Thursday, December 6, 2012

NFL Picks Week Fourteen: Is this the best franchise name change ever?

Some of you may or may not remember back in the ancient year of 1994 when the New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets toyed with idea of changing its name to something a little more New Jerseyan. Sure, there was nothing really wrong with the name "Nets." It was succinct, simple, catchy and related to the game of basketball sicne the hoop has, you know, a net on it. But no, this wasn't good enough. And so it was that the Nets came very close to changing their identity to something a little more appropriate for the Garden State. That identity was, of course, that of the Swamp Dragon. Now, don't bat an eye at that. You all associate New Jersey with the great, mythical swamp dragon, right? No? There's no such thing as a swamp dragon?

Shit.

So when it became clear to the Nets organization that this would have been a terrible, terrible idea the fever passed. It would have been a curious notion. It is very unusual that teams change their nicknames in the modern era and they almost never do so unless the franchise has moved within the past season or two. Generally that's only the case if a team moved on such short notice that it couldn't establish a new brand identity in time for the next season. The best example of that is probably the Tennessee Titans, who played two nomadic seasons in Memphis under the name Tennessee Oilers in between their move from Houston to Nashville. Those types of slow transitions are almost always a thing of the past now, as one could see from the Atlanta Thrashers' transition to the Winnipeg Jets in a matter of weeks.

It's this type of quick transition that makes the news coming out of New Orleans this week so interesting and exciting. Now, I know the Hornets did not begin in New Orleans, but after 10 years in the bayou they're more or less entrenched in their current locale. As a result, I'm not entirely sure what would have been the impetus for the name change, though I imagine Tom Benson's ownership had something to do with it, but this is a rare bird, no pun intended. And not only is it rare, but it is awesome.

Now, just why, exactly, do I think "Pelicans" is such an awesome name? I know it's not exactly an animal that strikes fear into the hearts of men, but something expansion franchises haven't quite realized in the past 20-30 years is that your team name doesn't have to strike fear. That's what your players are supposed to do. For too long new team names have either been ferocious animals with no connection to the local area (are there Jaguars in metropolitan Jacksonville?), abstract concepts (yeah, we get it, Minnesota has wilderness) or weather patterns (is Oklahoma City particularly known for its thunder?).

Pelicans is a nickname that not only represents something related to its home city (the pelican is ubiquitous in the gulf region and the state bird of Louisiana), but it is a name that has a far-reaching tradition in New Orleans sports. My favorite thing about it, however, is that something about the name "Pelicans" harkens back to a day when sports team names had an air of traditionalism less concerned with inspiring awe and more concerned with forming an identity, oftentimes one connected to the local area. While this is somewhat in line with a trend we've started to see develop of teams naming themselves for local connections or history (Houston Texans, Columbus Blue Jackets or Washington Nationals for example), it still seems unlikely that in the modern day we'd have any Gophers or Sooners. We certainly wouldn't have 76ers or 49ers.

In fact, just off the top of my head, I can comfortably guess that no team founded or moved in the last two decades would be called the Mets, Dodgers, Cardinals, Orioles, Red Sox, Twins, Knicks, Lakers, Rangers, Islanders, Red Wings, Redskins, Chiefs, Celtics, Bills, Dolphins, Patriots, Browns, Steelers, Chargers, Packers, Saints, Pistons, Pacers, Bucks, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, Rockets, Penguins, Bruins, Maple Leafs, Capitals, Blues, Canucks, Royals, Blue Jays, Astros, Giants, Reds, Brewers, Padres or, I don't know, Yankees.

None of those names -- and many of them are ones we cherish as part of America's collective sporting culture -- would never happen in the modern era. And that's why the old-timey traditionalism of a name like Pelicans, one that is very New Orleans and yet doesn't try too hard to imply ferocity (though Pelicans do swallow other animals in a single gulp), is a fantastic choice. And I'm not the only one who thinks so. Or who thought so previously, for that matter.

I, for one, cannot wait to see what, exactly, the organization comes up with when the identity transformation is complete.

It also was a rare bit of exciting news for me in a sports week that has included my Wildcats getting jobbed out of a premier bowl bid (though I hesitate to get too worked up because doing so would imply that bowl games aren't stupid or meaningless), or my Giants both forgetting there was a football game Monday night and choosing to run all second half against a team widely known for its awful pass defense. At least I had some surprising positivity Tuesday night when Northwestern pulled off a shocking road win against Baylor, a team that was such a bad mismatch for the Cats I didn't even bother watching despite the game being on national televion.

That, of course, is a little victory, one that will be largely meaningless if NU doesn't add some more quality wins to its tournament resume. At least it's something to hold onto though. Failing nothing else, at least Northwestern's nickname, albeit cheesey, is one steeped in decades of school tradition, unlike, say, the Swamp Dragons.

Unless there's a significant population of hornets in the bayou that I was unaware of, it looks like basketball fans in New Orleans may soon have a traditional nickname of their own.

Last week: 7-9-0
Season: 95-93-5

Denver (-11) over OAKLAND
NY GIANTS (-5) over New Orleans
BUFFALO (-3) over St. Louis
CINCINNATI (-3) over Dallas
Kansas City (+7) over CLEVELAND
INDIANAPOLIS (-6) over Tennessee
Chicago (-3) over MINNESOTA
PITTSBURGH (-7) over San Diego
Philadelphia (+9) over TAMPA BAY
Baltimore (+3) over WASHINGTON
Atlanta (-4) over CAROLINA
NY Jets (-3) over JACKSONVILLE
SAN FRANCISCO (-10) over Miami
SEATTLE (-10) over Arizona
GREEN BAY (-7) over Detroit
Houston (+3) over NEW ENGLAND

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