What’s in a team name? Imagination, or a lack of it

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Earlier this week, the Indian Premier League newcomers Lucknow franchise unveiled their name: Lucknow Super Giants. If team owner Sanjiv Goenka is to be believed, the name was finalised based on a crowd-sourced campaign. Talk about an unimaginative crowd.

“Don’t listen to Shakespeare. There’s everything in a name, and we’re waiting for one,” the team’s social media channels declared on January 3, announcing the fan contest. For three weeks, numerous videos as well as team mentor Gautam Gambhir — “pehli baar, aap rakhenge IPL team ka naam [for the first time, you will get to name an IPL team]” — called on people to drop suggestions on their website.

It took three weeks for the familiar-sounding Lucknow Super Giants to be chosen. The RP Sanjiv Goenka group earlier had a franchise in the IPL named the Rising Pune Super Giants, and observers had quickly picked up on the play: RPSG’s RPSG. The name was changed to Rising Pune Supergiant for the team’s final season in 2017.

But Deccan Chronicle had long beat them to the initials game, when they named their team Deccan Chargers. It is high-stakes sport, and the owner’s interest is paramount. Royal Challengers Bangalore and Sunrisers Hyderabad too are a reference to their owners’ businesses.

Hockey India League’s Delhi Waveriders one-upped the above. Putting Waveriders (surfers?) in land-locked Delhi. At least the owners, The Wave Group, had an excuse. Why are kabaddi team Patna Pirates’ owners lost at sea?

The examples above are no patch on the Kings, Royals, Sultans et al. Reminder: India isn’t a monarchy and princely states haven’t been a thing since 1950 (or 1971, if you count the privy purse). Kings XI Punjab tried to tweak the formula for a while, before switching to… Punjab Kings.

Then there’s Warriors, the Lorem Ipsum, John Smith, placeholder text of sports franchises. Cricket’s Pune Warriors, badminton’s North Eastern Warriors and Awadhe Warriors, kabaddi’s Bengal Warriors, and hockey’s Punjab Warriors and Maratha Warriors. And those are the Warriors in India alone. Let’s cross the Golden Gate bridge while we are at it.

A large chunk of such modern (nonsensical) nomenclature owes it to American sports.

There are the geographically-redundant Los Angeles Angels and Philadelphia Phillies. There are Ducks and Pelicans. (When naming after a bird or animal, shouldn’t the idea be to choose something fierce?)

A lot of weak team names in American sports are due to teams shifting bases and not changing names. NBA’s Jazz were founded in New Orleans, undisputed home to the music genre. The team hightailed to the desert and Salt Lake City, Utah, resulting in the confusing Utah Jazz.

The Lakers spent 12 years in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the “Land of Ten Thousand Lakes”, before shifting to Los Angeles, California in 1959. The name doesn’t make much sense, but is saved by LA Lakers’ success and the alliteration.

Then there are the names that don’t make sense but have logical origins. Denver Nuggets are not sponsored by KFC. San Francisco 49ers didn’t choose random digits. Both names are references to the historic gold rush in the American West.

There’s no Hogwarts in Washington. The name Washington Wizards was a result of the owners feeling uncomfortable with the franchise’s original name ‘Bullets’, given the implied violence in a city that was suffering from high crime rates. The new name too generated controversy as ‘Wizard’ is a rank in the white supremacist group Ku Klux Klan, and Washington has a large African-American population. It wouldn’t be the only offensive name in American sports. Till recently, the NFL had teams called ‘Redskins’ and ‘Indians’.

NBA’s Detroit Pistons did the naming thing well. The club originated in Fort Wayne and was named after automobile magnate Fred Zollner’s piston company. And when they moved in 1957, they moved to Detroit, the automotive capital known as ‘Motor City’. That Isaiah Thomas and the Bad Boys were a machine and ran roughshod during the 80s made it even better.

Pune Pistons, from the now-defunct Indian Badminton League, thus made sense, with the city’s status as one of the automobile hubs of India.

There have been similar flashes of creativity elsewhere. There are Kings, Royals, Sultans and Warriors in both Caribbean Premier League and Pakistan Super League. But there are also local references.

CPL had a franchise called the Antigua Hawksbills, named after the Hawksbill sea turtle native to the west Atlantic. The name brought focus on a critically endangered species. The team went extinct in 2014.

There are the Jamaica Tallawahs. Tallawah (nothing to do with MS Dhoni) is the Jamaican twist on ‘stalwart’, meaning the strong-willed and brave.

In PSL, there’s the Lahore Qalandars. Qalandar, ‘a title in Sufism’, is a perfect fit for the city that houses the largest Sufi shrine in South Asia. Also, in the Peshawar Zalmi, the suffix is a Pashto word meaning youth.

The Premier Hockey League was a rare win in that regard. The competition’s four-year existence coincided with the darkest hour of Indian hockey, with the team failing to qualify for the 2008 Olympics. But there was a semblance of trying to build a connection with a city’s heritage and fans. For Bangalore Lions, there were Sher-e-Jalandhar. For Hyderabad Sultans, Chennai Veerans. And with Orissa Steelers, they struck gold. Odisha, of course, is the highest steel producing state in the country. The league ceased in 2008, IPL came into existence and seemingly set the template for sports team names in India.

Falling back on the country’s name after failing to come up with anything original, however, deserves a mention.

NFL’s Houston Texans (a state, in this instance) at least play to a rivalry with Dallas Cowboys. And NHL’s Montreal Canadiens at least infused the Quebecois flavour with the French spelling.

What’s the excuse for calling an IPL team Mumbai Indians? Are the rest Kyrgyztanis? But hey, it could be worse. At least they didn’t run a three-week contest beforehand.

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