Name Games

by Eric Nelson

It’s difficult enough to predict what athletes will do next, but the real sports guessing game is with the suits.

The Pacific Northwest’s rumor mill had it that pro basketball’s Sacramento Kings would move to Seattle and rejuvenate the name “SuperSonics,” a moniker lost when a group of robber barons moved a 40-year-old franchise to Oklahoma City. Sacramento’s team has called four cities home, changed names twice (Royals to Kings) and over the years swapped uniform colors like a chameleon. Really, this may just be the latest episode in the nomadic life of a mid-market franchise.

Northern California fans held their breath until a May reprieve, but in the Emerald City the old green and gold t-shirts were pulled out of the storage closet. Fans kept them, because in the business of pro sports a name is often all a city has to call its own.

Take, for instance, the mercenary cagers in New Orleans. After stripping America’s most unique city of a name it alone should claim — the “Jazz” — pro basketball returned as the “Hornets” with a name and logo inspired in a boardroom. It was branding at its blandest, showcasing a go-along-to-get-along time in the 1990s and early 2000s when a football team would shift economic history and even geologic attributes (Houston Oilers to Tennessee Oilers), hockey headed south with minimal creativity (Minnesota North Stars to the directionally vague Dallas Stars), and the NBA tagged a region’s environmental identity to a failed franchise by approving a Vancouver-to-Memphis move — Grizzlies are found in only Canada and three American states, none of which are near Tennessee.

But the trend is evolving, and names dripping with history now grace relocated teams, like “Washington Nationals” and “Winnipeg Jets,” or even “New Orleans Pelicans,” which The Big Easy will call the Hornets next fall in a nod to native birds.

We also note a habit that reaches further back into America’s early pro sports history, when owners in industrial cities named their ball clubs in homage to the workers who filled the seats and emptied the beer taps: think Pittsburg Steelers, Milwaukee Brewers or Edmonton Oilers.

Which, of course, brings us back to the Seattle Supersonics, originally named for a 1960s Boeing experiment that didn’t change the airline world as planned. If you follow the news closely, you know about the same company’s recent headache with a battery that gets a little too warm on a big, revolutionary plane that’s employing a large chunk of us in the greater Puget Sound region.

Maybe we should be waiting by the phone for a call selling tickets for the Seattle Dreamliners.

Eric Nelson is Pietisten's sports prophet.

See all articles by Eric Nelson