What's in a name? Expansion hopefuls must let NFL know Groups submit club names tomorrow

November 29, 1992|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

When it came time in 1946 to name the football club in Cleveland, fans voted in a contest to honor the newly appointed coach, Ohio State's Paul Brown, who brought credibility and hope to the fledgling Browns.

In Philadelphia, the team was founded in 1933 and borrowed its name from the omnipresent blue eagle symbol of President Franklin Roosevelt's National Recovery Administration. And Chicago's 72-year-old franchise, like many early football teams, simply adapted its name from the local baseball team. The Bears are big Cubs.

Spiced throughout NFL history are team names that sprang from the whims of strong-minded team owners or grew out of the pragmatic need to appease corporate sponsors. The league offered few guidelines, and no focus groups were convened to test proposals.

No longer. The names and symbols are integral to the $2 billion a year in sales of caps, jackets and other officially licensed goods. Consequently, the league is leaving nothing to chance in the selection of names for the new teams the NFL says it plans to add by the 1995 season.

It's even moving ahead with the name selection before it picks the winning cities, despite the uncertainty of expansion itself, which has been held up by the league's labor troubles.

The seven investment groups competing to own one of two expansion franchises have until tomorrow to submit the names and colors they will use if they win a team, although some say they have been given informal extensions.

The names will represent the culmination of months of work, involving teams of marketing specialists, artists and lawyers. The league has been part of the process every step of the way and retains a contractual right to veto a name deemed unacceptable or unmarketable.

The NFL has sworn the ownership groups to secrecy on the names, in part to give them time to acquire patents. One of the cities, however, has announced its selection: Jacksonville, Fla., wants to call its team the Jaguars.

Two other cities have filed names with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office: the St. Louis Stallions and the Carolina Panthers of Charlotte, N.C., although the filings do not necessarily mean those names will be used.

Among Baltimore's three competing ownership groups, the one led by Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass is said to be favoring the Bombers, a name he says will symbolize the city's role in military aviation history.

Weinglass, who made his fortune in clothing sales, also is considering fielding a team with white shoes and four uniforms: one each for home and away conference play and home and away non-conference games, according to one source familiar with the plan.

But Weinglass and the other two groups, led by Tom Clancy and Malcolm Glazer, won't say what names they are considering.

Leaders of the bid for Memphis, Tenn., hint strongly at the Cobras or Pharaohs, both of which harken to the city's namesake roots in Egypt, but say it also could be the Showboats or the Blues. The Hound Dogs -- a homage to former Memphian Elvis Presley -- is the favorite of some fans, but isn't given much of a chance of winning.

"We try to really let the possible owner come up with a name that they think will fit in the community," said John Flood, executive vice president of NFL Properties, the league's licensing arm, adding that name selections won't affect who is awarded franchises.

A team from his office met with each expansion hopeful shortly after the NFL narrowed the list of candidates to five, he said. Since then, NFL Properties has been in contact with the groups, submitting ideas to a 35-person creative department in Los Angeles and legal and marketing experts in New York, he said.

This is a big change from the early days of the league, said C. Robert Barnett, a professor of sports history at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va.

"Originally, nobody really cared. You picked your own name and went with it," Barnett said.

The league takes the name game seriously, because a good name and design translate into high scoring at the cash register. And all NFL teams have a stake in the sales, because the league splits the proceeds equally among teams.

Moreover, it's a growth market. At a time when many stadiums are sold out and television revenue may have peaked, fans can't seem to get enough sports-related goods, said Noah Liberman, associate publisher of Team Marketing Report, a sports marketing newsletter.

"It's growing faster than any other marketing area in sports," Liberman said.

Flood said the league has offered guidance to prospective owners about what does and doesn't sell. For example, animal names tend to do well because they can be easily personified and rally fans, he said.

Conversely, humans tend to make bad mascots. A few do all right, such as the New England Patriots with their Revolutionary War character, but they are the exception to the rule, Flood said.

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