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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.

Sport Heritage at a Southern Campus

This weekend marks the beginning of the NCAA college football season in the US.  While this often a big part of the sports calendar at most colleges and universities across the country, no where is it more a eagerly anticipated than in the South.  It is here – at places like Clemson University in South Carolina, where I am a faculty member – that the rituals, traditions, and heritage associated with the collegiate game are on full display.

If you are not familiar with the scale and scope of college football, Stephen Fry provides an interesting cultural translation of what the game experience is like.  Here, he attends a match between Alabama and Auburn, a fierce intra-state rivalry, and describes his impressions of the festivities:

In his description, and to paraphrase, it is on the scale of a “Grand National” but, in actuality, the games are often little more than a local derbies played between teams of amateur university students.  This may be a bit misleading, but taken on the surface – and certainly to spectators from other countries and cultures – it all seems a bit ridiculous.

However, the game – as grand a spectacle as it is – is merely the centrepiece (or, perhaps, even the excuse) for another cultural tradition, that of the tailgate party or “tailgating.” Typically, tailgating occurs in the hours leading up to kickoff – it can be over multiple days on some campuses, but normally it is anywhere from three to twelve hours before the game actually begins – and involves food, drink, games, and socializing.  It sounds rather informal, but it is highly regulated in many respects.  For example, tailgating spaces are not ad hoc – spaces are allocated based on donation levels to the athletics program.  Thus, a tailgating spot next to or near a stadium may cost thousands of dollars a year whereas spots further away may be a few hundred dollars a season.  Beyond that obvious display of capital, there is also a strong cultural capital to your tailgate.  Many tailgates will have very extensive set-ups, including full canopies in team colours and a large spread of food and drink (most of which is cooked on-site by the tailgaters themselves).  Many fans will also bring large screen televisions and satellite hook-ups to watch other games, and some supporters will even specific tailgating cars (i.e.: vehicles painted in team colours, etc) that they bring to the games.  As such, there is often a one-upsmanship to the tailgate – and having the “best” tailgate (be it through food or decoration) carries a great deal of pride.  Some fans won’t even enter the game itself – so, for example, a group might have two tickets to the game but ten people at the tailgate.  Given that, in Clemson’s case, the stadium holds about 85,000 (yes, to watch “games played between amateur university students”), and ticket prices are often significantly more expensive than NFL tickets (e.g.: a pair of tickets for this weekend’s Georgia v. Clemson game will, at minimum, cost $400), there may be just as many outside the stadium and enjoying the atmosphere.

As I was not born, raised, or educated in the US, let alone the southern US, the college football culture took me by surprise.  However, it is one of those displays of culture that, though I don’t often participate (I find it just too long a day for me, so I prefer to stay home on game days), I make sure visitors get to see.  I know many of my UK and Canadian colleagues who have come to visit me are astounded at the scale and the passion of the fans – as I was the first time I went to a game.  I also think there is certainly something of a heritage to the whole gameday ritual.  When I ask my students to describe what “heritage” is to them, they tend to focus on family, church/community, and football/tailgating.  Many students see their tailgating spot as an important family heirloom, one that they want to keep in the family and experience with their children and grandchildren for generations.  And, if we are to understand heritage as being formed through discourse, it seems that heritage on a southern campus in the US is frequently positioned through this very bizarre – though, for the people here, very important – sporting ritual.