Extensive planning is going on behind the scenes that will consider myriad factors before making a choice for Seattle's prospective NHL franchise. Among them, legal considerations, color schemes and future marketing potential.
A prelude to what our city faces in picking a name for its expected NHL expansion team was provided nearly a quarter century ago by Kelsey Grammer’s hit TV series Frasier.
In the “Leapin’ Lizards” episode from the Seattle-based show’s 1995 third season, Frasier Crane’s radio station colleague Bob “Bulldog” Brisco had listeners call in to name the city’s new expansion hockey team. The first caller suggests the “Seattle Salmon,” prompting Brisco to go on a rant and hang up, followed by another listener suggesting the “Seattle Bulldogs’’ after the host’s nickname.
Following another irked response from Brisco, the caller, undeterred, throws out: “What about the ‘Lizards?’ A fed-up Brisco tells the caller he’s “an idiot” who “doesn’t deserve to live’’ and that lizards make his skin crawl.
Not everybody loves animal or fish names, no matter how prevalent salmon species may be in this part of the world. Others trend toward tough-sounding fictional characters while some prefer names based off topographical fixtures or color schemes.
No matter the preference, picking a name isn’t easy. And despite all the talk about fan participation and name-the-team contests, the process is seldom left to chance the way it may appear. Sure, the present-day NHL Seattle group has suggested fans will have input in the name and is monitoring a bunch of local online naming brackets and challenges — including one staged by The Seattle Times — to see what resonates.
Plenty of advance planning will go in to figuring out whether Metropolitans, Steelheads, Totems, Sasquatch, Sockeyes or every local rebel’s favorite name dark horse, the Seattle Kraken, ever see the light of day. With needing to appease not only local hockey fans, but also stodgier folk at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, odds are NHL Seattle will have finalists privately whittled down to two or three choices well before officially “consulting” the public on anything.
“It gets buzz going, it gets the community talking, but most of the time the people running the team couldn’t care less,’’ said Robert Passikoff, president of New York based Brand Keys, which consults with teams and companies on how to leverage their brands. “They’ll listen to suggestions, write them down and then they’ll pick whatever they were going to choose in the first place.’’
It’s not about insulting local fans, he adds. It’s more about the reality of having hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in picking a name that will drive everything from uniform color choices to local and national marketing campaigns.
Even the Seattle Sounders, who let fans pick the Major League Soccer team’s name in 2009 and wound up going with a popular write-in choice, had carefully orchestrated the process to avoid disaster. The team gave fans an official list of three names to choose from – Seattle Alliance, Seattle FC and Seattle Republic — already researched and approved by the league.
The write-in vote was then added by senior team official Gary Wright, with the blessing of owner Adrian Hanauer, because they knew in advance that an organized online movement of soccer fans was prepared to overwhelmingly vote “Sounders’’ as their choice. That had been the name of the local second-division United Soccer League team Hanauer previously owned and was what he and Wright wanted more than the league did.
Also, the fact Hanauer owned the previous “Sounders” trademark as a pro sports franchise meant the league wouldn’t need additional background research to head off legal complications. Things might have been very different had fans organizing the write-in vote pulled a fast one on the team and gone with “SuperSonics’’ as their soccer pick.
In such a case, the MLS team undoubtedly would have nullified the naming choice.
Trademark infringement is no joke in any line of business, but with sports franchises now worth hundreds of millions of dollars – if not billions – it’s paramount to ensure the title to a name is free and clear. Teams and leagues can’t afford litigation threatening their work on logos, uniforms and marketing campaigns after the fact.
And merely being the only team in a league, or sport, to own a particular name isn’t enough.
The Vegas Golden Knights only recently reached a coexistence agreement with the U.S. Army over a trademark dispute surrounding the new NHL team’s name. Army teams are called the Black Knights, but Vegas owner Bill Foley – a military buff and West Point graduate – figured Golden Knights wouldn’t cause a problem.
But the Army has had a parachute team called the Golden Knights since 1962. And even though parachuting isn’t a team sport like hockey, the Army filed an opposition brief to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office claiming the NHL squad’s name and color scheme were too close to its trademarked versions.
“The public is likely to be confused,” intellectual property attorney Shari Sheffield wrote.
