What’s in a name? Plenty, if it happens to be the name of a team that you root for (or against).
That’s why the sports world will be paying close attention on Feb. 2, when the Washington Football Team is scheduled to announce its new name, thus ending an identity crisis that began when the club stopped calling itself the Redskins in the summer of 2020. The move will also put Washington among a small group of modern pro sports franchises that have changed their team names without moving to a new location.
We don’t yet know what Washington’s new moniker will be, so it’s too soon to say where this saga will rank in the pantheon of team renamings. But we can set the stage by assessing the other rebrandings that have taken place so far, and that’s what your friendly columnist is going to do today.
Before we get started, let’s set a few ground rules:
We will only consider teams that changed their names while remaining in the same city (or at least in the same general area). So, for example, MLB’s Seattle Pilots moving to Milwaukee and becoming the Brewers is not eligible. Ditto for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns moving to Baltimore and becoming the Ravens, the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics moving to Oklahoma City and becoming the Thunder, and so on. Those are all interesting situations, but they fall into a whole different category. A good topic for another day. (Actually, now that I think of it, I addressed some of the parameters of this topic in an earlier Bulletin piece.)
We also will not consider teams that have remained in place and simply changed their geographic descriptors, like MLB’s Florida Marlins becoming the Miami Marlins, or the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes becoming the Arizona Coyotes, or the NBA’s San Francisco Warriors becoming the Golden State Warriors. Again, these are interesting but not what we’re talking about today.
Finally, I’ve decided to stick to modern team renamings, an admittedly imprecise guideline that I’m choosing to define as post-World War II. Prior to that, team names were more fluid and in some cases were just informal nicknames assigned by sportswriters. (I’ve also omitted some name changes from the NBA’s ragtag early days, like the Chicago Packers becoming the Chicago Zephyrs in 1962, and ditto for some of the ABA’s identity-shuffling, like the Memphis Pros becoming the Memphis Tams and then the Memphis Sounds, all within a three-year span.)
By my count, that leaves us with a dozen renamings from the Big Four pro sports leagues that fit into these guidelines. Here’s one observer’s highly subjective assessment of them, listed in chronological order. (Of course, any exercise like this one is bound to prompt lots of dissenting opinions, so feel free to post yours in the comments.)
In a development that would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic, Reds management was afraid that the looming specter of McCarthyism and the 1950s Red Scare would lead fans to associate the team with communism, so they changed the team’s name to Redlegs just prior to the start of the 1953 season. The only saving grace here is that the new name recalled the franchise’s original 1880s moniker, “Red Stockings,” so at least it had some historical pedigree. Still, many fans and sportswriters refused to play along and kept calling the team the Reds, and the team went back to that name in 1959. As a final irony, red is now widely associated with America’s political right wing, not with communism. Grade: C+
Long before the Tennessee Titans, there were the Titans of New York. It could have worked out — they had a good color scheme, a fun logo (see above), and some sensational program cover artwork. But for some reason they couldn’t be bothered to slap a logo on their helmets, which made the whole identity fall flat. When the team was sold one year ahead of its scheduled move to brand-new Shea Stadium, new owner Sonny Werblin renamed the team as the Jets — in part because Shea was situated right next to LaGuardia Airport, and in part because “Jets” rhymed with the name of Shea’s other tenants, MLB’s New York Mets. A half-century later, Shea has long since been demolished and the Jets now play in New Jersey, but the name still feels right. And you have to admit, “J-E-T-S!” is easier to shout than “T-I-T-A-N-S!” Grade: A-
Granted, it’s hard to imagine a more Texas-sounding name than the Colt .45s. But with the club getting set to move into pro sports’ first-ever domed stadium (and with the Colt firearms company saying they wanted some sort of compensation for the use of their name), team ownership was smart enough to realize that a futuristic ballpark deserved a futuristic-sounding team. NASA had recently opened its new space center in Houston, so “Astros” had a good local angle and perfectly captured the spirit of the Space Race-driven times to boot. The new team identity then became the basis for the Astrodome’s name, and the ’Stros eventually lived up to their futuristic identity with their groundbreaking “tequila sunrise” design — the baseball uniform equivalent of putting a man on the moon. Grade: A+
When Charles Finley, owner of MLB’s Oakland A’s, purchased the NHL’s struggling Oakland Seals franchise in 1970, he briefly renamed them the Bay Area Seals but then settled upon California Golden Seals. Finley also changed the Seals’ color scheme to match that of the A’s, and even had them wear white skates to match the A's white shoes. As for adding “Golden” to the team name, it made a certain kind of sense — California’s official nickname is “The Golden State,” after all (which a certain basketball team would leverage for its own name in 1971). Grade: B+
In 1974, things were looking up for the ABA’s Denver Rockets. They were moving into a new arena and expecting to join the NBA when the two leagues finalized their merger plans. Just one problem: The NBA already had the Houston Rockets, so the Denver club would need a new name. They chose “Nuggets” — a good fit with Colorado’s gold mining history (plus it served as a homage to the short-lived Denver Nuggets hoops team from the late 1940s). The merger finally took place in 1976; the name still fits. The only downside is that the Denver Rockets had such a a great logo (see above), but sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the greater good. Grade: A
