If a Team Gets a New Home, Does It Get a New Name?

With Seattle SuperSonics Set to Move, a Look at Past Sports Re-branding Efforts

By Published on .

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In 1966, when Los Angeles businessmen Sam Schulman and Eugene V. Klein brought NBA basketball to the very tip of the Northwest, the name for their new team made sense. Boeing was a giant in the city of Seattle, and it had just been awarded a huge contract for the first American supersonic transport. Hence, "Seattle SuperSonics" seemed apropos. But with a move to Oklahoma in the team's future, it's likely a new name will soon be sought.
What will become of the Sonics' name and logo, which features the city's landmark Space Needle?
What will become of the Sonics' name and logo, which features the city's landmark Space Needle?

These days, the Sonics appear all but certain to flee Seattle by season's end. A likely destination for the team is Oklahoma City, the home of the new ownership group led by business tycoon Clay Bennett. The city proved it could support an NBA franchise last year when it hosted the New Orleans Hornets for a season following Hurricane Katrina. On March 14, the AP reported that the Sonics and Oklahoma City agreed on a 15-year lease for the Ford Center, valued at just more than $2 million a year.

What becomes of the nickname and logo?
A myriad of questions about the possible relocation still remain, but chief among them for residents of both cities: What will become of the team's nickname and logo, which features the city's landmark Space Needle? A spokesman for Mr. Bennett declined comment, saying it was too early to address the issue. But industry observers believe it's likely a change is on the way.

Ultimately, the franchise's owner is the one who makes the final decision about a team's nickname, and leagues generally go along with whatever decision is made. And Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp, a Chicago-based sports consultancy, said a team owner is more likely to keep a team's name if long-term ownership has created an emotional attachment.

"There are two principal factors that need to be taken into account," Mr. Ganis said. "Whether there was something that was a unique connection between the original home territory and the team name -- the Jazz in New Orleans or the Oilers in Houston -- and whether there is significant brand equity awareness in the team's name and logo -- the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders." Ultimately, Mr. Ganis said, marketing and team-branding considerations should play a bigger role in the decision.
The NHL's Hartford Whalers (top) changed their name to the Hurricanes (bottom) with their 1997 relocation to the Carolinas.
The NHL's Hartford Whalers (top) changed their name to the Hurricanes (bottom) with their 1997 relocation to the Carolinas.

"When we made the move from Hartford to the Carolinas, we wanted to make a fresh start," said Jim Rutherford, general manager-president of the Carolina Hurricanes, formerly the Hartford Whalers until the hockey team's 1997 relocation. "If you keep the same name, you're going to get more comparisons between the new market and the old. And [the other] part of it was that the state of Connecticut [wanted to] keep the name Whalers."

From Royals to Kings
Historically, NBA teams haven't changed their names much following geographic moves. From the Los Angeles Lakers (formerly Detroit, then Minneapolis) in 1960 to the Memphis Grizzlies (formerly of Vancouver) in 2002, franchises have been reluctant to part with their names (witness the now paradoxically named Utah Jazz). One basketball franchise that has managed to both keep its name and change it: the alliterative Rochester Royals, which left New York state for Cincinnati and then Kansas City. The latter already had the Kansas City Royals, a pro baseball franchise, so the NBA team changed its name to the Kansas City Kings. The team moved again to Sacramento, where it kept the Kings name.

A significant part of the reason for keeping a name is that switching is rather costly, said Andy Dolich, former president-business operations with the Grizzlies who is now chief operating officer with the NFL's San Francisco 49ers. Mr. Dolich estimates the Grizzlies saved "several hundred thousand dollars" by keeping the team name. He added that with league costs and individual expenses (including design, research focus groups, and manufacturing of new equipment and merchandise), the price tag can range into the high seven figures, depending on the depth and breadth of the changes.

Accepting of name
"I've always put more credence in the fans of the [new] markets -- because they have an ownership of the team," Mr. Dolich recalled. "We [did] some focus-group research in the Memphis community to talk about many names: something about rivers or music [or food]? But what happened and what came back is that the Grizzlies far exceeded the favorite name by a tremendous percentage. The underlying rationale was that [the fans] were proud and excited, and were going to be accepting of that name."

In turn, the Grizzlies have tried to honor the Memphis tradition of good music and food, from new uniform colors (dark navy blue) and stadium concession offerings (barbecue) to a music museum in their home arena, the FedEx Forum.

"Does the [Sonics] name make sense in Oklahoma?" Mr. Ganis asked. "I would suggest it doesn't. There's a lot to be said for starting fresh. ... There are a lot of names that can be a very nice way of connecting a franchise with a community right off the bat.

"The Sonics is clearly an example of a team that should change its name when it moves," he said.
Most Popular
In this article: