Thinking the Unthinkable: Rebranding D.C. United?

Larry French

Many original MLS teams have been rebranded over the years. Should D.C. United consider such a move now to jump start its relationship with its fans and the city?

With attendance reaching all-time lows for D.C. United in 2012 despite the team having its most successful season of the last five years and one of its most exciting seasons in memory, it's not surprising some external observers of the team have called for a rebranding of the club to jump start its relationship with its fans and the local community. While that suggestion creates an instant visceral reaction in D.C. United fans, let's set those emotions aside for a few minutes to look at whether D.C. United should indeed consider rebranding itself.

On a post earlier this summer, Agent_J, a writer for SB Nation's Seattle Sounders blog, Sounder At Heart, left the following comment on a Black and Red United post discussing attendance:

There seems to be a stigma in the cities that have had MLS for a long time, an idea of what MLS is or can be. That it is an inferior sports league, that the quality of play is bad, that the stands are empty, that it is akin to the USFL and will die. It got those impressions from seeing what the early MLS was, and the problems it had early on.

The newer markets however, were introduced from day one into a league that knows what it is doing and is showing it clearly. It is a league that players like David Beckham and Kasey Keller want to play in, one that values the uniqueness of soccer and respects the fan.

I feel that rebranding in a number of markets (with some more drastic changes in others) would help the league take off in markets where the MLS name has become stale, like in Kansas City. For example, in DC, creating a marketing campaign similar to KC and the Northwest marrying the success of United with what the league is now, while bringing in a big-name player and perhaps altering the crest or changing focus on the colors, all to go along with the coming new stadium (we hope) could revitalize the game in the Capital. I think I speak for the league when I say I'm looking forward to that happening.

On many levels, this is a very thoughtful commentary on the challenges facing the original teams in Major League Soccer who struggled through the difficult years as compared to the recent expansion teams that have entered a healthy league. But, what of his specific suggestion that D.C. United needs a focused marketing campaign, a big name player, and perhaps a rebranding of the team crest or colors? Let's concede that marketing could be focused in a new direction, but that would likely follow the signing of new players and a decision on rebranding. Since B&RU is full of great commentary about which players United should go after, we'll focus here on whether D.C. United should rebrand itself.

So, what constitutes rebranding for a MLS team? In it's fullest extent, such as happened to Sporting Kansas City before the 2011 season, it involved a name change, a new team badge, and new team colors all linked to a move to a new stadium. And, while only two years old and controversial with die-hard fans when it occurred, Sporting's rebranding has been nothing short of a huge success. As one indicator, in 2009 and 2010, the final two seasons as the Kansas City Wizards, the club averaged 10,053 and 10,287 attendance at home games respectively. Since the rebranding and the move to LIVESTRONG Sporting Park, the team has averaged 17,810 (2011) and 19,364 (2012), has brought a winning team and a US Open Cup to its fans, and has produced a national reputation for Kansas City of being a soccer hotbed worthy of hosting some of the biggest matches for United States National Teams.

Is Kansas City a template for D.C. United? And, how prevalent are these rebranding efforts for MLS teams?

1. Let's start by reviewing the history of name changes in MLS. Here are the ten original MLS teams and the origins of their original names. The name origins generally fall into one of several categories: traditional soccer names from around the globe, historical references that are meaningful to a specific city, former North American Soccer League (NASL) team names, corporate sponsorship, or none (that is, the name was selected for none of the previously mentioned reasons). The table also lists which of these teams have changed names and the origins of their new names.

Original Teams Name Origins Established Disbanded Hiatus Changed Name? New Team Name Origins
Colorado Rapids None 1996
Columbus Crew None 1996
D.C. United Traditional Soccer Name 1996
Dallas Burn None 1996 FC Dallas Traditional Soccer Name
Kansas City Wiz None 1996 Sporting Kansas City Traditional Soccer Name
LA Galaxy None 1996
New England Revolution Historical Reference 1996
NY/NJ MetroStars None 1996 New York Red Bulls Corporate Sponsorship
San Jose Clash None 1996 2006 - 2007 San Jose Earthquakes Former NASL Name
Tampa Bay Mutiny None 1996 2001

Back in 1996, MLS made a conscious effort to try to make the new league as Americanized as possible, distancing itself intentionally from the broader global soccer culture. Unique rules (e.g. countdown clock, shootouts), few ties to the global tradition of soccer, and no teams that traced their history to the former NASL. Those decisions were reflected in the team names for the first ten franchises as eight of them sprang from the minds of 1990's marketing specialists unlinked to tradition or history, one was a historical reference (New England Revolution), and only one linked to the global tradition of soccer (D.C. United).