With the homicide rate spiking in Washington, DC, Bullets owner Abe Pollin worried that the team’s name could be seen as promoting violent crime. Unfortunately, the new name has never felt like a good fit. The double-W alliteration has always felt forced, and the new moniker just doesn’t feel like a hoops name. It doesn’t help that the Wizards haven’t exactly been wizards with the basketball over the past quarter-century (only one division title and zero conference titles since the name change), or that their early uniforms and branding were meh at best. In 2011 they changed their team colors and uni design to something that was obviously Bullets-inspired — a tacit admission that the renaming was a mistake. Grade: D
Granted, this one gets an asterisk, because it’s connected to a team relocation. But when the Oilers moved from Houston to Tennessee in 1997, they didn’t change their name right away — they were still called the Oilers for their first two seasons. Eventually, though, someone noticed that there aren’t too many oil derricks around Tennessee, so the team got a new identity. Nothing wrong with that, but “Titans” has always felt a bit disappointing. The name was supposedly inspired by Nashville being known as the “Athens of the South,” due to its cluster of universities and its Greek Revival-style state capitol building. But if that’s the case, why not call yourselves the Nashville Titans? And besides, isn’t Nashville known more for country music and hot chicken than colleges or architecture? Yes, I’m overgeneralizing, but you get the idea — “Titans” feels a tad lazy and uninspired, like they chose it just for the alliteration. Meanwhile, the team’s branding has always felt like it’s stuck somewhere between generic and cheesy, from the “flaming thumbtack” logo to the silly “chiseled in granite” numbers (which were so hard to read on the team’s light-blue jerseys that they had to be enlarged). Not a terrible renaming, but not as good as it could have been. Grade: B-
Yeah, we all loved the original logo, but naming a top-level sports team after a Disney movie is, shall we say, a total Mickey Mouse move (and it’s even worse when Disney owns the team). The simpler, non-Disneyfied version of the name is much better, and in recent years they’ve even brought back the old duck mask logo — a win-win! Grade: B+
On the one hand, “Devil Rays” is a silly name, most fans just called them the Rays anyway, and the team’s original uniforms and branding were embarrassing. On the other hand, their mid-2000s look is seriously underrated (and sorely missed), and the new “Devil”-free identity has always been muddled. Like, we were told that the new name was supposed to refer to rays of sunlight, but they kept the swimming devil ray on the sleeve (it’s still there today) — can’t have it both ways, people! Also, it doesn’t help that all of the team’s jerseys look the same. Grade: B-
The original Hornets (named after a Revolutionary War anecdote) moved from Charlotte to New Orleans in 2002 and kept their name for over a decade before getting a new identity. In theory, the new moniker should have been perfect for a Louisiana team (the brown pelican is the official state bird), plus it offers lots of fun cartoon-mascot potential. But the Pelicans’ logo and branding have felt uninspired from the get-go, and the team identity feels emotionally rudderless. A good reminder that sometimes it’s not the name that matters — it’s what you do with it. Grade: C
After the original Hornets moved to NOLA in 2002, the NBA gave Charlotte a new expansion team in 2004 — the Bobcats. But when the New Orleans franchise rebranded as the Pelicans in 2013 (see above), the Bobcats quickly snapped up the discarded team name and presto — the Charlotte Hornets were reborn! What with all the animal names involved here, it sort of sounds like a game of musical chairs at the zoo, but it also makes a certain kind of sense, at least for Charlotte fans, who sorta-kinda got their original team back. Another win-win. Grade: A-
It remains to be seen how Cleveland’s new baseball identity, which was announced last summer and became official in November, will resonate on the field and with local fans. The timing hasn’t turned out to be great (launching your new identity into the teeth of a lockout is not the way you’d normally draw things up), and there’ve been a few inauspicious omens. But the reality is that just about anything would be better than the longstanding Native American theme and the old Chief Wahoo logo. Sometimes the outgoing name’s departure is more important than the new one’s arrival. Grade: A-
And there you have it. Are there any team renamings that I missed?
I should acknowledge here that none of my favorite teams have ever changed their names, so I’ve never had to live through the unsettling situation of rooting for “Team X” today and suddenly having it be “Team Y” tomorrow. As I’ve written many times before, sports fandom isn’t particularly rational (that’s a big part of why it’s so powerful), so a team renaming can really overturn a fan’s emotional applecart. All of which is a long way of saying that I realize it’s easy for me to sit back and critique these team name switcheroos, but I know it’s serious stuff for the fans involved. So if you’re a Cleveland or Washington fan who’s currently wrestling with that inner turmoil, I feel for you — really.
(Special thanks to Jerry Wolper for research assistance.)
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If you’re reading this on Thursday, Jan. 13, remember that I’ll be doing my first-ever Facebook Live event today from 7 to 7:30pm Eastern. I’ll respond to questions that people post in the comments and will also show-and-tell a few items from my vintage jersey collection. The event will livestream here. Hope you’ll join in!