Major League Cricket,  Marketing,  Soccer

The MLC Original Six: What’s in a Name?

After two years of Minor League Cricket, Major League Cricket -- the most high-profile professional cricket league in US history -- is ready to launch this July. Overall, fan interest, both here and internationally, is uniformly high as cricket fans around the world want to see if the US can become a serious player in the franchise T20 world. Oddly, one area where folks here are showing the most concern has pretty much nothing to do with what happens out on the pitch. A lot of controversy has popped up over some of the names of the six teams that will compete in the league's inaugural season…especially those teams connected to Indian Premier League ownership. While most fans have no trouble with the Washington Freedom, San Francisco Unicorns, or Seattle Orcas, there's been criticism of how MI NY, Texas Super Kings, and Los Angeles Knight Riders ownership didn't do their part in trying to lure in local fans with their team names and marketing. But is that criticism valid?

If you added up all of the people on the planet who know who the Atlanta Falcons, Miami Marlins, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Columbus Blue Jackets are, you still wouldn't come close to the number of people who know who the Mumbai Indians are. The Mumbai Indians brand is known by over a billion people. It's probably the most famous cricket franchise in the world. If you were expanding cricket into a new market and DIDN'T take advantage of this brand recognition -- this instant connection to one of the most popular sports teams on Earth -- you'd be a fool. Yes, MI NY doesn't fit the mold of what we consider a "proper" sports team name in the US, but just how many of the teams that we watch day after day and year after year have names that actually make sense or have any relevance today?

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Ten percent of Major League Baseball teams -- three out of thirty -- have names that reference colorful hosiery worn by players in the late 1800s. As a lifelong Bostonian, I'm far more upset that the Red Sox traded away generational talent Mookie Betts than I am that the team is named for something as mundane as socks. Teams move, keep the same name, and we don't care. The Utah Jazz? Does it matter that Utah may be the last of the 50 states that someone might associate with jazz? And is anyone really upset that the Lakers play in Los Angeles where there aren't a whole lot of lakes?

So, should we really be concerned that the name "Super Kings" makes no reference to Texas? Is anyone calling for the Kansas City Royals or Sacramento Kings to explain themselves? Like the Mumbai Indians, the Super Kings name -- and its yellow uniforms -- is synonymous with T20 cricket. The Los Angeles Knight Riders fall into the same category. The Knight Riders name is known globally for T20 cricket. Knight Rider Nation encompasses not just Kolkata in the Indian Premier League, but also Abu Dhabi in the UAE International League T20 and Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean Premier League. There aren't a lot of people in LA complaining that the "dodger" in Los Angeles Dodgers refers to the ability to not get run over by streetcars when crossing busy Brooklyn streets in the late 19th century. I think they'll be able to deal with "Knight Riders."

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People like to look at Major League Soccer as the template that Major League Cricket is supposed to follow, but here -- even more so -- you have team names that fly in the face of what we expect to see in this country.

When the league opened, you had the Kansas City Wiz -- a traditional (if somewhat oddball) team name. When the franchise was sued by the electronics company, The Wiz, the team changed its name to a very traditional -- though no less random -- Kansas City Wizards. Was the name a reference to the Wizard of Oz, even though Dorothy came from Kansas…not Missouri, where Kansas City is located? Was the moniker a nod to the midwestern city's rich history steeped in sorcery, occultism, and necromancing?

Before the 2012 season, the team once again changed its name -- this time to Sporting Kansas City. Sporting Kansas City? What does this even mean? "Sporting" isn't even a noun! And it's in front of the team's location! How is a team going to sell hats and shirts with a "sporting" on them? How are kids going to get into soccer if there isn't a cute mascot of a "sporting" for them to fall in love with? Fans were expected to embrace and support an adjective -- and they did. Surprisingly, this didn't start a trend and we never got to root for Super Expensive New York or Caffeinated Seattle.

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Were fans upset when Chivas USA joined the league in 2005? Despite the name, they weren't representing the nation; they were based in Los Angeles. So, what was with the name? And why the Spanish "chivas" instead of its English translation -- goats? Based on traditional team names, they should have been the Los Angeles Goats, but they weren't. The team was an expansion into the American soccer world by the owners of C.D. Guadalajara -- one of the most famous soccer teams in Mexico and a team whose nickname was Chivas. And like the Super Kings, Knight Riders, and Mumbai Indians, it was an attempt to take advantage of a known brand and grow it in a new market.

And while you'd think for marketing purposes it would be important to try to create a separate identity for each team in a league, a third of MLS clubs simply go by a city name and the letters FC (football club), SC (soccer club), or CF (club de foot). And the league continues to grow and attract more fans.

Essentially, if you're an American sports fan that's new to cricket, there are going to be a lot of things that are kind of new and weird. So, if the team names are kind of new and weird, that's just par for the course. But once American sports fans become cricket fans, they'll realize how relevant and normal those names actually are. They may not understand how the Duckworth-Lewis math works or why "innings" is always plural, but at least the team names won't bug them.

© Steinberg 2023

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