Naming a team is game in itself 'Science' born of sales, scarcity, sensitvities

March 12, 1996|By JON MORGAN | JON MORGAN,SUN STAFF

The jungles have been plundered. The nation is hypersensitive to political appropriateness. And sports leagues are adding teams left and right, gobbling up names as quickly as they can be conceived.

So where does a nameless football team go for identity?

"We're running out of names," said Bruce Burke, vice president and creative director of NFL Properties, the league unit charged with developing and marketing team names and logos.

Although he won't talk specifically about the names being considered for Baltimore's new team, he said the league has been at work for about a month researching the city and working with the team to come up with a moniker to replace "Browns."

Focus groups have been convened to discuss names and expose any unexpected implications or sensitivities. Participants even have been played recordings of stadium announcers calling mock games.

"It's become a science today," Burke said.

The NFL would like the name of Baltimore's new franchise to evoke something of the local heritage and uniqueness of the region, Burke said. Three areas have been isolated that could spawn a name for Baltimore: the port and the city's historic role in aviation and in railroading.

The B&O Museum has sent over a list of possible railroad names, such as the Steamers, Railers and Americans (the name of a locomotive built here), according to sources familiar with the name hunt.

Other candidates hark back to the city's prominence in World War II military aviation: the Bombers and Marauders (a plane built here). The Ravens comes from a poem of Edgar Allan Poe, who died and is buried here.

Team owner Art Modell is trying to buy "Colts" back from the Indianapolis franchise, but the team, which played here before 1984, so far has said no.

Because teams share evenly the profits of the NFL's $2 billion-a-year trade in team-related merchandise, the league maintains veto rights over the name of any individual franchise. And the once-rapid growth of licensed goods sales has plateaued in recent years, putting additional pressure on the selection of a name that can boost business.

It wasn't always this way. Team-naming was once a simpler affair.

The Green Bay Packers started out as an employee team from a Wisconsin meat-packing plant. The Browns took the name of their founding coach, Paul Brown. The Bears were supposed to be a tougher version of the Cubs, the city's baseball team.

Ultimately, Burke said, the choice of names only can get merchandise and a team off to a good start. After that, a franchise has to win on the field for fans to want to turn themselves into walking billboards. "A true benchmark to a winning name is the acceptance. Will fans rally around it?" Burke said.

The league's best-selling logo, for example, is also the simplest: the five-pointed star of the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys. But even its popularity has waxed and waned with the team's record: Cowboys merchandise now accounts for 22 percent of the merchandise sold in the 30-team league, compared with 3 percent in 1989.

Burke's office has had plenty of practice in recent years. The league added two teams in 1993: the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers. As part of that process, names were selected and trademarked for the five finalist cities, including Baltimore, where the Bombers eventually emerged as the choice of the league and the prospective team owners (Cobras and Ravens were finalists).

The alliterative name rolled off the tongue, evoked a number of football-related terms such as "the long bomb" pass and created the possibility of endless spinoff merchandise, such as leather flight jackets and aviator glasses.

Since that selection, however, several terrorist bombings have raised questions about the appropriateness of Bombers as a name, Burke said. He said the name has not been ruled out or in, but there are worries about the possible implications.

"We really owe it to ourselves to keep looking at alternatives," Burke said.

The Marauders has won favor with some on the team as a fallback to the Bombers. There are a host of legal and practical considerations to picking a name. It shouldn't be easily confused with another franchise in, say, a rival football league. This was demonstrated a few years ago, when the NFL went to court to block Baltimore's Canadian Football League team from calling itself the Colts.

But sports teams from different leagues can and do share names witness the unleashing in recent years of Panthers into football and hockey but the NFL is trying to avoid it as a matter of good marketing.

"We want to be sure we come up with something unique," Burke said.

And the rough handling an NFL jersey is subjected to during games limits how complicated the logo can be. Sewed-on patches are necessary, as opposed to some of the heat-treated decorations used in basketball. And NFL team logos, players names and numbers all must fit within jersey seams designed to accommodate padding.

"It's a difficult canvas to work with," he said.

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