Band’
Newer leagues like Major League Soccer often choose collective names (Charge, Storm) or names of uncountable forces (Heat, Thunder), rather than more traditional plural names. Six of the soccer league's 10 team names don't have the traditional "s" at the end.
The same pattern holds for the brand new National Pro Fastpitch women's softball league that debuted last week, when the New England Riptide faced the New York/New Jersey Juggernaut on June 1.
"The difference forces itself on your attention, because the long-established norm is plurals," says Allan Metcalf, a professor of English at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill., and the author of several books on language and word usage. "I suppose the message is, 'We're new, we're cool, we've got a weird name like a rock band.'"
Four of the six new women's softball teams have such names, as do the majority of teams in the WNBA and the dormant Women's United Soccer Association, plus a sizeable minority in the Arena Football League.
On the other hand, in long-established Major League Baseball and the National Football League, all team names end in "s" — or "x," as in the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago White Sox, a pair of century-old teams.
Even the two leagues' recent expansion teams and relocated franchises have followed the same pattern — as with baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies, and football's Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans, Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars.
In the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League, both of which have long histories, only six teams defy the pattern — basketball's Utah Jazz, Miami Heat and Orlando Magic, and hockey's Tampa Bay Lightning, Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild.
"When a new league is starting, they try to find a way to get people to recognize it," says Aaron Moore, manager of communications for National Pro Fastpitch. "Major League Baseball has 100 years of tradition."
‘We’re Doing This Thing Differently’
Robin Tolmach Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, has studied the differences between men's and women's speech patterns, and is not surprised team names are changing as women's sports leagues are forming.
"Women are the innovators linguistically: They are at the forefront of language change," she says. "Girls learn to talk sooner and better than boys. Women are the people who sort of know how to communicate better. … If you're more comfortable with language, you might be a bit more playful with it."
Though women's teams also may be named by male owners or officials, smart marketers of any gender may see usefulness in an adventurous name.
"Even to this day, the notion of a women's professional athletic team is a little dangerous, it's a little cutting edge," Lakoff says. A daring name "says we're different, we're women, we're doing this thing differently. To have a name that's different from the traditional sports name … it's exciting, it's attractive."
The softball league's team names were picked by the teams' owners, in consultation with the league office, the league's development partner, Major League Baseball, and an MLB-designated marketing firm, Moore says. At least one proposed team name was rejected.
"The New York/New Jersey Juggernaut was originally going to be the New York/New Jersey Highlanders, which was an old name for the Yankees," Moore says.
The reason Highlanders was rejected is unclear, but Carole Coleman, a spokeswoman for Major League Baseball, says it might have been a licensing conflict if the Yankees still staked a claim to their pre-Babe-Ruth-era moniker.
Other elements of a team's image, such as team colors, logos and uniform design, also tend to undergo a trademark review, Coleman says. They also can be shaped by the MLB's creative department.
"When marketing something, you want something new and fresh," Coleman says.
For older leagues, on the other hand, it can be tradition that's marketed — though what's thought of as traditional today may not always have been so.
Before about 1880, many Major League Baseball teams were named after fire companies or Civil War units, according to Tim Wiles, director of research at the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Around the turn of the century, teams often were named for the color of their uniforms or their socks.
Team names were fluid in the early part of the 20th century, with some tags stemming from the names of managers — such as the Cleveland Naps for Nap Lajoie, or the Brooklyn Robbins for Wilbert Robinson.
"A lot of teams in the late 19th or early 20th century might be known by four or five or six different names in the same year," Wiles says.
Many teams acquired now-familiar names through common usage by fans or in newspaper stories. For instance, some believe the Highlanders became the Yankees because newspapers found it difficult to abbreviate "Highlanders" in headlines.
Eventually, team names hardened to the point that efforts to change them failed. In the 1940s, Wiles says, a move by the Philadelphia Phillies to become the Blue Jays was abandoned when fans evidently didn't accept it. Similarly, the Cincinnati Reds returned to their original name after using Redlegs in the McCarthy-era 1950s.
Among minor league baseball teams, Wiles sees more adventurous names. One of the most unusual he's seen is an Illinois team that uses the name "Swing of the Quad Cities" and whose logo is a baseball coming out of a saxophone.
"I'm not one of those purists who thinks everybody should be the Tigers or the Pirates," Wiles says. "Those names reflect those eras just like the new names reflect the new era."
Selling an Image
Major League Baseball teams generally retain traditional-style names, but recently its teams have been using more alternate uniform designs, which some observers see as a way to sell more jerseys, caps and other merchandise.
In some cases, the apparel companies are in the loop as a league's image is created.
"Some cities relied on their equipment company — so a Nike, Adidas, Umbro, Puma — to help with the branding, the name and the design of that team," Fitz-Gerald says of Major League Soccer's organization in 1995. "Others have gone from anything from having fans submit suggestions … and I believe we've even had something where an owner's wife or daughter or son picked a name for a team."
Scott Reams, a spokesman for Nike, does not believe the company named any of the soccer teams, but says it acted as a design consultant on logos and uniform color schemes — a service it also occasionally performs for college athletic departments seeking to unify designs across different sports or perhaps bolster apparel sales.
Though a team's performance and the market size of the city it represents seem to be more important factors, experts say the right name, look and logo can help sell a team to fans.
The wrong name can be relegated to history, as Peoria found out when it sent its former team name, logo and look prancing away.
"As far as the uniforms, [the Peoria Prancers] didn't have a very good marketing appeal whatsoever," says Rogers, the Peoria Rivermen's current general manager. "The mascot looked like somebody took an actual deer head and put it on. It's still in a bar about a block from an arena."