Once upon a time, sports teams scuffled along with simple, time-honored nicknames like Lions and Tigers and Bears. Now the landscape is crawling with Warthogs and Sand Gnats and Quakes. Oh my!
These are the prosperous 1990s, after all - days in which the ample spending of American sports fans can support a pro franchise or two not just in every big city but often in many Mudville-sized burgs as well. Essential to the success of such teams, though, are names and logos ranging from clever to ridiculous that stoke sales of T-shirts, caps and other souvenirs.So the age of the mundane moniker is over. How else to explain the Florida BeachDogs of the Continental Basketball Association, or minor league baseball's Everett (Wash.) AquaSox? "We wanted something that hadn't been done before - something of our own," says Bob Bavasi, the AquaSox' general manager. "We didn't just want to be the `Tigers.' We wanted our own identity." Even if it conjures wet hosiery.
Every sport is prone to silly sobriquets, but nowhere have they been embraced more heartily than in minor league baseball, whose renaissance was partly fostered by the nickname craze. Remember Corporal Klinger's Toledo Mud Hens, "M*A*S*H" fans? They've been joined by the Jupiter Hammerheads (Florida), the Hickory Crawdads (North Carolina), the Thunder Bay Whiskey Jacks (Ontario), the Charleston Alley Cats (West Virginia), the New Britain Rock Cats (Connecticut), the Keizer Volcanoes (Oregon), the Lansing Lugnuts (Michigan) and the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx.
What's a Jaxx? "There is no such thing," admits David Hersh, president of the Southern League club in Jackson, Tenn.
Trying to cash in on a merchandising boom that has seen apparel and souvenir sales grow from $2.5 million in 1991 to $34 million last year, many minor league baseball teams have ditched the names of their staid-sounding major league affiliates for something more distinctive. When the Canton-Akron Indians rechristened themselves the Akron Aeros last year, their licensing revenue skyrocketed from just $60,000 to $1.2 million, tops in the minors.
"The nickname and logo are crucial to the success of a minor league franchise - they're everything," says Kris Roukey, the team's director of merchandising.
Sometimes name changes don't go over too well, though. Few have caused more local uproar than when the Batavia Clippers in upstate New York changed their name to "Muckdogs" last winter. Selected as the winning entry in a local contest, the name prompted dozens of angry letters to the Batavia Daily News. "A Muckdog is a friendly, warm creature that would love for people to come out and watch a baseball game," the team's general manager, Jason Smorol, explained. A few years back, similar controversy erupted in Battle Creek, Mich., when word got out that its minor league team would be called the Golden Kazoos. But the Kazoos blew their chance when some yahoo beat them to trademarking the name.
Baseball, however, seems to have largely avoided the most appalling of affectations, the singular nickname. Seven of the 10 Major League Soccer teams have forsaken the plural S, going with alarming labels like the Dallas Burn and the San Jose Clash. (The Kansas City franchise actually spent its first season as the Wiz, and even considered the slogan, "We Gotta Go!" before changing its name to the Wizards.)
Franchises will do almost anything to create a buzz. But don't think about naming your team the Buzz. Salt Lake City's minor league baseball team did that, but since has been sued by the Georgia Tech Yellowjackets, whose mascot is named "Buzz." (Let's not get started on mascots. The Savannah Sand Gnats have actually dressed someone up in a toilet costume to promote water conservation, dubbing him "Les Waters." They rejected "Big Bad John" and "Flush Gordon.")
As loopy as team names are becoming, they aren't as incongruous as the ones some clubs keep after they relocate. No one cares, really, when the NBA's Kansas City Kings become the Sacramento Kings - but the league's top Los Angeles club, once located in Minneapolis, has no business still being called the Lakers, alliteration aside.