About 1,500 years ago, the Byzantine emperor Justinian decided to pardon a couple of troublesome sports fans. These naughty fellows had taken their love of two rival chariot-racing teams a bit too far – as far as murder. But the pair had lots of inflamed, chariot-racing bar buddies and Justinian did not, so he gave them a pass.
To celebrate his compromise – and this may not have been the smartest idea – Justinian decided to stage another chariot race. It turned into the most spectacular sports riot in recorded history. According to contemporary accounts, tens of thousands were killed and huge swaths of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) were destroyed.
Who were the two sports teams capable of eliciting such passion amongst their supporters? The Blues and the Greens.
These are some of the earliest team nicknames in history. And already, they weren’t so hot. Who picks green as their colour? Why not the Reds? Or the Blacks? Something that pops from a distance. Something with a little gravitas.
It would get much worse from there. Over the past few decades, team names have taken a hard turn into the ludicrous. They are now so uniformly dim that we’ve stopped noticing.
Why is the local basketball team called the Raptors? What does a dinosaur have to do with Toronto, or Canada, or basketball or really anything aside from paleontology? A raptor doesn’t even have thumbs. It can’t bounce a ball.
It’s gotten to the point where it’s much easier to pick out the good names than the bad ones. Because there are so few. The Yankees is a good name. It means something. It summons an image. And you could not imagine any other team anywhere being called this. The Canadiens is a great name because ditto. That’s the end of my list.
The Wild? The Golden Knights? The Kraken? These are dumb things to call anyone.
“Hey pal, what are you?”
“Me? I’m a pretty average middle-aged customer-service specialist. But on Saturday nights, I am a mythical sea beast.”
Try saying, ”I am a Washington Wizard,” out loud to yourself a few times and try not to wave your hands around in the air spookily as you do so.
Sports nicknames jumped back into the news cycle over the weekend, when The New York Times reported the Cleveland Indians plan to drop their ethnic sobriquet.
The club had been fighting a rearguard action against protesters for years. It had largely given up on the Chief Wahoo logo. Now it will give up on the team name itself.
But, of course, not right away. Cleveland will reportedly wait one more season before changing (which gives nostalgists a chance to stockpile old-school merchandise). Then there will be a period of some length in which the club has no nickname (giving lovers of novelty a chance to buy even more stuff). Eventually, it will debut a new name and logo (you’re beginning to understand why capitalism is so popular).
The Washington Redskins and Edmonton Eskimos have already waved the white flag. Now a few other teams move into the cultural crosshairs – the Chicago Blackhawks, the Atlanta Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs.
It’s easier for the holdouts because the template is now clear. Controversially named Team X spends a few years stalling. When the pressure reaches a certain pitch, the club appears to cave. But in the end, what it has actually done is create an alternative revenue stream. People like buying things. They especially like buying new things. This gives them that excuse.
Team X gets to flaunt its newly discovered progressive credentials, while also making more money.
Eventually, someone is going to figure out that this also works for non-controversially named teams. Not many people like the Ottawa Senators any more, but unfortunately for the club, nobody has a problem with “senators.” Instead of winning hearts the hard way (by constructing an NHL team capable of playing NHL-level hockey), Ottawa might do it the easy way (by changing the name). Take a poll. Focus-group the hell out of it. Turn it into a real circus. Get a lot of free publicity out of it – in this case, even bad press is good press. Then hit Ctrl-Alt-Esc on your sad-sack former self. It won’t fool everyone, but it’ll fool a few people.
Here’s another idea – how about we get rid of nicknames altogether? There are too many of them and they are getting worse. Silly team names have become the black mould of sports marketing. Everyone agrees it’s awful, but recaulking the bathroom sounds like a lot of work. So you solve the problem by making sure the shower curtain is pulled shut when company comes over.
Will any pro ever sound right saying, “I’m so proud to be a Duck,” or, “I’ve never know a team with more heart, more fight or more courage than this group of Ducks”? Impossible. And yet it is so commonplace no one even bothers to mock it.
Unnamed clubs sound cleaner. More authoritative. Say for instance, Barcelona. That’s simple. Elegant.
The Barcelona Bulls, Barcelona Fightin’ Catalans or Barcelona Pelicans sound like different branches of a children’s after-school club.
The Washington Football Team. How can you not love that name? It’s a grown-up thing to call an enterprise. It is what it says it is.
Just about everything else is childish, which is a large part of what got them in trouble in the first place. The names of sports teams cannot be taken seriously, and no one likes to think of themselves as the butt of a joke.
Of course, this isn’t going to happen en masse. Teams aren’t all going to drop their names at once (unless there is some compelling financial reason to do so).
But no new team ought to have a nickname. Let them follow soccer’s example – just call yourselves what you are. If your fans want to stick you with a nickname, then that’s cool.
But corporations ought to give up on the juvenile need to self-identify as increasingly weird animals or vague concepts. If aesthetics aren’t compelling enough reason to do so, then there is the added bonus that no one can protest a name you do not have.