By Brett Yates
As I write this, the Phoenix Mercury are going head-to-head with the Chicago Sky in the WNBA Finals, which seems as good a time as any to reflect upon the tendency of the Women’s National Basketball Association and other relatively new pro sports leagues to employ singular nouns as team names, instead of the usual plural nouns favored by older, tradition-bound organizations such as the MLB and NFL.
The WNBA—comprised of 12 franchises, of which eight (the Atlanta Dream, the Chicago Sky, the Connecticut Sun, the Indiana Fever, the New York Liberty, the Phoenix Mercury, the Seattle Storm, and the Tulsa Shock) boast singular nouns as their team names—began operations in 1997, one year after the MLS kicked off its inaugural season. Of the ten original Major League Soccer franchises, only two—the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls) and the Colorado Rapids—used plural nouns for their names. There are now 19 MLS squads, thanks to additions like the Houston Dynamo and the Philadelphia Union.
The Arena Football League (founded 1987), the NBA D-League (founded 2001), and the National Women’s Soccer League (founded 2012) tell similar tales, with the singular-noun trend afflicting six of 13 teams, six of 18 teams, and three of nine teams, respectively.
There are some things to be said for and against this fad. Singular team names can manifest a spirit of team unity—an all-powerful oneness—that traditional nicknames, which suggest merely a collection of discrete parts, cannot. On the other hand, these names have a tendency to veer off into abstraction (the MLS’s Montreal Impact probably being the most ridiculous offender in this way), which can make visual representation, in the form of a logo and mascot, difficult. Moreover, they create a grammatical awkwardness, since we instinctually assign them a plural verb (“The Miami Heat are looking bad this year”), and they even pose a minor problem for commentators who may want to refer to one member of the team independently: a single member of the New England Patriots is a Patriot, but is a single member of the New York Liberty a Libertarian?
More than anything else, however, names like the New Orleans VooDoo and the Sioux Falls Skyforce (!) convey the presence of a marketing team, eager to be creative, to make a splash, and to sell some merchandise. To my ear, they instantly place their franchise within the era of mass commercialization, in which each new team needs a name as catchy as the car insurance jingle you’ll hear during the TV timeout, and it’ll be a long time before these franchises start to blend in with their elders, which bear the organically dull monikers of the early days of pro sports, when virtually every team name referred (plurally) to an animal, a profession, a mythological creature, an ethnic category, or simply a color. Repetitions occurred—football’s New York Giants and baseball’s San Francisco Giants (who themselves were once the New York Giants), baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals and football’s Arizona Cardinals (who themselves were once the St. Louis Cardinals)—and no one particularly cared.
The Sioux Falls Skyforce, however, can rest assured that there will be only one.
The four “major” professional sports leagues in the United States—the NBA, the NFL, the MLB, and the NHL—have not responded uniformly to this trend: two have sort of embraced it, and two have completely ignored it, and when one considers the general attitudes and identities of each of these four leagues, the reactions are unsurprising. The NBA, the youngest of these organizations, has four singular-noun teams: the Miami Heat, the Orlando Magic, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Utah Jazz. The NHL has three: the Colorado Avalanche, the Minnesota Wild, and the Tampa Bay Lightning. The MLB and the NFL both have zero.
The NHL, in general, does not much resemble its original state: 12 of the 30 current teams did not exist (with their current names and locations) before 1990, and the Avalanche, the Wild, and the Lightning are all products of the financially motivated push the league made in the ‘90s to shift away from small Canadian cities and into large American cities, where the NHL hoped to find new fans. Meanwhile, the NBA has, as a consequence of the aesthetics and culture of basketball itself, long catered to a younger, more urban and forward-looking audience than its counterparts.
On the other hand, because baseball is so boring and exists today mostly as a nostalgia item, the MLB naturally caters to male retirees snoozing in comfy armchairs. The MLB has existed a lot longer than any other American sports league, and baseball is embedded in American culture as a patriotic tradition; the NFL has sought, by way of in-stadium military tie-ins, to position football within the same realm. The NFL has a broad audience, but Roger Goodell’s conservatism ensures that the league will, in its policies and presentation, primarily target cranky white men.
The creative team that came up with “Thunder” as the name for Oklahoma City’s basketball team was at least vaguely attempting to be cutting-edge—a quality that would alienate many baseball fans and, even more so, Roger Goodell. It seems the NFL would rather retain an ethnic slur among its team names than employ a singular noun.
What’s odd is that, in college sports, singular nouns have a long history and do not remotely connote newness or illegitimacy: witness the Harvard Crimson, the Dartmouth Big Green, the Stanford Cardinal, the Marshall Thundering Herd, and the Alabama Crimson Tide, for example. I have no particular explanation for this discrepancy, but you might argue that these old, fully accepted monikers prove that there is nothing inherently unnatural about singular-noun names, and any tradition-based argument against their legitimacy is invalid in the same way any other tradition-based argument is invalid: there is always contradictory tradition somewhere, contained within a culture that has nevertheless thrived just as well.