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Team Nicknames and Local Heritage

Few aspects of sport engender as much passion – and debate – as team nicknames.  Beyond the fact that they are often divisive, particularly when announced for a new franchise, they are also frequently triggers for larger social debates – including, most notably and recently, debates about racism. In the contemporary global sports marketplace, team identifiers (such as names, but also uniform logos and colour schemes) are commodities.  Heritage, of course, plays a significant role in team names – often, names are linked to local or regional histories and traditions, or have long-standing links with (for example) legacies of success. In this, heritage is both a signifier and commodity; it separates the team as something unique and special while also selling those unique signifiers to a global audience.  On the other hand, if the heritage is too local, it may not resonate with a wider audience.  In January 2014, I wrote about Hull City FC formally adopting their “Tigers” nickname in order to appeal to a global fan base, with some accusing the club of turning their backs on local history, heritage, tradition, and sentiment.  I wrote at the time:

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?

In Hull City’s case, local heritage was viewed as a burden, particularly to their global ambitions.  But, can a turn towards local history, heritage, and signifiers actually benefit a sports club?

Enter the Greenville Swamp Rabbits

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The Swamp Rabbits are an ECHL ice hockey team located in Greenville, South Carolina, and are one of the minor league affiliates of the New York Rangers of the NHL.  They have been in Greenville for five seasons, though this is the first year they are called the “Swamp Rabbits.” Previously, they were known as the “Road Warriors” – a subtle and generic nod to the community’s current automobile manufacturing economy (metro Greenville is both the national headquarters of Michelin and the BMW’s only US plant). However, the name never really resonated outside of a small, hard-core group of fans.  So, the team turned to local heritage for their new name:

“We determined that we wanted our new identity to honor a piece of Greenville’s history while also being relevant within the community today,” said Fred Festa, owner of the Swamp Rabbits. “Ultimately, we selected the Swamp Rabbits because the name holds dear to a variety of residents, businesses, popular recreational areas and the historic landmark, the Swamp Rabbit railroad, dating back the 1920s in Greenville.”

The railroad, which linked the South Carolina city with the coal fields of Tennessee, became known as the “Swamp Rabbit” by locals who would use the freight train as a means of transportation to picnic in northern Greenville County. 

In a recent, long-form interview on the Tao of Sports podcast, the team’s Executive Vice President Chris Lewis describes that that the name change (though controversial among some supporters) not only links the franchise to the community through one of its most locally resonant histories, it also provides a strong symbol that the team is committed to the community.  Furthermore, he notes that it is meant to spur local interest in the team – both from sponsors and the general public – and drive new merchandise sales.  Surprisingly, this turn towards local heritage has resonated across North America, with both American and Canadian sports media outlets – as well as a nationally-trending social media – covering the name change.

Though it remains to be seen whether the Swamp Rabbit’s name will ultimately pay-off in terms of increased local interest, it does point to the fact that there remains a strong link between sport and broader forms of local heritage, and that local heritages are often unique, appealing, and (dare I say) authentic. It would make little sense, outside of Greenville, to name a team the “Swamp Rabbits” – but, in Greenville’s case, it appears to be a perfect fit. In addition, while Hull City rejected their local heritage to embrace a more palatable global brand, Greenville seems to have attracted inadvertent national attention while attempting to solidify their local footprint.  It also suggests that teams need to find ways of connecting themselves to their communities, and embracing a local heritage can be one of the ways to do this.

On Replicas, Borrowed Heritage, and Minor League Baseball

Minor League Baseball (or MiLB for short) could rightly be considered a American heritage institution.  Although it would appear that football is America’s passion, baseball remains a pastime – and, perhaps, no where is this more apparent than at the minor league level.

If you are not familiar with affiliated minor league baseball, this may offer a short primer.  Basically, each major league (or MLB) team has a large system of developmental teams at different levels – from Rookie and “A” leagues (essentially, recently drafted teenagers who are a long ways from making a major league roster – if at all) through to Triple A leagues (the proverbial “one step away” from the big leagues).  However, as this list shows, MiLB has a presence in virtually every part of the US.  Where I live in South Carolina, there are a half dozen MiLB teams of various levels and affiliations within a three hour drive of my front door – and, I would suspect, this is a typical proximity for many people in the US.

The thing about attending an MiLB game is, strangely, going to a game is only partially about watching the game itself.  Sure, you hope the home team wins and “if they lose it’s a shame,” and die-hard fans of the team want to see “tomorrow’s superstars today” etc., but it really is more about having a beer, hot dog, and ice cream, having the kids chase foul balls, and seeing some of the truly inventive promotions for which MiLB is famous. Tickets are normally very inexpensive (even Triple A tickets are often no more than $15) and stadiums are normally small, so almost all tickets are close to the action (depending on the league, location and calibre of play, many MiLB stadiums seat fewer than 5,000 spectators).

This past Saturday, my family and I went to see a Greenville Drive baseball game.  We go to probably about a half-dozen games in Greenville each year, and sometimes sprinkle in some visits to other regional teams – such as the Asheville Tourists – throughout the summer.  As per usual, our visit included a trip to the in-stadium kids play park for our son, a line-up for a balloon animal (the promotion that night was the team mascot’s birthday – so there was balloon animal makers, face painting, cupcakes, etc), the obligatory beer for dad and ice cream for mom and son  – and, we even watched a little bit of baseball!  But, these elements are traditional – if not expected – at MiLB games, so not seeing much of the game was, in fact, part of the event.

One of the additional selling features of Greenville games are that they are affiliated with the Boston Red Sox  – one of the oldest (and perhaps most heritage-laden) franchises in American sport – and, as such, much of the game “experience” attempts to replicate (albeit on a small, and more self-conscious scale) what a game would be like in Boston.  For example, in Greenville they sing the Neil Diamond song “Sweet Caroline” – just as they do in Boston. The stadium itself, Fluor Field, is even a quasi-replica of Boston’s Fenway Park – right down to the “Green Monster” in left field, the “Pesky Pole” in right field, and the manual (rather than electronic) scoreboard. More than just being a retro baseball stadium – of which there are many in the US – going to a Greenville Drive game is meant to be “like” going to Fenway, along with all the traditions, rituals, and heritage markers.

Recently, an article of mine was published that discussed the idea of borrowed heritage, specifically arguing that some sport locations have to “borrow” heritage markers from elsewhere until such time that they can develop their own stable, recognizable, and (perhaps) commodifiable heritage. Thing is, Greenville has a long  and recognizable baseball heritage.  The city and region were one of the hotbeds of baseball’s textile leagues (known as the “Mill Leagues” where textile mill teams played one another, often on Sunday afternoons).  In fact, the home of one of the most well known players in baseball history – “Shoeless Joe Jackson” – is right across the street from Fluor Field and is now a privately operated museum (though, unaffiliated with the Drive baseball team).  There are a few photos of mill league teams and players, as well as ol’ Shoeless himself, at Fluor Field, but much of this heritage is largely ignored.  Ultimately, it would seem that the baseball heritage imported from Boston is more salient – and marketable – than the homegrown variety.

PS – There are some really interesting chapters/articles about Fenway Park’s relationship to heritage, tourism, and sport management here and here.