Here we are! The final section. Not much for me to explain in this one; these are, quite simply, the very best of naming American major professional sports have to offer. Each one carries a certain amount of regionalism, decent imagery, strong branding, originality, memorability, strength, and balance.
20: New York Metropolitans, MLB
The major qualm I have with this name is the way it fuels into New York City’s egotism and raging sense of self-congratulatory intellectual supremacy. Come on, New York City, we know two of your so-called boroughs – Brooklyn and Queens – operate their infrastructures on a more independent basis than the others. After that, though, there’s really nothing to complain about when it comes to the official name of the New York Mets. Even feeding into the city’s blustering, New York City is still the largest city in the country, and it’s not even close. New York City has an almost unmatched array of people and activities to keep everyone interested. It represents the modern and open-minded, making it a true 21st Century metropolis, and whenever something new and world-changing comes along, you can bet New York City is always one of the first places it will hit, which means the city is constantly evolving. The Metropolitans are mainly known by their field name, the Mets, which not only makes them the cool rebel alternative to the Yankees, but gives them a cool parallel to the Jets and Nets – the rebel alternatives to the Giants and Knicks, respectively. The name Mets also honors two of New York City’s other great institutions – the Metropolitan Opera and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which are both also nicknamed the Met. Unknown to many, it’s also the name of an early baseball team from New York City which only lasted a few years in the 1800’s, which gives Mets a sense of preserved history as well.
19: Ottawa Senators, NHL
Hey everybody, in Canada, they actually got the name of their national capitol’s team right. It doesn’t use a slur (Washington’s football team), it doesn’t use a generic cover-all term for Canadian (like Nationals), it doesn’t simply spotlight the city’s status for attention (Capitals), and it makes sense (unlike Wizards). I don’t know exactly what kind of approval ratings Canada’s Parliament pulls in, but at least the hockey team in Canada’s national capitol succeeds in honoring its outpost. Senators carries weight and balance – two triple-syllable words with a short A in the middle surrounded by harder sounds – while the branding and regionalism go with the territory.
18: New Orleans Saints, NFL
It’s funny to me that a laid-back city known mainly for its vices like New Orleans would be nicknamed the Saints, but then again, New Orleans is a Catholic outpost in an area of the country which is known for being Baptist. Saints holds a double meaning for the popular song “When the Saints Go Marching In,” an old gospel song which is now best known for the many jazz covers it inspired, very fitting in the birthplace of jazz. By combining the city of New Orleans with the idea of being a saint, the New Orleans Saints have taken a very unique road to being a standout: There’s no appeal to anger, intensity, ferocity, or savagery anywhere in this name. Instead, the name Saints holds a virtuous light up to the imagery, giving the team a positive symbol of human goodness, while the city’s name has become synonymous with creativity, uniqueness, and open-mindedness. Recently, New Orleans has become known as a city of resilience, full of people who continued to believe in it even after an enormous hurricane swept in and washed out many of its residents. It’s no wonder the New Orleans Saints have become the favorite football team of everyone in the country to some extent.
17: Texas Rangers, MLB
A few points are deducted because these guys are, sadly, forced to share their nickname with a certain NHL team which really doesn’t have any business using it. There’s no forgetting the branding, though, because the most famous statewide law enforcement agency in the country uses it. I’m not talking about just the nickname, either, but the entire thing: The Texas Rangers, who are actually more famous than the baseball team named after them, thanks in large part to a weekly action TV show starring Chuck Norris. (Although, since winning the Pennant in 2010 and 2011, the baseball Rangers have started making up a little ground, particularly after that vicious 2011 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.) Even if that weren’t the case, Texas Rangers is a great name standing alone, since Texas is synonymous with vast skies and wide open land ranges. Rangers also works as a colloquial to the nickname of Texas – The Lone Star State – because we tend to think of rangers as rugged individualists in the same vein as we do cowboys. Yeah, the Texas Rangers have every right to take themselves after their state rather than their metropolitan area (Dallas, if you don’t know).
16: Denver Nuggets, NBA
Let’s be frank: A small lump of rock isn’t the most inspiring thing to name a sports team after, even if it is supposed to represent a nugget of gold. The importance of the name Nuggets, though, comes from the fact that an entire state was built around the power of small shiny nuggets – Colorado was populated by the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush. That means there’s significant history and regionalism surrounding the name, not to mention a hefty dose of originality from a team that decided it wanted to take a chance with a name. Gold nuggets are a huge deal, in any case; they have the potential to put lots of money into the economy, and who doesn’t love money? So there are some good colloquialisms to be drawn from a nugget of gold: Gold means power, gold means wealth, gold means Murphy’s Golden Rule: Whoever has the gold makes the rules. So let’s stop knocking this team name as useless lumps when they can do all that.
