Not feeling the (Dallas) Burn: why MLS teams tried to sound more European

There was a time when US soccer was a storm of Rowdies and Cosmos, but now United is the name of choice. What’s going on?

Once, pro soccer in the United States firmly embraced the country’s sporting culture. Teams that came to prominence in the 1970s in the North American Soccer League (NASL) had names that wouldn’t sound out of place in the NFL: the New York Cosmos and and Tampa Bays perhaps being the most notable. Cheerleaders roamed the sidelines, and even the foundations of the game – such as the offside rule and the draw – were changed to appeal to an audience accustomed to traditional American sports.

But over the last 15 years, Major League Soccer has evolved from a league of teams with names, such as Wizards, Burn and Clash, to something that sounds a lot more, well, European. There are three Uniteds (Atlanta, Minnesota and DC), two called City (New York – whose name is down to their parent club, Manchester City – and Orlando), one Real (Salt Lake) and a Sporting (Kansas City). That’s not to mention the many lower division sides who have also changed their names in recent years.

In short, they have co-opted the names and traditions of world soccer for what they hope is a greater share of the domestic and international market.

To understand why this happened you must go back to 1995. Rather than ask the fans to pick their name, the league’s four kit suppliers – Nike, Adidas, Reebok and Puma – had been given permission by the league to design the brands for the teams they were supplying. It’s telling that the one exception, DC United, stumbled upon its name almost by accident when United finished second in a fan survey as a write-in. To their credit, the team’s management – which had considered names, such as Revolution and Justice – listened to the fans, choosing a name and crafting an identity that it still uses today.

Still, change came slowly. The San Jose Clash rebranded as the Earthquakes in 1999, a nod to the city’s history of professional soccer. But most names remained unchanged until 2004.

That year, the Dallas Burn announced a major rebrand. Gone was the old logo with a horse shooting lightning from its mouth. Gone was the Burn moniker, which former GM Greg Elliott said had less brand recognition in Dallas than the professional indoor soccer team, the Sidekicks. In its place was a name that Elliott hoped would instantly communicate that this was a soccer team and one that was, in his words, “authentic” to the sport.

The identity that he and ownership ultimately agreed on? FC Dallas.

That rebranding proved hugely influential across the league. Since 2004, seven of the 13 expansion franchises to enter the league have had some variation of FC or SC in their names.

What’s changed over the past decade is the recognition that the game in the US is now a part of a global soccer marketplace. One in which MLS teams are competing in their own market not only with other American sports teams but also with global brands, like Manchester United and Real Madrid. This explains why MLS teams have spent so much time and resources on the creation not just of their franchise names but also on their logos. They are trying to compete in an American soccer marketplace that’s oversaturated with strong, historical international brands.

And the attitudes of fans towards these international-style names have quickly evolved from indifference to acceptance.

In February 2016, MLS threatened Minnesota United FC with a name change, even going so far as to register the name Minnesota FC with the US Trademark and Patent Office. Minnesota’s fans were understandably furious. As team president Nick Rogers put it to the Guardian: “[T]here are different elements of a brand but there’s just one brand. I think you do a lot of violence to it by trying to alter a part of it [like the name]. I think it all hangs together.”

But these changes have also come with their fair share of critics. One graphic designer, who asked not to be named due to contractual obligations, variously described the international-style name changes as “embarrassing”, “out of touch”, “oversaturated” and “pretty lame”.

“That’s how Americans interact with sport, with mascots, and city names with mascots,” the designer, who has worked with several MLS teams, told the Guardian. “Maybe that’s old school of me to say that’s how Americans do it, but I personally think it’s corny when we try to copy the European style. Why don’t we just try to do our own thing?”

As if anticipating just such a reaction, Rob Heineman, the CEO of Sporting Kansas City, addressed the naysayers unprompted when he revealed his team’s rebrand in 2010. “This, to us, is not European, whatsoever,” he said of the “Sporting” name, adding: “[It’s not] a ripoff. That’s the furthest thing from the truth ... we’re not just calling ourselves Real Salt Lake or FC Dallas.”

Whether or not these rebranding efforts have contributed to the league’s increased popularity, what’s indisputable is that the attitude of the average American soccer fan has changed. Changes that had once been forced on fans from the top down – even the adoption of international-style team names – are now supported by the fans themselves. According to Darren Eales, president of Atlanta United FC, 89% of respondents to their naming survey felt that FC should be associated with the team’s name and a 91% wanted an international-style of name. The name certainly hasn’t done any harm to their support: Atlanta average home crowd is 46,482, the highest in MLS.

But more traditional North American soccer names can and do work. Four recent MLS expansion teams – Seattle Sounders FC, Vancouver Whitecaps FC, the Montreal Impact, and the Portland Timbers – have embraced names that, for decades, symbolized professional soccer in their cities and they’ve done so with great success in their communities.

The global ambitions of executives like LAFC’s Tom Penn are both new to Major League Soccer and surprising. MLS does not offer global stars like Ronaldo and Messi, or the quality of play of the Premier League or La Liga. What MLS can offer fans is localism: names and images – like those of the Timbers and Sounders – that engender community pride.

Perhaps no image more perfectly encapsulates this tension between global ambition and local pride than the sight of LAFC’s logo – “LA” in big gold lettering against a black background – atop the head of pop star Justin Bieber. The international-style names, it seems, are here to stay.


Tim Froh

The GuardianTramp

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