For a great many reasons, names are strongly linked to heritage. Whether it is our own individual names – which may carry the legacies of family or faith – the names of streets, of places, of communities, of states and regions and so on, the benefits (or burdens) of heritage are often front and centre.
The relationship between names and sporting heritage is strong as well. Often times, a stadium or venue is linked to heritage – or, over time, acquires a heritage. Perhaps in recent years, with widespread use of naming rights, we have become somewhat used to the de-linking of sport heritage and names – though, the transition from a heritage name to a corporate name can sometimes inspire resistance, as was the case with the re-naming of St. James’ Park in Newcastle. Team nicknames as well are part and parcel of heritage – sometimes expressly linked to the history and culture of a region (my hometown Edmonton Oilers were named in honour of the role of oil in the province’s history), while other times the nicknames have a lengthy history and, as such, are considered traditional.
It is with this in mind that the story about the name change of Hull City FC to Hull City “Tigers” – and the debate that ensued – caught my attention. From what I understand, the name “Tigers” has been the informal nickname of the club for some time because of the colour pattern of their uniforms – much like Newcastle has been called the “Magpies” because of the black and white stripes of the jerseys – but that the name was never institutionalized. As such, there is a heritage to the “tigers” nickname – it wasn’t picked at random, after all – but that the official team name was always Hull City or (as the linked article explains) simply “City.”
What I find interesting is why the owner and his marketing team have decided to formalize the “tigers” nickname. Simply put, he is banking that the “tigers” will resonate globally, that it helps to separate Hull from its EPL rivals in a global marketplace, and that tigers in other markets – such as India – are more culturally relevant. To quote from the article:
Nearly half of the clubs in the Premier League are called City or United, but you probably think of Manchester City or Manchester United if you’re outside England and hear those names. It’s a global game now, with a pretty saturated market and plenty of competition….For example, India has one of the biggest populations in the world, with a huge appetite for sport and a growing interest in football. A teenager on the streets of Mumbai might not know the difference between, say, Newcastle, Aston Villa and Hull. But he knows the word tiger, which has really positive connotations in India – as proud, noble, aggressive and strong.”
What is fascinating about this is how the team’s heritage is seen as both a global marketing opportunity and a burden. On the one hand, the fact that the club supporters have informally used the “tigers” nickname for many is a benefit that may resonate globally and separate the club from its rivals. Essentially, it is formalizing and institutionalizing an informal heritage that has existed for years. On the other hand, the team’s “proper” name – which, too, has a long history and heritage – was seen as too local and too common and, as such, burdened the club internationally.
I would suggest – though I don’t know this for certain – that an animal nickname, such as tigers, perhaps too closely resembles American sport or other franchise sports (such as the IPL) and lacks a certain authenticity, as well as the public trust/connection to community that is traditionally view as part of English football. Perhaps this is part of the local resistance to the name change?
It seems that the name change is formality at this point – though, the article does warn that a re-branding that discards local traditional heritages in order to reach broader markets may not be entirely successful, as has thus far been the case with Cardiff’s uniform changes. It will be interesting to see if Hull’s name change has any long-term consequences, or if fans will embrace this global gambit both at home and abroad.