The trend took off about 10 years ago, after the sunstroked folks who were awarded the NBA expansion franchise in Miami chose to dub their new team the Heat, a nickname that was only slightly more flattering to the region than the Rental Carjackers or the Blue-Haired Ladies Driving 45 MPH On I-95 With Their Left Blinker On would have been. The nickname was not only silly, it was singular—a fact that has surely doomed the Heat to a lifetime of heartbreak. As Archie Bunker would say, it's a well-known fact. You can look it up: A professional sports team that doesn't end its nickname with an s doesn't end its season with a championship. The Boston Red Sox last won the World Series in 1918, and no NBA, NFL, NHL or major league baseball team without an s at the end of its nickname has won a world championship since.
Despite all the evidence, the Heat was quickly followed by the Orlando Magic, which led the way for the Tampa Bay Lightning, and before long it became obvious: We are officially out of sensible team nicknames. Like mystery-novel titles, auto mechanics and proven NFL quarterbacks, all the good ones are taken. When they finally decided to shed a nickname that connoted violence, the Washington Bullets asked their fans to vote for one of five candidates as a replacement. I'm not saying the choices were lame, but I believe Alan Keyes came in second. The team never announced the results of its telephone poll, but owner Abe Pollin settled on Wizards, which makes it sound as if Marques Haynes should be playing the point.
Lately it seems as though team owners and universities have given up their search for good, strong, proud names such as Lions and Tigers and Bears, and decided to go with the silliest damn thing that pops into their heads. For 13 years people laughed at UC Santa Cruz for calling its teams the Banana Slugs—until they saw John Travolta wearing a Banana Slugs T-shirt in Pulp Fiction. Across minor league baseball these days, teams are unabashedly attempting to cash in on ridiculous nicknames. You aren't a hip, happenin' baseball fan until you have a Winston-Salem ( N.C.) Warthogs T-shirt or a Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts hat.
The latest trend in the minors is to invent a breed of dog and see how it sells: There are the Portland (Maine) Seadogs, the Florida Beachdogs and, making their debut this year, the Massachusetts Mad Dogs. It's too bad the trend didn't carry over to the majors, which will soon include a team called the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. While most fans don't have a clue what a Devil Ray is, everyone is familiar with Devil Dogs.
The search for the most outrageous and contrived nickname has gone too far. Take, for example, Major League Soccer, which will begin its inaugural season in April and probably fold by the Fourth of July. When they introduced their venture last year, the people behind MLS vowed that their league would be different from the countless other pro soccer leagues that have gone belly-up in this country, and they asked us to take them seriously. Then they revealed the names of their teams, and I'm still trying to figure one thing out: Are they kidding?
Of the 10 MLS teams, only two have plural nicknames, the Colorado Rapids and the New York-New Jersey MetroStars, which sounds more like a commuter train line than a sports team. The rest of the teams could be part of the Lollapalooza tour. Where to begin? There are the Columbus (Ohio) Crew, the Dallas Burn, the Los Angeles Galaxy, the New England Revolution, the San Jose Clash, the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the ( Washington) D.C. United. I can picture it: kids all across Ohio putting on hard hats and dreaming of someday playing for the Crew, whose logo shows three construction workers. The United? Now, there's a catchy nickname. What are they going to use for a mascot—a flight attendant?
The Burn is no longer just something you get when you eat drive-thru Mexican. Now it's a soccer team. In Tampa they were looking for a name that would instill pride and loyalty in their players. They chose Mutiny. They must have found out that Knicks was already taken.
Of course representatives of the Burn, the Crew and the Mutiny could only stand back in awe when the MLS folks announced that the league's Kansas City franchise would be known as the Wiz. They must have thought the Kansas City Tinkle didn't sound dignified enough.
Last month the general manager of the Wiz, Tim Latta, actually sent a letter to season-ticket holders in which he revealed the team's slogan: "...as the ads will say, 'You Gotta Go!' " Three days later the team renounced the wee-wee jokes and vowed to come up with another slogan—and chances are one of the team's account executives, Rusty John, will not be asked for his input. Still, if nothing else, the Wiz has positioned itself for some lucrative advertising deals: Tonight, sports fans, the Wiz was brought to you by Budweiser....
Well, no kidding. Isn't it always?