This study begins in the present, the summer of 1997, when the Houston Oilers, a team named to commemorate the oil boom which spawned such identity building phenomena as the prime soap, "Dallas," picked up and moved to Tennessee to share Memphis and Nashville as host cities. Despite the fact that these cities are ripe with identity expressing nicknames like the Memphis Blues or Gracelanders, or the Nashville Parthenons, or Recorders, the Oilers chose to preserve the name, making it utterly meaningless in its present context.
Obviously, the conservation of the mascot results from an overwhelming desire not to alienate fans by making Oilers merchandise, hats jackets, bumper stickers, etc., obsolete. Such a thing has occurred with surprising frequency in the past, with the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, and the Los Angeles Dodgers among the most obvious. The Dodgers move took place so long ago, in fact, that I am not entirely aware of the original connotations of the name. However, I do know that the name now carries no meaning whatever, except that Indie film maker Spike Lee loves to wear a Dodgers hat.
The trend toward meaningless, but marketable names is not apparent only in the transient franchises. The Anaheim Mighty Ducks came about in service to a wildly mediocre Disney movie franchise. Reportedly, no person has seen a live duck in the Anaheim area for more than two decades. Likewise, the Toronto Raptors NBA franchise seems most likely to have come about as the result of the hugely popular antagonist of Jurassic Park.
Some names have always foregone expression of Civic Pride in favor of less expressive names. The Oakland Athletics, Atlanta Falcons, and the duo of baseball footwear names, the Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, and the Ohio Color names of the Cleveland Browns, who, I know, were actually named after football magnate, Paul Brown, and Cincinnati Reds, all seem to be utterly meaningless.
However, even the most meaningless names, the colors, have been attributed meaning. During the Red Scare of the 1950s, the Cincinnati Reds adapted their name to the Red Legs so no one would ever consider that the team was somehow associated with Communists. When the Browns attempted to move the franchise and name to Baltimore, the city sued for the name and got a court order allowing Cleveland to claim rights to the name as a point of metropolitan identity. Baltimore subsequently chose the Ravens, a name which, while utterly marketable, also pays appropriate homage to Poe's masterpiece, the writing of which the city hosted.
Other cities have expressed this identity even more poignantly then the previous examples. The Pittsburgh Steelers went so far as to adopt the name and corporate logo for the steel industry as their mascot and symbol. Detroit honored the automobile industry which is its life breath with the nickname Pistons. The people of Green Bay chose Packers as a symbol of the meat packing industry there. The list goes on and on, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the conquistadores, the Cincinnati Bengals after the United States largest permanent display of Bengal Tigers, and the Colorado Rockies, after the mountains which bestow virtually all identity on Colorado.
The expression of identity in team names apparently has not been totally lost, and some fans even take their identity to extremes, as evidenced by the popular Saturday Night Live skit where fat, blubbery Chicagoans fanaticize about "Da Bears" and DiT-Ka. All hope is not lost, but some names could perhaps use a little fine tuning. For example, if the New Orleans Saints were to follow the Jazz to Utah, they might become known as the Utah Latter-day Saints. Think of the opportunities opened up by appealing to a specific demographic offered by this slight adjustment. Were San Francisco to lose the 49ers, they might try to persuade the Green Bay Packers to move to the coast. If New York, following a population surge, needed yet another football franchise, the oft-moved Oakland team might become the New York Corporate Raiders. Following the relocation of a foreign car maker to Alabama, the state might convince the Jacksonville Jaguars to move, changing their name to the Alabama Mercedes. And finally, when Marlon Brando gets obese enough to host his own baseball team, the moving Florida franchise need make only a small spelling change.
The list must go on and on. I look forward to hearing a number of suggestions. Especially in Hockey and the CFL. I'm not to well versed in these sports.