There are rumours that when Ottawa’s new CFL team hits the gridiron in 2014 the players will have big white Rs on their jerseys and answer to "the RedBlacks." The reaction to that name has been lukewarm, but it also has some asking how important branding is to the success of a modern sports franchise.
The RedBlacks rumour originated from a website that last week claimed to have early word on the nascent team’s name and logo. The R will be inside a buzzsaw symbol, according to sportslogos.net, on a black background with red highlights.
Ottawa has been without a CFL team since the short-lived Renegades folded in 2006. Before that, the city had the more accomplished Rough Riders.
Nothing will be official until June 8 when the bosses say they will "confirm" the details but – as is often the case when sports teams get new names – early response has been less than glowing.
An online poll attached to that same story showed at one point only 14 per cent approval for "RedBlacks" and their supposed buzzsaws. A full 76 per cent were opposed. "I could not have imagined a dumber name," wrote one CBC reader in response to the recent news story.
How much does public approval for a sports brand matter in the long run? It depends who you ask.
On one hand, there are a lot of sports teams with boring names. Or names that don’t make any sense, or are borderline offensive, or which probably offered only a modicum of appeal when they were introduced sometime early in the last century.
The Oakland Athletics spring to mind. Also the Cleveland Browns, the Green Bay Packers, the Utah Jazz and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
On the other hand, a team’s name and logo are key ingredients in generating fan interest and those oh-so-important merchandise sales.
They are "a very important factor," says Richard Powers, an expert in sports marketing with the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.
"Usually what you’re looking for in a name and logo is something that gives the fan, the target market, a clear connection to the team. So it can’t be anything too contentious. It can’t be anything too abstract. There has to be a direct connection," he says.
In marketer lingo, the name and logo have to be "grabby." Names are more important than logos because they get more exposure (think of radio broadcasts) and are harder to change.
They should also suggest something positive about the team and generate "emotional appeal" – often by invoking the hometown’s history or character. Thus, Edmonton has its Oilers, Ottawa its Senators.
Powers says all of this is especially important during a team’s uncertain start-up phase when it will have no star players or other means of goosing ticket or bobblehead sales.
Exact figures are hard to find, but he estimates an average team makes at least 20 per cent of its revenue from merchandise these days.
But in the long run, say experts, a team will ultimately live or die by its performance on the field and in the community. Even the lamest names will be overlooked if a team is chalking up wins.
"Branding takes time, and it’s all about the quality of the experience," says Jim Kyte, a former NHL player and current chair of marketing and management at Algonquin College in Ottawa.
"Look at the Senators," he says, citing a team for which he once played. "I don’t think that’s a great name to start with, but look at what they’ve done in the community and on the ice.
"They’re a first-class organization," he says, though building that reputation took the better part of a generation.
People even got used to saying "the Anaheim Mighty Ducks" and "the Toronto Raptors" — names which both drew sneers when they were introduced to the NHL and NBA, respectively, in the 1990s.
"Initially there was some blowback," to the Raptors’ original purple outfits and dinosaur logo, recalls Brian Cooper, the club’s first vice-president of operations. Unflattering comparisons were made to children’s TV sensation Barney the Dinosaur, while others deemed it a too-obvious attempt to cash in on the popularity of Jurassic Park, which had arrived in theatres a few years before the team’s debut in 1995.
Cooper admits the name was a "pure merchandising play" – not his preferred approach, but it worked.
"You can go with what’s hot in pop culture at the time," or have a name that taps into local history, he says. (Cooper was once president of the Toronto Argonauts, which lifted its unlikely name from a local rowing club.)
"But no matter where it comes from, [the team]
is about how you grow the culture around it," Cooper adds.
"The brand isn’t just the visual. If we were talking about Heinz beans it would be what’s in the can that matters most. The product is the team and how it works in the community, how they’re perceived by the local media and what they give back," he says.