Monday, April 18, 2011
I had forgotten how much fun the names of youth sports teams can be. Once the boys moved up to U-11 and began playing for select teams they had these sophisticated names that mirrored professional teams in England or South America. The sudden shift to "adult" names also meant a shift to "adult" uniforms, "adult" cleats, and "adult" schedules with an accompanying "adult" price tag. Gone were the days when I could write a check in the two or low three digit range. However, I just got an email with the spring soccer schedule for a grandson. His team is the Vipers, and all the happy memories of those wild team names came flooding back.
We had Tigers, Leopards, Eagles, Rattlers, Lightning and Jaguars. Uniform colors were hit or miss since teams got assigned the uniforms without regard to their names. Robbie's Leopard team had orange uniforms so I kept cheering them on as the Tigers, which was Bryce's team at the time and he had green uniforms. As an alternate they would use a white t-shirt with an iron-on number. The shorts were glossy satin, the socks the same color as their jerseys, and the cleats black. Life was definitely less complicated.
The tradition of animal names comes from pro baseball and football. We connect to those names from both experience and comfort. Kids know about the Chicago Bears, the Florida Marlins, and the Seattle Seahawks. So it's not surprising that they naturally latch unto those labels. Without the strong tradition of soccer found in other countries in the world, they either aren't aware of or comfortable with names like Manchester United or Boca Juniors. Our tradition of team signatures usually means a trip to the zoo or the Weather Channel. Occasionally we borrow a group name such as Mariners, Oilers, or Patriots. On the limited end there's a pair of Sox, one color (Reds), a land mass (Rockies) and an aircraft (Jets).
Hockey teams provide some of the more innovative and fun names. These owners apparently never wanted to give up those trendy kid team names since we have Penguins, Thrashers, Predators, Flames, Avalanche, and Sabres. There are some dull names like Maple Leafs and Senators. And being a Duck doesn't really seem ferocious enough. But I think having all the standard creature names snapped up by the baseball and football contingent forced some wonderful creativity that kids could definitely appreciate. How cool would it be to hear the sidelines chanting "Go Sharks!"? If I were ten years old I'd want to be the Devils and I'd want my uniforms to be red!
Basketball teams follow the animal tradition, but overall their monikers tend to be more subdued: Cavaliers, Jazz, Magic. It's as if the owners felt that the arenas confined any outlandish identification outbursts. Most NBA teams don't have titles that kids would quickly appreciate. In fact most wouldn't even know what the names signify: Knicks, Celtics, Nuggets, 76ers, and Spurs. I think kids would agree that being the Nets or the Clippers doesn't strike the proper image of a terrifying opponent, although Toronto Raptors might find their name appropriated most often. Even the feverish temperature-based names like Blazers, Heat, Suns, and Rockets lack the pizzazz that a kid's sports team should carry.
Over the years I have found myself on the sidelines cheering "Go White" or "Go Blue" depending on the color of uniform the team wore that day. It all seems so lackluster compared to being able to cheer on lions, and tigers, and bears. Once the kids move up to those more sophisticated soccer teams, the names take on a very dignified status. They come from the traditions of grand soccer teams around the world. United, Arsenal, FC, Sporting, and Real. About half of the MLS teams adopted names that honor those long lines of soccer team identification. Most families, especially those of kids new to soccer, don't understand these traditions, so they consider the names bland. When the boys' soccer club Mequon United FC merged with the recreational club Mequon Power the new board insisted on getting rid of the United name, not understanding the cache it held in the soccer world. The merged club became Mequon Soccer Club. For many parents the name change held little concern, but for parents who understood the tradition of soccer and coaches who had come up against the team, the name change had the effect of diminishing the quality of the program in their eyes.
Names shouldn't mean that much, but we have seen the battles over team name changes which can sharply divide fans, alumni and players. When Marquette University decided to abandon the name "Warriors" in favor of a more p.c. name "Golden Eagles," the battle was fierce. That's why the Minnesota Lakers became the L.A. Lakers even though Minnesota has 10,000 lakes and L.A. calls ponds "lakes". No one wanted to change the name of the franchise. We become attached to the name and invest our loyalty in the team and its title. Animal and weather related names insure that we won't offend anyone and that we can imbue the team with some ferocious qualities even as the young players prefer watching the clouds drift by. I miss those days and can't wait to cheer on the Vipers this spring and summer. I also love cheering on my sons, who incidentally now play for a team called the Panthers. They even have a "snarl" sound effect for announcements. It's almost like being on the sidelines of their first teams. Almost.