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What's in a sports nickname? A lot. Take the Los Angeles Lakers ...

There's a story behind every team name. Like, L.A. is a desert, so why is the NBA team the Lakers? Well, they're not from around here.

December 15, 2013|By Kevin Baxter
  • Some team nicknames travel well, others are inspired by events, while some are kept purely for merchandising reasons.
Some team nicknames travel well, others are inspired by events, while some… (EPA / Allsport / AP )

Let's play a little word association.

If you hear "jazz," what's the first thing that pops into your mind? Utah, right? Because nothing says "Dixieland" like the Beehive State.

Or how about velociraptor, the dinosaur made famous in the movie "Jurassic Park"? Makes you think of Toronto, doesn't it?

And what conjures thoughts of a cool mountain lake better then a desert? So it makes perfect sense that the first NBA team to play in Los Angeles should be called the Lakers.

Well, not exactly.

But there are reasons why those names remain. The Jazz kept its nickname when it moved from New Orleans to Salt Lake City because the club still had plenty of  leftover merchandise to sell. Toronto thought — incorrectly, as it turned out — that the locals would associate with a Raptor because part of "Jurassic Park" was filmed there. And the Lakers just didn't bother to change the name when departing Minnesota, "The Land of 10,000 Lakes," for arid Southern California.

So while the names Jazz, Raptors and Lakers might not fit their cities, they fit nicely on a T-shirt. And in the marketing-mad world of professional sports, that's really all that matters.

"It's a part of our enthusiasm. The nickname becomes part of being involved," says John Rowady, president of the Chicago-based sports marketing firm rEvolution. "So nicknames are really important to associate with what it means to be that fan."

Market strategist Harvey Chimoff agrees.

"It helps with the branding," he says of nicknames. "If you think in terms of any favorite product, regardless of the product category, there's some connection that we, as consumers, have with it. For sports teams the nickname has become sort of the shorthand connector between the fans and the team."

In some cases the connection is so strong that the city it represents becomes insignificant.

When the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, team historian Mark Langill said, the nickname was considered so iconic that there was no thought of changing it.

The name was as Brooklyn as the bridge, inspired by a pejorative Manhattanites once used for residents of a borough so packed with trolley lines that people literally became "trolley dodgers." But a new name? Fuhgeddaboudit!

"It was just always going to be Dodgers," Langill says. "The only thing they had to do was change the initials on the cap."

Other municipalities have argued nicknames are community property. When the Browns announced they were leaving Cleveland in 1996, the city took the team to court and forced it to relinquish the intellectual property rights and history associated with the name. As a result, the team became the Ravens when it moved to Baltimore. When the NFL returned to Cleveland three seasons later, the new ownership assumed the Browns' name, colors and record book.

A dozen years later Seattle followed suit, taking the owners of the NBA's SuperSonics to federal court ahead of the franchise's 2008 move to Oklahoma City. Seattle wound up with the rights to the Sonics' name and logo, forcing the franchise to come up with a new moniker, the Thunder.

The NFL's Colts, on the other hand, kept their name, uniform and distinctive horseshoe logo when they sneaked out of Baltimore for Indianapolis in 1984, just as the Rams took their name with them from Cleveland to Los Angeles to St. Louis, and baseball's Braves played under the same name and logo in Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta.

Not all nicknames are as portable. When the Houston Oilers decamped for Tennessee in 1997, the team kept the nickname for two seasons before acknowledging Nashville had nothing to do with oil. The team renamed itself the Titans.

Though nicknames have become so valuable that judges are determining their custody, there was a time when teams had no nicknames at all.

"The formal names of the clubs, as they were incorporated, tended to be very bland. And the nicknames were not added until the 20th century in many cases," says John Thorn, Major League Baseball's official historian.

Those early nicknames were inspired most often by the color of a team's uniform. The Reds, baseball's oldest nickname, comes from the color of the socks the players wore; the team originally was known as the Cincinnati Red Stockings and, for a few years during the anti-communist "Red Scare" of the 1950s, as the Redlegs. The Chicago White Sox, the St. Louis Browns and the Boston Red Sox also were named for hosiery.

Other nicknames were coined by sports journalists, who were either looking for more colorful names or for shorter ones that would fit into headlines.

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