In the late fall of 2018, one of the most viral sports stories was about a new Minor League Baseball (MILB) team in Madison, Alabama. The reason for all the hype wasn’t their game so much as their name: the Rocket City Trash Pandas
The name was unveiled in September 2018, after the “Trash Pandas” moniker won a public vote, beating out four similarly absurd space-animal combinations: Moon Possums, ThunderSharks, Space Chimps, and Comet Jockeys.
The newly-named Trash Pandas generated plenty of headlines, and they got an extra boost in late October when the team’s amazing astronaut raccoon logo was unveiled. The space-related look and “Rocket City” reference are a nod to the large NASA hub, including Space Camp, in nearby Huntsville.
By mid-December, the Trash Pandas — who aren’t set to actually start playing until 2020 — had already broken the Minor League record for most online sales in a three-month period by a Minor League Baseball team with over $500,000 in merchandise moved. Between October and December, the team received nearly 3,500 online orders. That’s triple the previous record for a three-month period (1,022) held by the El Paso Chihuahuas.
A pop-up team shop that opened in mid-November proved to be so popular, selling over 32,000 items in just six weeks, that instead of closing at the end of December, as originally schedule, plans were made to make the store more robust and reopen it in early February 2019.
Minor League Baseball has a long history of wild nicknames and strategic promotions to gain attention and put local fans in seats. Teams like the Toledo Mud Hens and the Chattanooga Lookouts have had their unique names for over a century — standing out amongst teams that simply share a name with their Major League parent teams, like the Syracuse Mets or Iowa Cubs.
But in the last several years, the weird-name trend has grown even weirder, as if there’s an unspoken game of one-upsmanship to come up with the most outlandish name possible.
But there’s some method to the seeming madness. The wilder the name, the wider the recognition.
What’s in a name?
When the Jacksonville Suns decided to rebrand as the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp in 2016, the team’s assistant general manager, Noel Blaha, told me there were three main things the team kept in mind: being unique, being fun, and having that local tie.
“The local tie-in is the shrimping industry on the Eastern Seaboard,” Blaha says. “There’s still a large shrimping base here in Jacksonville, and Mayport is a shrimping village just to the north of Jacksonville.”
Even so, the immediate reaction to the Jumbo Shrimp wasn’t great. After all, the team had been known as the Suns for decades. But Blaha noted that the backlash quickly faded as locals came around to the new name. “As the T-shirt orders came in and as the locals showed up at the ballpark wanting to buy the gear, we knew we were on the right path,” he said. “It was just a matter of getting through that period of people being upset.”
It makes sense. While a silly name can generate national headlines, there has to be something about the team that allows the local fans to feel a connection. After all, they’re the ones attending games and spending money at the park. And that tie to the area’s shrimping industry has done the trick in Jacksonville. The team’s most ardent fans have dubbed themselves the Crustacean Nation.
Things got off to a similarly rocky start in El Paso when the Tucson Padres relocated to the Texas city before the 2014 season and were renamed the Chihuahuas. Brad Taylor, the team’s senior vice president and general manager, said of the decision, “People wanted to run me and some of the people here out of town after the first 36 hours, like, ‘I can’t believe we’ve embarrassed our city by doing this.'”
But much like in Jacksonville, fans in El Paso came around. “When they saw the colors and the logos and our sincere commitment to be good in the community and to provide a great product, what I heard a year or two later was, ‘I can’t imagine El Paso without the Chihuahuas in it,'” Taylor said.
It’s worth noting that the Trash Pandas, Jumbo Shrimp, and Chihuahuas logos were all created in concert with Brandiose, a company that helps teams balance the need for kitsch with local appeal.
Adam Liberman, Director of Public and Media Relations for the Akron Rubber Ducks, feels that there’s a trick to choosing the right wacky name and logo: “A big thing is that it’s genuine and locally tied. To do it just to pick a random name seems like a money grab and disingenuous.”
Noting Akron’s history with the rubber industry and nickname as the “Rubber Capital of the World,” Liberman says the Rubber Ducks nickname was fun but it also helped fans feel like it was their team. They incorporated a rubber tire track into the main logo, and once you see it, “you understand it’s not a rubber ducky,” he told me.
Minor League Baseball teams have almost total control over the direction they go with nicknames and logos, and, therefore, sink or swim largely on their own. Kurt Hunzeker, VP of Marketing Strategy & Research for Minor League Baseball told me, “We always say it would be disingenuous for national headquarters to say that they know more than a local market. So each team definitely has a full creative control over that rebranding process.”
He adds, “We just simply steer them or keep them on the right path, and not into trademark infringement or anything like that.”
A wider audience
National attention, and growing audiences, are definitely in the minds of teams when they roll out a new logo or team name. The sharable nature of social media has played a huge role in spreading these new, quirky names and sometimes the national reaction can make an impact at home.
It certainly helped fans in El Paso come around on the Chihuahuas. According to Taylor, the team sold Chihuahuas merch to customers in all 50 states in the first several weeks following the change. That positive reaction from around the country helped locals accept the change.
Said Taylor, “I think once people here in El Paso that didn’t like the Chihuahua’s name saw that people from the outside did like it, they finally exhaled and went, oh cool. People aren’t making fun of us.”
El Paso’s Taylor also points to the Chihuahuas’ high follower count — over 240,000 between Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter — and told me, “Whenever we put something out on social media, especially when we release a new logo, a new brand, it’s absolutely what the intention … that it will get some national attention.”
