Command-Z

Craig Swanson
,
Creative Director

Whenever anyone changes an existing institution, someone, usually lots of someones, have to weigh in and give their two cents, which even in today’s markets I would venture is worth less. So when the Washington football team (US football) finally bowed to pressure to change their de facto racist “Redskins” name, ANY name they picked was bound to be inadequate to many, traditionalists and non-traditionalists alike. Well my 2 cents is just as devalued as anyone else’s, so here’s my say.

The new name is “Commanders”. So what if my first reaction is “ugh”! So what if the more appropriate reaction is “Well anything and I mean ANYthing is better than what it was”? Let’s look at a few reasons why this is a less-than-brilliant replacement name for a sports franchise.

First we could explore what makes a good sports franchise name. Let’s look at a few examples. What names could we agree on? Here are some possibilities I would put forward, from a range of US sports.

- Pittsburgh Pirates
- Boston Bruins
- New York Jets
- New York Mets (short for Metropolitans)
- Brooklyn Nets
- New York Knicks (short for Knickerbockers)
- New York Yankees

OK, so the weighting here suggests if you want a team name, start in New York. But I trust it’s fairly obvious why the New York names, intimately connected to their culture and geography, work semiotically, common-sensically, and even with a sense of rhyming wit. (Jets! Mets! Nets! Place your bets!)

But as is shown in Pittsburgh and Boston and a host of other examples I could cite, what is most important in a team name is a sense of rhythm and sound and music: memorability that is easily promotable in all the media where sports flourish. You don’t want a name that clunks and thuds like a shovel on concrete because it’s going to be repeated over and over and over again in all media, both during the season of play as well as the off-season when the news never stops. “Yankees” has all kinds of jangly fun rhythm and music and shortens beautifully to “Yanks”, an energy well-suited to the urban. “Metropolitans” was never, from the very first, going to be the nomenclature of choice, but “Mets” is short, distinctive, and rhymes with an existing franchise. (Is this latter important? No. But it’s what we call a tertiary benefit: a subliminal effect that adds to appropriateness and fit.) “Pittsburgh Pirates” is both powerfully alliterative and has the rhythm of matching trochees (stressed syllable followed by unstressed). In a word pair, the more common iamb (the opposite stress pattern) is less pleasing, less apt to the energy and power inherent in a sports team: you don’t want to start with an unstressed (weak) syllable. No. You don’t want jazz off the beat, you want a march ON the beat! POW-pow, POW-pow! PITTS-burgh PI-rates! NEW-york YANK-ees!

So what does all of this have to do with the Washington Commanders? Well, some of it you’ve already guessed. To start we have one major problem, impossible to get around: “Washington” is three syllables, ten letters. Pretty long. But not the worst thing in the world. (Philadelphia and Sacramento have sports teams with good names, don’t they?) A name that goes back to the literal founding of the country, so it’s built-in to the DNA of American brains. OK. What do we put with it?

Alliteration? Something perhaps to offset a bit of that length, but not so short it gets overwhelmed and subsumed? Not a bad idea. (The Wizards did all right with this tactic.) We could come up with at least a hundred suitable candidates taking this approach.

Cultural? This seems right on the beam, given that we’ve already associated “Washington” with both the culture of the country as a whole and the specific area where the team is situated. So following the cues of what we’ve mentioned above, we’d look for powerful names, perhaps even 3-syllable names, dactyls (first syllable stress, followed by two unstressed) to match WASH-ing-ton. With a special eye out for easy, catchy nickname shorteners. At least another hundred candidates here.

You get the idea. I’m not going to go through all the potential vectors of development, but even with these two, we have a couple of powerful buckets to hold viable candidates.

How does “Commanders” stack up, then? Again, not going over the full range of possible equities, but just on the two we’ve mentioned. Well, alliteration we forget about immediately, because W/C (unfortunate letter pairing) takes us out of that zone. No problem. Alliteration isn’t everything. Far from it.

What about culture? I guess there is a connection here, although it’s so tenuous I would almost argue it’s a tertiary consideration of the type mentioned above. Washington > Military > Commanders > Authority/Leadership > Best in Class > Size/Scale/Big, etc. Undoubtedly this is the connection (semiotic coherence and benefit) the organization believes in.

What about the rhythm, the catchiness, the memorability? “Com-MAN-ders” starts weakly, with that unstressed syllable. But let’s put it in context. With “Washington” we have a strong start followed by three (!) weak beats in a row before we get the chance to hitch ourselves back onto a post of power and muscle, then die out with a final unstressed sound. And those two power points — WASH and MAN — wash…man — hmmm, not loving the subliminal there.

Enough for now. As is clear, I’m not a fan of the new name. And as I said at the outset, everyone is a critic. But they missed an opportunity here, to my way of thinking. Football is a dynamic, violent, forceful sport, and a lot of people, including the players, I imagine, find it fun. “Washington Commanders”, with the possible exception of implied violence, is none of those things. It’s not dynamic, forceful, or fun. And there’s a certain phrase about too many cooks in the kitchen. And one quarterback. Do I really want eleven commanders (and who knows how many more on the sidelines) creating chaos?

No matter how much it improves on its predecessor, that is too low a bar to judge this major market replacement.

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