The case prevented the Golden Knights from federally registering their trademark throughout their 2017-18 debut season, when they sold more merchandise than any other NHL team.
It didn’t matter that the NHL team is a bigger entity and gets on national television more than the parachuting squad. The Army argued that its business operations involved athleticism and entertainment and had been doing it a half century as opposed to the barely year-old NHL team.
As Sheffield mentioned in her brief, such sports disputes often come down to whether consumers are “confused’’ about who owns the brand.
That’s why any NHL Seattle use of names like Metropolitans, Thunderbirds or Rainiers would almost certainly involve an advance conversation with – and financial compensation to – the Major League Baseball, Western Hockey League and Class AAA Baseball teams owning the respective rights to those names for sports purposes.
Certainly, in the Greater Seattle region, it could be argued that two sports teams named Rainiers or Thunderbirds trying to do business might inevitably cause brand confusion. Longtime Thunderbirds executive Russ Farwell said of NHL Seattle: “No, we have not been approached, but we have talked enough that I do not think they have any interest in our name.’’
Rainiers president Aaron Artman also said they have not been contacted. A New York Mets spokesman did not respond to calls, but a source says the NHL Seattle group has not made contact with the club.
The Oak View Group company renovating KeyArena last year had its general counsel, Christina Song, register 13 online domain names – Emeralds, Evergreens, Firebirds, Kraken, Sockeyes, Totems, Renegades, Rainiers, Sea Lions, Seals, Whales, Eagles and Cougars. While “Eagles” and “Cougars” are common at all sports levels, that actually lessens the chance of a trademark dispute because the “public confusion’’ argument is tougher to make when so many teams already employ those names nationwide.
Still, merely having domain names registered doesn’t mean the future NHL team will use them.
For now, NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke says the group is still “in early stages of process and in a full-on listening mode’’ when it comes to suggestions from fans as well as experts in the naming field. The group has interviewed branding companies and also met with the Portland-based Adidas creative team to get initial ideas on what to consider with a name’s marketing ability.
“They are a Pacific-Northwest-based company and they understand well the unique characteristic that is our territory and Seattle,’’ Leiweke said.
Everything from team logo to uniform colors will be driven by the name.
For instance, if called the Seattle Emeralds, it’s unlikely they’d go for a red color uniform. Likewise, a “Firebirds” name might prevent traditional Seattle green and blue uniforms.
That raises an important issue for the NHL Seattle group, which is in a unique position to break clear of this city’s traditional pro sports colors. That tradition, after all, hasn’t exactly produced rafters full of championship banners.
Artists’ renderings of a future, remodeled KeyArena have featured hockey players wearing red and white uniforms, prompting speculation that’s what the new team here will go with.
A 2005 study by Russell A. Hill and Robert A. Barton of the University of Durham in England found Olympic athletes randomly assigned red uniforms for combat sports tended to win more often that those given blue uniforms. The same held true for soccer teams wearing red at the Euro 2004 competition.
Subsequent studies suggest referees favor athletes wearing red. And that teams in red uniforms win more because the color causes elevated blood and testosterone levels among athletes wearing it.
The reigning Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals? Decked out in red.
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Throw in the fact that one of the future Seattle team’s owners, Hollywood film producer Jerry Bruckheimer, is a lifelong Detroit Red Wings fan, and color red conspiracy theorists could have a field day. Not to mention, Bruckheimer’s the guy who put the fictional “Kraken’’ sea monster into his Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
But what do a make-believe Kraken and the color red have to do with Seattle? Would fans identify with that?
Branding specialist Passikoff says it may not matter. Though teams nowadays almost always pick traditional, region-identifying names, he says his detailed surveys show they account for only a small percentage of the “loyalty” fans show those franchises.
“At some point, every league has a new team they have to carry because they lose a bunch of games,’’ Passikoff said. “It doesn’t matter what the name of the team is. They’ll eventually have to start winning, regardless of what the name is if they want fans to follow.’’
The Golden Knights certainly had a better first season than some of our Seattle-based teams that struggled for years after inception. Two of them – the Seahawks and Mariners – nearly left town before turning things around.
The NHL Seattle group hopes to win a lot sooner, helped by the same expansion draft rules that benefited the Golden Knights. And if they do, the right name and branding would go a long way to helping fill their coffers the way the Vegas franchise did last season.