15: Philadelphia Phillies, MLB
This name wins the regionalization contest hand down. If you ever forget where this team plays, just think of the nickname, and it will tell you everything you need to know about who you are and where you’re from. It one incredible swoop, Phillies nails everything right about team names: It’s regional, unique, memorable, original, and brands the team with a hot iron without even trying. Like the Los Angeles Angels, it makes the city nickname into the team nickname. Granted this name came from a time when every baseball team was named after its city, but that Phillies is the lone survivor speaks legions about its staying power and its resonance, especially if you’re also aware of the fact that it survived an incredible THREE efforts to change it.
14: Baltimore Ravens, NFL
I put Baltimore’s divisional rivals, the Cleveland Browns, way down at number 106, where I asked why Browns fans keep giving the Baltimore Ravens shit about their name. Here we are, in the top 20, and I’m still confused. Baltimore Ravens brings us the coolest literary allusion on this list. Baltimore was the original home of all-time American literary giant Edgar Allen Poe. Poe wrote an iconic poem called The Raven during a career which, while tragically understated during his own time, was blessed in historical hindsight when it inspired countless mystery and horror authors. That’s an awesome element in regionalizing and branding the team while also trying to get it to transcend football and appeal to literature geeks. The raven is also a great bird to use in an image, because instead of making an appeal to kitsch freaks or going with ferocity, ravens make an appeal to the terrifying and mysterious. They’re large and black, and can spook people in dark places. And so, be that as it may, ravens are frequently used in superstitions to mark omens, set moods, or act as psychological conductors. It’s pretty incredible to think that with all the birds flying around out there, more teams didn’t try to go with an image which holds that kind of power.
13: New York Knickerbockers, NBA
This one is based on a term popularized from another literary allusion, this time from Washington Irving. Irving’s first major book was called A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Diedrich Knickerbocker. Diedrich Knickerbocker was a fictional name Irving used in what was really an early version of a marketing campaign, but it was a nickname given as far back as the early Dutch settlers in New York state which eventually worked its way into regional lexicon first as a term for Manhattan’s aristocracy, then as a general term for New Yorker. As with the Ravens, that makes it both historical and regional, but it works better in this case because Knickerbocker was a term created strictly for the people living in the region. This team is like the Metropolitans in that it uses a stage name – the New York Knicks, and not only is Knick an effective nickname for Knickerbocker, it rolls just as nicely as a name for the team because it sort of combines the city’s name into one term: New York, combining the first sound in New and last in York, makes something very close to Knick when combined.
12: Boston Celtics, NBA
This would be a very good name no matter what, but this is one of those extremely rare cases where the mispronunciation makes it better. Celtics is usually pronounced with a K sound, but in this context, is pronounced with an S sound, which makes it roll nicely with Boston. The Celts were an ancient people with roots in Irish culture, who eventually diversified into a few different cultures, including the cultures of today’s British, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh people. The modern Celtic identity is mostly associated with the Irish, and Boston has a population of over 50 percent with Irish roots. It’s also a heavy stronghold of Irish Catholicism. That brings context to the team name. You have to give Celtics credit for not being degrading, too – unlike a certain sports program at the University of Notre Dame.
11: Houston Astros, MLB
It’s a little surprising to me that more teams don’t try to use space imagery. After all, powerful objects exist there, where they fly at incredible speeds. Yet, here’s a team name that can’t decide on just one of those objects…. So it takes a name that encompasses all of them! Astro is of course synonymous with space, which is fantastic for one of only a handful of cities on the planet that has a right to make an association with space. Houston is known as Space City, after all, and it beats a lot of the other associations you could make with Houston.