But even for the eight teams that were not specifically named based on soccer tradition or a historical reference, some made wiser decisions than others. The Columbus Crew, for example, adopted a Pittsburgh Steelers motif of a hard-working, blue-collar, Midwestern team clad in black, yellow, and white. The LA Galaxy picked a synonym for the NASL's and America's most famous soccer team, the New York Cosmos, and not-so-subtly announced their intention to inherit the Cosmos' mantle as the highest-profile, biggest-spending team in the league. Both of these teams by and large have developed team cultures that fully embody their original names. Many teams, however, came to realize that their fans had no connection with their team names (e.g. Clash, Burn), and four went on to change their name over the years (and all went to a soccer-themed name with the exception of the New York Red Bulls who became a corporate billboard).

Unlike most of the original teams, MLS's expansion teams immediately realized that their fans needed a connection in some manner to their team names. Although marketing specialists had recommended that the new Chicago franchise be named the Rhythm when it was established in 1998, team leadership decided to go with the Chicago Fire as an homage to the city's famous fire and the city's firefighters. That same year, the new Miami franchise included the initials "FC" at the end of its name consistent with how many soccer teams around the world are named. From that time on, every team that has joined MLS has had a name based in the global soccer tradition, is named after a former NASL team, or is tied to a specific historic reference in its city. None have been renamed since they started play in the league.

Expansion Teams Name Origins Established Disbanded Hiatus Changed Name? New Team Name Origins
Chicago Fire Historical Reference 1998
Maimi Fusion F.C. Traditional Soccer Name 1998 2001
Chivas USA Traditional Soccer Name 2005
Real Salt Lake Traditional Soccer Name 2005
Houston Dynamo* Traditional Soccer Name 2006
Toronto FC Traditional Soccer Name 2007
Seattle Sounders Former NASL Name 2009
Philadelphia Union Historical Reference 2010
Portland Timbers Former NASL Name 2011
Vancouver Whitecaps Former NASL Name 2011
Montreal Impact Former NASL Name 2012

* The Houston franchise was briefly named Houston 1836 (which was supposed to be both a historical reference and a name based in the global soccer tradition) when the franchise was announced. Due to controversy with this name, however, the name was quickly changed to the Houston Dynamo (a name that is both linked to soccer tradition and was a former second tier professional team in Houston) before the team even played its first game.

Based on the 19 teams in today's MLS, seven now have names based on traditional soccer names, five share the same name as a former NASL franchise from their city, three are named after historical references, three have their original MLS name that came from the marketing department, and one remains a corporate commercial.

Because of the reasons already mentioned, it is unlikely the Columbus Crew or LA Galaxy will be renamed. Both have names that fit their culture and team identity. It is perplexing why the Colorado Rapids have not been renamed, however. Their current team name doesn't really speak to the culture of the team, and it isn't overtly a symbol of Colorado or Denver. With their owner, Stan Kroenke, also owning Arsenal FC of the English Premier League, and their stadium, Dick's Sporting Good Park, sitting on property that was formerly part of Rocky Mountain Arsenal (an important Cold War era military facility), it would seem smart for Colorado to one day rename themselves Arsenal Colorado, Denver Arsenal, Arsenal RM, or something similar barring any legal prohibition from doing so.

2. Many original teams have changed their team badge over the years. Like team names, team badges have undergone many changes among the original MLS teams, but not among the expansion teams. No expansion teams have changed their team badge since they starting playing in the league, while seven of the nine surviving original MLS teams have altered their badge over the years--including D.C. United.

Original Teams Changed Badge?
Colorado Rapids Complete Re-design
Columbus Crew
D.C. United Modest Re-design
Dallas Burn Complete Re-design
Kansas City Wiz Complete Re-design
LA Galaxy Complete Re-design
New England Revolution
NY/NJ MetroStars Complete Re-design
San Jose Clash Complete Re-design
Tampa Bay Mutiny (disbanded)

D.C. United's original crest was introduced before the 1996 inaugural season to some muted criticism that it invoked World War II German images. This was not widespread, however, and D.C. United proceeded to win the first two MLS cups wearing this badge.

