New soccer team's name needs to score AC Buy This Shirt? Rocky FC?

Posted: March 10, 2008

The new Philadelphia soccer team has chosen its nickname:

The IronPigs.

Just kidding, soccer fans. Don't have a stroke.

Besides, that name is already taken, picked for a new Phillies farm club in Allentown through an online vote of baseball fans.

Which explains why, when Philadelphia was formally awarded a Major League Soccer team and Gov. Rendell announced that fans would choose the name, you could see members of the ownership group squirm.

Actually, fans will only help select the name. Because the fact is, way too much is at stake.

These days, choosing the name, colors and logo of a pro sports team is alchemy upon which ride millions of dollars in sales and licensing. It's why branding consultants earn big money. And why they lie awake at night, trying to divine the precise name and color scheme that will grab the attention - and open the wallets - of fans in not just one region but across the country and even around the world.

"Too ordinary and you blend in with the crowd. Too different and you potentially look foolish," said Douglas Olberding, chairman of the Sport Studies Department at Xavier University in Ohio.

The gold standard is the NHL's San Jose Sharks, whose name, teal-and-black colors, and razor-jaw logo became a sales sensation in 1991. The Los Angeles Galaxy sold 250,000 David Beckham jerseys before he ever stepped on the field, taking MLS merchandising to a new level.

But there's only one Beckham, and he plays 2,400 miles away.

For the owners of the new Philadelphia team, the selection of a name is a big, important decision, and one that comes with certain constraints. They can't pick a name that sounds remotely minor league - that's death in Philadelphia. They're not going to choose an overused, collegiate-sounding name of a feline predator - no Tigers, Lions or Wildcats. And they're definitely not going to pick Lenape, Warriors, Braves or Chiefs, because nobody needs that hassle.

"We're going to stay true to the sport and true to the traditions of the sport," said Nick Sakiewicz, the team's chief executive officer and a co-owner. "That's the one must-have criteria."

He expects that several names will be put to a vote of fans in the summer, the results to be considered by the team. Options for team colors are wide open, he said. Fans will be solicited about that, too, probably in the fall.

The new team won't play until 2010, at a $500 million stadium complex to be built on the Chester waterfront, but already fans are suggesting names.

Some like the Independence or Athletics. People too young to recall Billie Jean King and World Team Tennis suggest Freedom. Others like Liberty or Constitution.

One wag offered a name that would simultaneously evoke soccer legend AC Milan, recognize the new team's Delaware County stadium site, and help land a well-heeled sponsor: AC Delco.

MLS is the nation's top league, but at the start of its 13th season it still strives for legitimacy. MLS has sought that partly through names that echo storied foreign clubs, even if the Americanized versions don't quite translate: FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake, DC United.

Some names recall a historic event: Chicago Fire, New England Revolution.

Some make no sense at all. Columbus Crew, anyone?

And one lasted about five minutes: When the transplanted San Jose Earthquakes arrived in Texas two years ago, they became Houston 1836. The name marked the year of Houston's founding and brought to mind the German club Munich 1860 - and infuriated the Hispanic community, for whom 1836 is the year Texas waged a bloody war for independence against Mexico.

Houston 1836 quickly became the Houston Dynamo.

"Naming a sports franchise is a lot like choosing a tattoo or wallpaper: You're always worried what it will look like in 50 years," said C.J. Sullivan, cohost of "The Visitors Locker Room" at www.visitorslockerroom.com. "Most teams go for the safest bet, some animal that's known for attacking humans."

Minor league baseball teams often opt for kid-friendly nicknames, such as the Portland Sea Dogs or Mobile Baybears. A Georgia hockey team called itself the - ahem - Macon Whoopee. One of the soccer clubs in Zurich, Switzerland, is the Grasshoppers, not to be confused with the former Texas baseball team in Buddy Holly-loving Lubbock, the Crickets.

"Team names are critical to establishing the identity of a franchise," said Darin David of Millsport, a sports-marketing agency. "A good nickname is going to drive community interest and merchandise sales."

So, is there such an animal as a RailHawk?

"No, of course not," said Brad Myers, vice president of marketing for the Carolina RailHawks FC.

What there is, though, is a new team in the second-tier United Soccer Leagues that needed a cool name and logo to attract paying customers to its stadium in Cary, N.C., near Raleigh.

Upon its inception a year ago, the North Carolina side faced challenges almost identical to those that now confront the Philadelphia club. The RailHawks was the new team in town, forced to market an identity before it even had a coach. Like Philadelphia, the club was born into a crowded and competitive local sports market - and a locale where previous soccer teams had failed.

Fans provided about 1,000 suggestions, and the club came close to being the Clash or Quicksilver. Front-office executives loved the Cosmos, the name of the top team in the old North American Soccer League, "but we didn't want to deal with a lawsuit from New York," Myers said.

Meanwhile, everybody noticed the railroad track that ran past the stadium and the red-tailed hawks overhead.

"RailHawks just kept coming back to the surface," Myers said. Combining bird and rail allowed marketers to use elements of each in promotions - a hawk screech, a train whistle.

Though it's hard to judge the financial impact of the name and colors, Myers believes it's substantial. He sees lots of kids wearing RailHawks jerseys in a region that hosts the famous Durham Bulls minor league baseball team. Sponsorships are up. And the team is on track to match its first-year 5,000-a-game attendance, avoiding the typical second-year dip.

Of course, if the Philadelphia team draws 5,000 a game, it's quickly going to be out of business or playing in another city. But for the RailHawks, that's enough.

"The first thing everyone asks is, 'What is a RailHawk?' " Myers said. "From my perspective, that's the greatest thing. Because then I get a chance to talk about what it is."

The names of the 10 original MLS teams were chosen by league officials with help from team owner-investors and uniform sponsors. Today, names are picked by the teams, with MLS approval.

"Many of our clubs - and I know that's what they're looking at in Philadelphia - have engaged the fans in a name-the-team contest," said MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche. "There are a number of different ways to do it, but you want to come up with a great name."

Peter Madden, president of AgileCat public relations in Philadelphia, said that when he's asked to develop a brand name, he starts by interrogating the people who run the business: What should the name convey? What should it result in? His firm represents one of the team owners, the Buccini/Pollin Group, though it's uncertain whether AgileCat will help pick the name.

"This new soccer team," mused Sean Flannery of "The Visitors Locker Room," "might as well be called the Italian Stallions, since it will never take the field without Rocky music being played."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8110 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

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