Sport maintains a critical position in Australian culture. Not only is it seen as a manifestation of our perceived defining values such as “having a go” “playing fair” and mateship, it is the lingua franca of our cities and towns; it’s how we talk to one another and express our fears and hopes. Our teams’ seasons help us measure out the years. And it’s big business, too. In short, sport is important to Australians.
That’s why it’s so confounding that the naming (or, if you will, the branding) of institutions to which we’re expected to dedicate our passion, time and money is often given meagre, unimaginative consideration.
Consider the case of Big Bash League franchise the Hobart Hurricanes, a name that gives the impression of having been conjured up as a last-minute replacement for something even less appropriate – the Hobart Hogwash, perhaps.
“Alright, how about Hurricanes, then?” you can hear a defeated marketing consultant ask.
We don’t, however, have hurricanes in this country – not in the tropical north (where such meteorological events are known as “cyclones”). And certainly not in the cold-climate capital of Tasmania.
Another sports sobriquet that rankles is basketball team Melbourne United.
Now, the NBL has some form when it comes to ill-thought-out monikers.
Indeed, apart from a brief period when the Townsville Crocodiles and Cairns Taipans came into being, franchises have tended to avoid proudly Australian nominative representation.
Perth (one of the competition’s most successful clubs) even selected “Wildcats” for its nickname. Though this is a popular choice for college sports teams (Kentucky, Arizona, Northwestern and Kansas State among many others), a wildcat is something of a pest – if not a scourge – in this country.
Adelaide’s “36er” nom de guerre refers to the city’s 1836 founding, but always struck me as somewhat derivative of the renowned Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA.
So, what’s wrong with “United”, you ask?
First, it’s a quintessentially English soccer naming device – Manchester United, Sheffield United and Newcastle United, for example.
Yet in each of these cases United is not a nickname as such, with these teams cheered on as the Red Devils, Blades and Magpies, respectively. Rather, the “United” component usually refers to the fact clubs were formed from the combination of others.
(Although it’s true that many NBL franchises have risen and fallen in the Victorian capital, United is the direct descendent of the Melbourne Tigers rather than a bastard child of multiple franchises.)
Plus, let’s face it: there’s a space where the club’s nickname should be – the Melbourne United Somethings.
For me, great team nicknames involve the tantalising combination of originality (although not at all costs – the University of California Santa Cruz Banana Slugs is a tad silly) and geographical, cultural or historical appropriateness.
“Celtics” is a successful name for the storied Boston basketball institution because it calls to mind the Massachusetts city’s Irish history, heritage and continued links.
The Ravens of Baltimore references the famous poem by Edgar Allen Poe, who called the city home.
Essendon’s Australian rules Bombers links to the fact the northern Melbourne suburb was home to the city’s only airport until the 1970s.
The Rabbitohs of South Sydney refers not, as you might think, to the pesky but cute myxomatosis-affected fluffy rodent but rather the men who captured and sold them during the Depression early last century. Standing on street corners, these chaps would shout “rabbitoh, rabbitoh!” in order to sell their wares.
Many traditional sports nicknames convey aggression – think Eagles, Tigers, Bears, Rams – but there are other approaches.
The Temple Owls, Harvard Crimson, New York Liberty (great logo too), Green Bay Packers, Manhattan Jaspers, Stanford Cardinal and Centenary Gentlemen (alma mater of Celtics great Robert Parish) are all cool without being in any way tough.
The passage of time can bestow a certain authority on the most benign of monikers – the LA Lakers (Minnesota, where the team was originally located, was known as the “Land of 1,000 lakes”, hence Lakers), Geelong Cats, Sydney Swans and Everton Toffees (also known as the Blues) all have a certain something about them.
In place of Hurricanes, I’m suggesting the Hobart Hat-tricks, Hitters, Hammers, Devils, or Islanders might be better options. No wait, I have it: the Able Tas Men!
What about the Melbourne United True Blues, Mob (as in kangaroos), Larrikins, King Browns, Kookaburras, Goannas, Mistrals, or Thoroughbreds?
Since I am on a roll with my self-initiated re-branding exercise for Australian sports franchises, I may as well continue on to two club names that rankle every time I hear them.
The North Queensland Cowboys of the NRL are one. Here’s the thing: We don’t have cowboys in Australia – it’s an occupation most closely associated with the Old West.
We do, however, have jackaroos, drovers, ringers, jumbucks, even Wild Colonial Boys.
I’m also not a huge (get it?) fan of Giants as a nickname for AFL expansion club Greater Western Sydney. It’s just so … generic.
How about the GWS Great White Sharks – that way the “GWS” does double duty.
There are many precedents for sports teams changing their identity. When baseball club the Montreal Expos moved to Washington they became the Nationals; the SuperSonics of Seattle transformed into the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Thinking that his NBA basketball club’s nickname was not helping out-of-control gun culture in the US capital, Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin changed it to the Wizards.
It’s surprising that in a world so focused on marketing and brands that the powers that be behind new Australian sports franchises don’t have much in the way of new ideas. Makes you wonder what became of the old team effort.