10: Seattle Mariners, MLB
This team replaced another baseball team called the Seattle Pilots, and I have trouble deciding which name is better. There’s certainly not much to complain about with this one. Seattle has an aviation history – Boeing is located there – but it also has a history as a major shipbuilding home and a reputation as a transportation center which was solidified during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897. So a name honoring sailors makes perfect sense, and it’s unique enough to be something not every city in the country can name a team. You think Dallas or Kansas City residents would ever buy into a team called the Mariners? The name also gives them the right to use the Mariner’s Star to brand themselves, another thing no other team can claim. Mariners also holds significant weight as a name – evenly balanced with its city name with three syllables – but what I really like about it is that, like the Seattle Seahawks, it holds another cloaked allusion to the city name. A mariner is a sailor. Seattle is a port city and a transportation hub whose first three letters are “sea.” That’s something even the Pilots didn’t have. You know what? I think I prefer the name Seattle Mariners to Seattle Pilots after all.
9: Philadelphia 76ers, NBA
Yes, this sucker is a monster of jumpy, soundalike consonants. But it somehow still manages to have an even balance, only this one is two five syllable words which both sound like a wrecking ball smashed its way the vowels which would have otherwise smoothed it out. I don’t think the people of Philadelphia, though, would have it any other way. 76ers is a reference to the year of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which took place in Philadelphia in 1776, bringing those regionalization and branding points, and that’s only helped by the fact that 76 is, according to reputation, a number which dominates modern Philadelphia. It’s another instance where the city gets exclusive awesome branding rights based on its history. Also, despite being such a mouthful, you have to admit the name does hold a certain charm: Philadelphia is dominated by PH and L sounds while 76ers makes you fly around those S sounds.
8: Pittsburgh Steelers, NFL
A name and city perfectly matched. Steelers is an honorific for steelworkers, and while steelworkers aren’t especially unique, no city had more of them than Pittsburgh. Steeler isn’t a particularly rugged-sounding name, but it does invoke images of molten metal being poured from giant buckets in huge factories, so there’s imagery that goes with Steelers. Pittsburgh has lately been the great success story of the Rust Belt, turning itself around after decades of depression through an infusion of modern industries, small projects, and utilization of its universities. Still, a lot of people there probably remember the bad old days, and as long as the Steelers exist, it will always be a reminder of both Pittsburgh’s past and the way people were able to keep their heads up, never believing their city was truly defeated when the bad times hit.
7: Baltimore Orioles, MLB
Yes folks, there is a real bird whose official name is the Baltimore oriole. It lives in the eastern and midwestern United States and received its name from having a physical resemblance to the Old World Oriolidae family, which is otherwise unrelated. Mostly, the oriole is a common perching bird, and can usually be found foraging in your backyard trees, shrubs, and backyard hummingbird feeders while chasing down the occasional insect. Not much different from an average blue jay or cardinal, both of which I slammed, but the Baltimore Orioles are rescued by their branding: It was given the name Baltimore oriole because its colors resembled those on Lord Baltimore’s Coat of Arms. I don’t know how a bird can be more regionalized than that, but the state of Maryland sure tried: The Baltimore oriole is Maryland’s official state bird! The name has a very nice roll to go with it, featuring Baltimore’s final syllable having the same sound as Orioles’ first syllable.
6: St. Louis Blues, NHL
Here’s another name taken from a classic song which also serves as the title of a music genre, not to mention what Blues fans find themselves singing during the postseason more often than not these days. “St. Louis Blues” is the title of a very real jazz song, and St. Louis became a highly regarded blues outpost when the musical genre slowly made its way north from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. The title means the song is instantly regional, and it’s unique because music isn’t something that gets mentioned a lot in sports team names. Only the New Orleans Saints and Utah Jazz have that distinction, and the Saints got their name from a single word in a song while the Jazz name is grossly out of place. The St. Louis Blues have no such problems with their name.
5: Houston Rockets, NBA
Originally called the San Diego Rockets after a very silly title San Diego once bestowed onto itself, this team kept their name when they were forced to move to Houston. And in a startling contrast to the Utah Jazz or Los Angeles Lakers names, this is a name that might have been barely average during its time in its old home, but became an incredible fit in its new one. You know why Houston is nicknamed Space City? Because that’s where they launch rockets! Real rockets, the ones that carry people into space! NASA’s main control center is located in Houston, which means that every space mission ever launched in the United States – and some in foreign countries – kept in touch with the ground via the control station in Houston. Also, a rocket is a great colloquial for modernity, and despite the reputation of Texas, that’s one thing Houston is getting in spades – Houston is the fourth-largest city in the United States at the moment, has over two million people, is growing, and considered a solid place to live. Cities don’t get to that position by trying to become blasts from the past. The name isn’t exactly original, but actual rockets are such a huge deal in Houston’s importance to the country and the world that the otherwise so-so branding gets elevated much like a real rocket.
