The NBA franchise in New Orleans is, long overdue, considering a name change. This is a good thing—even though the proposed nickname Pelicans has been the target of an unfair amount of derision since being floated. To be sure, it’s not slick. It’s not modern. And it is not hip, like the singular form names of European soccer teams, such as United, Dynamo, or Arsenal. But it is quintessentially Louisiana.
Consider the deep Louisiana roots of the Pelican. It is the state bird, featured on the state flag. If John Grisham – who has more than 275 million books in print worldwide – chose to conjure the image of New Orleans by entitling his best-selling novel The Pelican Brief who are a handful of sports columnists to mock the proposed team name?
The real problem with professional sports names is the mobility of franchises. Too many nicknames have become divorced from local meaning. The Hornets, the current New Orleans and former Charlotte team, were well named – in Charlotte. Indeed, British Revolutionary War general and colonial administrator Charles Cornwallis once called Charlotte “a hornet’s nest of rebellion.” Thus, it’s an apt nickname for a Charlotte sports franchise, evoking some civic pride. It doesn’t carry over to a new locale, however, especially one with a distinctly different history and culture.
New Orleans team owner Tom Benson wants a more Louisiana-focused nickname, and God bless him. The team did a good job adapting a logo by fashioning a silhouette of a Hornet out of the French fleur-de-lis, but the name New Orleans Hornets just doesn’t ring true. Pelicans would. Moreover, Benson owns the rights to the name New Orleans Pelicans. For him it’s an easy business decision.
Critics argue that Pelicans isn’t cool enough, nor would it strike fear into opponents. Many of those critics who want a more fierce name, couldn’t fathom changing the name of Benson’s other team, the NFL Saints – a football team ironically named after those who spent a lifetime ostensibly turning the other cheek.
By the way, the owner of the new Charlotte Bobcats, the legendary Michael Jordan, said he’d welcome back the appropriate name, the Hornets, for his franchise. Jordan, a North Carolina native, played his Hall of Fame NBA career mostly with the Chicago Bulls, the counterpart to the NFL’s Chicago Bears, in a town known for its commodity trading and bull and bear markets.
Again, consider the mobility of pro sports franchises and the toll taken on meaningful names. New Orleans used to have a basketball team named the Jazz – a perfect moniker for a team from the Big Easy. Then the franchise moved to Salt Lake City. Could there be a less jazz oriented locale than Utah? “Lakers” was a clever name for the 1947-59 professional basketball team in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the hub of the “land of 10,000 lakes.” Then the team moved to Los Angeles. At least Los Angeles Lakers has some alliterative qualities, but lakes are not an image suggestive of Southern California.
Likewise, Grizzlies lost its appropriateness when that NBA franchise moved from Vancouver to Memphis. Remember the old American Basketball Association franchise from the birthplace of the blues, however, the Memphis Sounds? Indeed, the ABA was the home to some great team nicknames: the Los Angeles Stars, Kentucky Colonels, Minnesota Muskies, Spirits of St Louis, and the Baltimore Claws, as in crab claws for which Maryland is famous.
Consider Baltimore and Cleveland football clubs as a model for maintaining pertinent local team names – revised and retained. The NFL has the Baltimore Ravens, an ode to favorite son Edgar Allan Poe, which is what the former Cleveland Browns were named when they moved to Baltimore after the Baltimore Colts – a name inspired by Pimlico Racetrack and the second jewel in horse racing’s Triple Crown, the Preakness – moved to Indianapolis. Cleveland, for its part, was adamant that it would keep the name Browns for a new team, even as the old team moved east in 1995. And when the NFL granted an expansion franchise to Cleveland in 1999, the Browns name was revived.
While not geographic or cultural in nature, Cleveland’s original and new expansion franchises were named in tribute to the team’s original founder, Paul Brown. That’s much like one of pro sports most storied franchises, the Green Bay Packers, whose first jerseys were supplied by the Indian Packing Company who employed founding coach, Curly Lambeau, as a shipping clerk. In short, these are names that no modern marketing and public relations firm would create from focus groups, nor are they innately fearsome, but over the years have become iconic.
Critics of the proposed name Pelicans should note, when the Cleveland franchise was founded in 1946 owner Art McBride held a newspaper contest with a $1,000 war bond as first prize, to select a team name. The name that won the popularity contest: Panthers. That’s a mascot that is sleek and predatory – if totally absent from northeastern Ohio. The name that stuck, however, was the Browns, which so far has lasted through four seasons of the old All-American Football Conference, through 45 years of an original NFL franchise, and now is in its 64thseason. It even survived three years when the city did not have a football team because it said something about the city and its team. So does the name Pelicans.