Jacksonville’s Blaha credited social media with helping teams share their narrative in a smarter way, too. “I think what happened was the promotional side of things kind of became who can shout the loudest in the room rather than who can step away and have the most unique conversation,” he said. “Social media has allowed us to control narratives and storylines and not fax out a press release and hope that it makes the newspaper that night. We can control the content much better.”
As if to prove Blaha’s point, the evening after I spoke to him, the Jumbo Shrimp were an answer on Jeopardy.
A good bottom line
The national attention social media brings to these rebrands can affect sales numbers, too. Adam Liberman confirmed that 53% of Akron’s current online merchandise sales come from out-of-state customers.
Meanwhile, Blaha said that roughly 90% of sales were local when Jacksonville was still named the Suns. But he estimates that, since the rebrand, about 35% of Jumbo Shrimp merchandise sales are out-of-state buys, while also noting the team sold merch to customers in all 50 states and 12 countries in the first five weeks following the team’s rebranding.
It’s a tricky balance, having a unique name that grabs attention elsewhere while keeping home fans happy, but it’s worked so far. Said Blaha, “Just being in that conversation with the Yard Goats and Trash Pandas and Chihuahuas, different unique names like that, allows us to have an audience when we need it.”
Another boost to merch sales comes in the form of alternate logos, throwback logos, and other programs to capture a larger interest. The Chihuahuas have literally dozens of cap options, while the Rubber Ducks have hats with their standard logo, an alternate tire track “A” logo hat, and a playful classic rubber duck style.
Perhaps the best example of MILB’s ability to reach a huge audience with unique merchandise was 2018’s Copa de la Diversion initiative, a program designed as an outreach initiative to the Latino fan base that wound up a success beyond MILB’s hopes. As part of the program, 33 teams temporarily took on new nicknames, complete with new logos. The Albuquerque Isotopes became the Mariachis de Nuevo Mexico and the Round Rock Express became the Round Rock Chupacabras.
The logos were colorful and fun. They were also a smash hit. MILB’s Hunzeker told La Vida Baseball that, as of November 2018, merchandise sales across the 33 Copa teams had topped $3.7 million, shattering the goal of $533,000. They’ll likely be selling a lot more in 2019, when 72 teams will take part in the the Copa initiative.
Everything old is new again
Zany team names are not exactly new to Minor League Baseball. There’s a rich history of wacky names across the sport. Tim Hagerty should know, he literally wrote the book on the subject: Root for the Home Team: Minor League Baseball’s Most Off-the-Wall Team Names and the Stories Behind Them.
He’s also the radio play-by-play announcer for the Chihuahuas, which solidifies his expert credentials, as far as I’m concerned.
To Hagerty, the big difference between those old days and the present is that everything is officially a brand now. “There are icons, there’s merchandise,” he said. “Way back when, there were these outlandish names, but a lot of them were unofficial. They were dictated by the local sports writer covering the team.”
One example was the Des Moines Undertakers. According to Hagerty, the name came from a sportswriter who coined the name because the team was last place. He also name-checks the Hannibal Cannibals of Hannibal, Missouri: It’s a team name that was fine in the early 20th century but probably wouldn’t fly in 2019 because selling a community on supporting a team called the Cannibals seems like a tough sell.
Like everyone else I talked to, Hagerty noted that the most important part of the team name, no matter how weird, is its ties to the community it represents. Case in point: the Lansing Lug Nuts, who began using the name for the 1996 season.
“The name ‘Lug Nuts’ at that time was especially bizarre,” Hagerty said. “Back in the mid-90s, a lot of teams were still using their major league affiliates name. But I remember as a kid, [Lug Nuts] was how I learned that Michigan was an auto parts producing state.”
These days, Hagerty says, “I think that teams realize that if they do it well enough, it has appeal outside their market. But the good thing is, I think teams have a pride in having a connection to their regions somehow, as far as what name they picked.”
That said, you’d be forgiven for thinking this current crop of team names is a passing fad and not entirely sustainable.
“That’s what keeps me up at night,” said MILB’s Hunzeker. “But I definitely think, especially the really good names that are truly community centric, I definitely envision a day where there’s a lot of youth baseball and softball teams that are incorporating some of these specialty identities as their team uniforms.”
Hagerty certainly doesn’t see the trend waning. In 1993, the Denver Zephyrs moved to New Orleans and kept the team name intact. He says of that move, “It would never happen today. A team going from one city to the other maintaining the same name just shows that back in the early 90s, your team name wasn’t as crucial as it is now.”
And the cycle is repeating itself. That Zephyrs team became the aforementioned Baby Cakes (its logo based on the traditional Mardi Gras king cake baby) in 2017, but the team is moving to Wichita in 2020, where it’ll have a new name.
I reached out to the Trash Pandas for an interview, but sadly I didn’t hear back. I still have their hat — they’re my hometown team, after all. They replaced the Huntsville Stars team I grew up with in the 1980s and 1990s. That team moved to Biloxi and became the Biloxi Shuckers.
The Shuckers name, coincidentally, is one of Hagerty’s favorites. “It’s unique. It’s a cool word. It ties into a unique part of their location on the Gulf of Mexico,” he told me.
Now, my Trash Pandas hat takes its place on the shelf next to my old Stars hat. In another decade, I’m sure there will be a new wacky team back home that I will happily add to my collection as the marketing minds conjure up more merch that appeals to my sense of both the weird and the local.