The making of a name (and logo)
Chris Weiller's office was plastered with paper in every nook and cranny, save for the windows. Piece after piece of 8-by-11½ sheets with names written on them, others sheets with renderings -- yellow Post-it notes drawing attention to particular features -- serving as wallpaper.
No, Weiller isn't an FBI agent trying to track down one of the most wanted criminals. He's actually an NBA executive who led the search to come up with an identity for the league's most recent expansion franchise.
The names were possible team names. The drawings were the logos of every NBA and WNBA team in existence.
Seeing the Charlotte Bobcats' shield for the first time signified a beginning for the 7,000 people that witnessed the graphical unveiling of Charlotte's new NBA franchise last June. But to Weiller, and others who made up the franchise's identity team, the public rollout signaled the end of a long and tiresome process that collectively spanned thousands of hours of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The act of creating a professional sports team name and logo from scratch is an extremely intricate process that is made up of half whim and half science. It involves taking a bank of names and a stack of colors, devising a system to eliminate possibilities and rationalizing favorites by opinion polls or focus groups.
The search for a team name began soon after Robert Johnson was awarded the rights to the NBA's 30th franchise for $300 million in December 2002. More than 1,000 names were suggested to the Charlotte Regional Sports Commission.
A two-inch-thick, three-ring binder of names was soon presented to the identity team comprising a mix of team executives as well as a representative from Johnson's holding company and designer, Cary Mitchell.
There were clearly some names that needed to be immediately disqualified.
Among the best of the worst:
- The Charlotte Shinn Kickers, named after George Shinn, the Charlotte Hornets owner who was despised in the community even before he and co-owner Ray Wooldridge moved the team to New Orleans.
- The Charlotte Bank Shots, meant to be a play on the large banking community that makes its home in the Queen City.
- The Charlotte Carolinas, undoubtedly the work of an evil fan trying to dream up one of the most confusing nicknames in the history of sports.
A first cut reduced the names to 85 and 60 more were eliminated in the next round. The identity team then worked with the commission to come up with the final 10, which were presented to the representative group of Charlotteans in April.
"Focus groups are often sanity checks to make sure that there are no unforeseen disasters," said Tom O'Grady, whose Gameplan Branding Group was hired by the team to steer it in the right direction. O'Grady had overseen the creation of many NBA logos as director of the league's creative services division from 1990 to 2003.
What the locals thought of these names was arguably more important than team names in other pro sports communities. The name would have to be accepted on the heels of the departed Hornets, whose name and logo -- along with their mascot, Hugo -- became one of the most popular sports brands from the year the team came into the NBA in 1988 through the mid-90s.
Before ownership and city had a falling out, not only did Charlotte lead the league in attendance year after year but the Hornets' fashionable teal and purple logo also helped drive business to a point where the team had the NBA's best-selling merchandise for at least two seasons.
"Most expansion franchises just need to get their name and logo out there," Weiler said. "We needed to create our identity, but at the same time, purge the old one."
Although the team was going to make the ultimate decision, the results from the focus groups were telling.
The Carolina Cougars were in the final 10 and members of the identity team felt the name had a good chance, given that retro was in and naming the team the Cougars would provide plenty of opportunities to flash back to Charlotte's ABA days when the team with that name roamed the courts from 1969 to 1974. The chance of a resurrection quickly died after team executives looked at the data. Not enough fans even remembered the Cougars.Another favorite on the list was the Charlotte Flight. When asked about the sources of local pride, interview participants often mentioned the Charlotte Douglas International Airport. "Flight" also had relevance because, as North Carolina license plates already boast, the state was "The First in Flight," thanks to Orville and Wilbur Wright's achievement in Kitty Hawk, N.C., 100 years ago. North Carolina is also home to some of the nation's largest military bases, which -- according to a recent report -- will contribute more than $18 billion annually to the state's economy. The nickname's relevance to the state made it one of the three finalists.The 'Flight' was among the three finalists.
The Flight was joined by the Charlotte Bobcats, named after the animal that is commonly found in North Carolina and is known for being sleek and athletic, and the Charlotte Dragons, a fantasy-type nickname that received kudos among respondents.
Armed with the three possibilities, O'Grady's group started making logos for each. The identity team started thinking about colors.
Mitchell, who has designed clothes for LeBron James, Tiger Woods and many other athletes, suggested to the group that orange was going to be a hot, new color in the fashion world.
Since basketball is dominated by orange -- it's the color of the rim and ball -- many of those involved found it interesting that it was relatively absent in team colors, aside from the New York Knicks, Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns. Over the past four decades only a select group of teams, most notably the Knicks, the Spirits of St. Louis, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Suns, wore jerseys whose dominant color was orange.
It wasn't expected that Johnson would have any objection over orange. The BET founder studied at both the University of Illinois and Princeton whose teams sport different variations of that color.Other colors for the logo were plucked from the recently redesigned logo of the Seattle Seahawks. The group borrowed the Seahawks' pacific blue and silver.These early sketches of the Bobcats' logos didn't make the cut.
Although several team sources told ESPN.com that each team receives less than $5 million per year in merchandise sales, even on gross retail sales of $3 billion, the advertising value of a catchy expansion team name and logo often surpasses the value of a redesigned logo of a classic team.
"It's important that people want to wear the logo of an expansion franchise because it serves as an important marketing vehicle," said Christopher Arena, the NBA's senior director of apparel. Arena and other league officials typically counsel teams on designs, offer creative and legal help and do the little but important things, including making sure the colors would show up well on a television broadcast.
The Charlotte Flight didn't last long and it had nothing to do with the fact that there was already an NBDL team -- the Huntsville Flight -- with that name. The downfall had more to do with the fact that the war against Iraq had just begun and missiles were raining down on Baghdad in mid-March. Members of the identity team also thought the name was too abstract.
Had Michael "Air" Jordan accepted Johnson's proposal to join the team as an executive, the name really had potential. But the wooing was months away and Jordan ended up passing on the offer.
The Bobcats soon emerged as the leading candidate over the Dragons. Although more than 10 colleges, including Ohio University, Montana State and Quinnipiac University dubbed themselves Bobcats -- no professional major league sports team had ever taken on that moniker. The fact that the owner was called "Bob" by his colleagues helped, too. It would be the first time a league owner had his name in the team's nickname since automobile piston magnate Fred Zollner named his NBA team the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons in 1941. That team became the Detroit Pistons in 1957.With "Bobcats" prevailing, it was time to get to work on a logo. Weiller spent hours concentrating on the shape of the ears, which had taken on many different looks over the process. The whiskers that appeared on the bobcat on early versions were soon trimmed, due to the fact that the team didn't want any confusion between their logo and that of the NFL's Carolina Panthers, whose logo includes whiskers as a major part of their design.The Bobcats threw a party last June to unveil the finished product.
The group decided that the bobcat in the primary logo would have a tenacious look, while the gameday mascot named Rufus would have more of a playful look.
The final touch? Adding some speed to the logo by putting the bobcat in profile. Almost all the NBA teams with mascots in their logo -- including the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Memphis Grizzlies and Milwaukee Bucks -- feature their mascots facing forward.
The fashion world might embrace the Bobcats when their jerseys roll out in August. But those that worked so long and hard and sacrificed their office walls for the project realize the best determining factor of the logo's popularity over time.
Said O'Grady: "Ultimately, the amount of people that want to wear the Bobcats logo in the next couple of years will be directly correlated to the team's success on the court."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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