4: Milwaukee Brewers, MLB
Whether or not Milwaukee has a right to be proud of its beer isn’t up for debate – that’s where they make Miller, so anyone heard defending that shit needs to be immediately forced to live in Greenland and forced to subside on Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Milwaukee is a famous brewing hotbed, though, so it has every right to name a team the Brewers. The term isn’t exclusive to Milwaukee – St. Louis and Denver have giant stakes in brewing too – but it’s the city where the brewing industry has the most visible presence. Milwaukee and beer go together like peanut butter and jelly, so much so that even the ballpark is plastered with the name of the brewing corporation. And, of course, the brewer is the guy who makes the beer, so like the Steelers, this team is honoring the silent workers of a very old profession which is still very important in this country. This might be a good time to thank your deity of choice that most American sports leagues don’t do European soccer-style names; we might otherwise have ended up with something corporatized and wretched, like the Milwaukee Millers.
3: San Francisco 49ers, NFL
As we all know, the NFL is in love with images that it sucks at living up to. It infects the naming system as well as anything else. The league has a love affair with ferocity and, while there are probably no more bad names in the NFL than in any other league, it makes the NFL’s missteps particularly glaring. Washington’s football team, having a whopping four teams – including two 90’s expansions – named after big cats, two names for giants, two for birds of prey, one of those ridiculous teams named after a region instead of a place, plus the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills, and I didn’t even include everything. When the NFL does a name the right way, though, it turns out excellent, and there’s no better example of that than the San Francisco 49ers. Number names might come off as silly, but numbers have a way of regionalizing the team through huge aspects of their cities like little else. In this case, it sheds history’s light on the 1849 Gold Rush which brought swaths of people to California, resulting in California’s statehood two years later. 49ers were the nicknames given to the gold rushers, and in that single marvelous placement, the name becomes exclusive to San Francisco, historical, original, and memorable all at the same time, and the connection is so well-known that it doesn’t require tons of time to explain. The name is a little on the hard side to say, with eight total syllables which mostly sound completely different, but they all feature hard sounds for a very nice weight distribution.
2: Detroit Pistons, NBA
Here’s what we think of when we think of pistons: Parts of a constantly-moving machine, working together all at once in order to generate power. Anyone can appreciate that aspect of a name like the Pistons, all the more so if they know the Detroit Pistons won each of their three NBA Championships working in a very similar fashion – eschewing individual statistics in favor of a hard-fighting machine that works evenly (none of Detroit’s title teams featured any scorers who averaged 20 points per game). It’s a beautiful image anyone would want to associate with their favorite team, and the idea of pistons working to power something bigger denotes a scrappiness that matches its downtrodden city perfectly. The piston is a fitting image for Detroit, not only for the city’s history as America’s premier automaker, but for something that refuses to quit or give up. America might be giving up on Detroit, but Detroit isn’t giving up on itself. Pittsburgh was in the same position not too long ago, and look what’s happening there; in the meantime, Buffalo seems poised to make its move as well. We’re all cheering for Detroit here.
1: Portland Trail Blazers, NBA
So you have a sport like basketball, which is played at high speeds – blazing speeds, one might say! You decide to stick a team in a snug little outpost in the pacific northwest which most people don’t even realize exists. (The Blazers were created in 1970, long before Portland was the cool alternative to Seattle…. Hell, long before Seattle was ever even cool.) So you’re basically blazing the professional sports trail to Portland, and hell, even with Portland growing and becoming more important now, the other leagues have yet to follow you there. Portland still has a kind of outpost reputation, with an abundance of outdoorsy things to do, and back when most of the pacific northwest was unknown to Europeans and virtually impossible to get to, the people who made the trip were master outdoorsmen who were true pioneers in exploring and recording the territory – trail blazers in a handful of ways. Trail Blazers is a name which acknowledges the speed of its sport and the historical and regional aspects of its metropolitan area. There’s no doubt that it sticks out; it’s simple but highly original because no other team has any right to it, and trying to call a team from anywhere else just the Blazers would be generic 90’s residue. That means Trail Blazers is a fantastic way of branding a team which no one is likely to ever forget, even less so when you realize how cool it sounds and how easily it rolls off your tongue. The Portland Trail Blazers have been noted for being an underrated team with some significant on-court successes, but there’s no question about their name. It’s the best name in the major North American professional sports pantheon.