Sports Team Naming Strategies in America, 1960-present

I’ve had the vague impression for a while that the naming conventions for American sports teams are not the same as they used to be, so I decided to actually take a look at the data and find out. My hypothesis was that team names used to generally take the form of what I’ll call count names, like the Pittsburgh Steelers (named in 1940), the Philadelphia 76ers (named in 1963), and the Chicago Cubs (named in 1902), but recently they are more likely to be what I’ll call collective names, like the Oklahoma City Thunder (named in 2008), the Tampa Bay Lightning (named in 1992), and the Chicago Fire (named in 1997).

Methodology

I have adapted these terms from the linguistic distinction between count nouns (like table or disaster), which can be singular or plural, and mass nouns (like water and chaos), that can’t be pluralized. The reason I’ve used collective in place of mass is that some of these collective names are, in fact, count nouns; fire, for example, can easily be pluralized to fires. But you would never pluralize Chicago Fire, or refer to the players as fires. They are all, collectively, the Fire.

In order to test this hypothesis, I chose to look at the names of professional soccer teams in America since 1960. Specifically, I gathered the names of all the teams that played in the following leagues, together with the year in which they were named: the United Soccer Association (1967), National Professional Soccer League (1967), North American Soccer League (1968-1984), Major Indoor Soccer League (1978-1992), AISA/NPSL (1984-2001), Major League Soccer (1993-present), Major Indoor Soccer League (2001-2008), and Professional Arena Soccer League (2008-present).

I chose soccer because of the numerous failed attempts over the years to popularize it in America; these attempts have meant that teams have been founded, named, and folded at a very high rate, much higher than the rate in more established sports like baseball. For comparison, of the 30 teams that currently make up Major League Baseball, only 4 of them were founded within the past 20 years, and more than half date their founding to over a hundred years ago. It’s no wonder, then, that all 30 teams have count names.

The real units of data were not the teams themselves or even their names, but the acts of naming. Often a sports team will be named after a previous team in the same city (and usually the same sport); I counted only the first instance of a name in a city, since what I’m interested in is the naming strategies employed at different times. For example, there have been 3 soccer teams called the San Diego Sockers that operated at different times and in different leagues; I have counted only the first act of naming, which took place in 1978. The leagues I listed above gave me at least 22 acts of naming from each decade beginning with the 1960s and continuing through the 2000s.

Results

As soon as I started categorizing team names, I realized that a third category besides count and collective would be needed, which I’ve called FC. FC names are those that are formed on the European model, which does not include a team nickname like the American model does. Typically, a team in, for example, the English top leagues will have a name like Liverpool FC (short for “Liverpool Football Club”) or Manchester City (short for “Manchester City Football Club”). When European teams have another element in their names, it is usually for historical reasons; for example, the English team Newcastle United FC was formed from the merger of two rival Newcastle teams in 1892, and Real Madrid received its name, which means “Royal Madrid,” in 1920 when King Alfonso XIII granted the club his endorsement. In America, team names like DC United and Real Salt Lake are adopted as references or homages to European teams, rather than for their meanings.

The three categories of count, collective, and FC encompass all 158 team names in this sample, except for one: Team Hawaii, which was based in Honolulu for only one season before moving to Tulsa and changing its name to the Roughnecks. I have counted Team Hawaii in the total but not in any of the three categories. There were three teams in the sample that had to be counted in two categories each, causing the percentages to sum to more than 100% in the 1990s and 2000s. The three teams were Miami Fusion FC, which might be formed along the European model (“Fusion” sounds a lot like “United”) but also has a genuine collective name in it; the Colorado Rapids, which seems to be a pun; and CD Chivas USA, a Southern California-based team affiliated with the Mexican team CD Guadalajara, usually known as Chivas (“goats”). Other American teams like the Seattle Sounders that technically have an “FC” affixed to the end of their otherwise perfectly American-sounding name were not counted in the FC category.

The results are as follows:

Decade Count Collective FC Total
1960s 24 (92.31%) 1 (3.85%) 1 (3.85%) 26
1970s 38 (73.08%) 13 (25.00%) 0 (0.00%) 52
1980s 15 (44.12%) 19 (55.88%) 0 (0.00%) 34
1990s 8 (33.33%) 16 (66.67%) 2 (8.33%) 24
2000s 7 (31.82%) 11 (50.00%) 5 (22.73%) 22
Naming strategies employed in American professional soccer team names by decade, 1960s-2000s

Analysis

The results bear out my hypothesis, although that is far from the only interesting result. Count names have continuously decreased as a percentage of the total from the 1960s through the present, and collective names continuously increased their share from a minuscule 3.85% in the 1960s to 66.67% of the total in the 1990s. In the 2000s, however, collective names saw their share actually decrease slightly to 50% as a new player sprinted onto the field: FC names.

The only instance in this sample of an FC name before the 1990s was Toronto City, originally the Toronto City Soccer Club, formed and named in 1961. It appears this was actually not a case of emulating Europe but a holdover from an earlier era of naming in North America when nicknames had yet to take hold. The next FC name was DC United, formed and named in 1995, followed (arguably) by Miami Fusion FC in 1998. In the last decade, new teams made increased efforts to emulate their more popular European counterparts, and names like FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake, and 1790 Cincinnati accounted for nearly a quarter of naming acts.

Conclusions

It appears that professional soccer team names in America are subject to fads over time. A fad for collective names grew over the past fifty years and climaxed in the 1990s, but now looks as if it’s being replaced by a fad for European-style names. To what extent does this apply to other sports? That may be a subject for a future post, or it may be a subject you should do your own damn research on, since this whole post took me two whole days to research and write.

There were a few other interesting tidbits I found in the course of my research. For one, 3 teams with similar names provided an excellent microcosm of my results: the Denver Dynamos (1974), the Dayton Dynamo (1988), and the Houston Dynamo (2005). For another, there seems to have been a mini-fad in the 1970s for team names taken from recent movies. This fad included the Chicago Sting, named in 1975 for the 1973 movie “The Sting”; the San Diego Jaws, named in 1976 for the 1975 movie “Jaws”; and, most notably, the Cleveland Force, named in 1978 after the mystical energy field from “Star Wars” (1977). According to Wikipedia (my source for all the information in this post), “The team theatrics originally included Darth Vader and Star Wars music until the team faced litigation and had to change the ‘mascot.’ Scott Wolstein worked out an agreement with George Lucas and a year later, the mascot and music returned.”

Cross-posted at Empire Avenue.

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One Response to “Sports Team Naming Strategies in America, 1960-present”

  1. Colorado Rapids is not a pun it belongs into the FC category, named after Rapid Wien.

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