When Louisville, Ky., was still in the hunt to bag the Grizzlies (the Vancouver-based NBA franchise that seems poised to migrate south) the big corporate participant was Tricon Global Restaurants, which, among other things, is the parent of KFC. At the time, one Tricon executive suggested the team might be called the Kentucky Colonels. “There’s a marketing synergy there that is very, very powerful. It would allow us to put the KFC brand into the mainstream of professional basketball,” he explained. “That’s why it’s important to us to associate the brand with the team in an unprecedented way that would include the name of the team the Kentucky Colonels, the old [ABA] team.”
Louisville’s chief rival was Memphis, Tenn., where local business basketball-booster FedEx took part in a courtship that has made that city the Grizzlies’ top choice for a new home. But earlier this week, in a rare instance of corporate brand managers running into trouble in their ongoing efforts to infiltrate professional sports, the NBA announced that it would not allow the Grizzlies to become the Memphis Express. That’s the name that had been floated by FedEx as part of its roughly $100 million contribution to the effort to bring the team to Memphis. “As a matter of long-standing policy we don’t permit teams to be named after commercial entities,” explained a league spokesman. “That’s not territory we’re prepared to enter.”
Well, why not? It’s not as if the NBA is some sort of pristine, commercial-free zone. FedEx, for instance, still hopes to buy the rights to name the new basketball arena that Memphis is mulling as part of its efforts to finalize the Grizzlies move. Professional sports leagues hoping to keep their events from seeming overly branded are kidding themselves. Embrace the new world, I say.
In some cases we’d just be talking about an evolution from a name referring to a local industry in general to a more specific product or company—the Detroit Pistons could become the Michigan Explorers (a team sure to roll over the competition). I suppose there would be a glut of corporate investors wanting to call their team the “Solutions,” but that seems solvable.
Perhaps Cisco would be willing to sponsor the California Routers. (Too vague? The San Jose 7000 Series Routers?) Or Gap the San Francisco Khakis. Or Fidelity the Boston Shareholders. The Oregon Swooshes seems plausible. And now that Boeing is abandoning Seattle, whose basketball team was bought not long ago by a group of investors including the CEO of Starbucks, maybe the SuperSonics could become the Buzz. Of course, there’s one other Seattle team name that might work with an investment from the right local business: The Monopolists.