Dcunitedold_medium

Before the 1998 season, D.C. United redesigned its badge, uplifting the eagle's wings to reflect the team's attacking spirit and consolidating the three soccer balls below the eagle into one and placing it on a star inside the eagle in honor of United winning the league's first ever championship. Unlike six of the other original teams, D.C. United chose wisely not to completely redesign the badge, but to modify it while keeping its distinctive shape, colors, and principal elements.

Dcunitedcurrent_medium

Of the nine surviving original teams, only the Columbus Crew and the New England Revolution are using the same badge they did in their first season.

3. Team colors have changed along with team names and team badges. Like team badges, a majority of original MLS teams have changed their team's primary colors over the years, while no expansion teams have changed their colors. Of the surviving nine original teams, six have changed their colors since 1996.

Team Changed Colors?
Colorado Rapids Yes
Columbus Crew
D.C. United
Dallas Burn Yes
Kansas City Wiz Yes
LA Galaxy Yes
New England Revolution
NY/NJ MetroStars Yes
San Jose Clash Yes
Tampa Bay Mutiny (disbanded)

Teams have changed their colors over the years in conjunction with a name change, to commemorate a move to a new stadium, or to welcome a new player (LA Galaxy did this when David Beckham arrived). Only the Columbus Crew, D.C. United, and the New England Revolution play today wearing the same colors they entered league with in 1996.

4. What does this mean for D.C. United rebranding? While our first reaction may be an emphatic "NO" when the idea of rebranding D.C. United is raised, let's look at rebranding element by element. When (not if) D.C. United moves into its new stadium, it would make sense to reintroduce the team through some type of marketing and rebranding effort. By what should that rebranding look like?

Should D.C. United change its name? No. There is no more traditional soccer name than United, and it fits the capital city of the United States like a glove. At the beginning, the club wisely named the team "D.C." rather than "Washington," giving the team a local flavor and differentiating it from all the other pro sports in the city. Additionally, there are no long-suffering supporter groups or pent up fan demand to rename the club after one of the former professional soccer teams in Washington such as the Diplomats, Darts, or Whips. To be frank, D.C. United got it right in 1996 and the rest of league has caught up over the years.

Should D.C. United change its team badge? Yes. They've done it before, and that previous experience could serve as a template for doing it again in conjunction with a move to a new stadium. Keep the overall shape, color, and major elements of the badge, but look to add a stylized element that is symbolic of D.C., such as the city flag or a distinctive image/silhouette from the city or even the new stadium if it has a signature architectural element. Keep the best parts of the badge that have existed since 1996, but make a modification to further tie the team to this great city.

Should D.C. United change its team colors? No, but they could look at some different options from within the current color scheme. The Black-and-Red should always play in black, red, and white, but D.C. could change their home jerseys for a season or two as part of their move to a new stadium. United has a superb looking third jersey that would give the team a new look at home, while allowing them to wear black (or white) on the road. Or, they could use a home white and red jersey modeled after the D.C. city flag that would be uniquely based on a beloved D.C. symbol (the team had an away jersey along these lines from 2000-2002), while using black or red on the road. These are just two ideas from the numerous list of possibilities that exist using the three traditional team colors.

5. Conclusion. In the end, Agent_J, the poster from Seattle, had it exactly right. A team with the rich history of D.C. United doesn't need to start from scratch with a total rebranding effort like some original MLS teams have undergone. D.C. United was arguably the best branded of all the original teams back in 1996 (although Columbus and New England would say they are the only original teams that have never changed their name, badge, or team colors). But, we also can't ignore the challenges of rebuilding and expanding the fan base here in D.C. Perhaps getting a new stadium and continuing to win will be sufficient (and it likely will be), but following the example of the past and making wise modifications to the existing badge to maintain its familiar look while deepening the team's ties to the city, and looking at new ways to use the existing team colors, would create a holistic rebranding opportunity while remaining true to the team's history and identity.

Do you think D.C. United should rebrand itself? If so, which elements should change? If you don't see a need to change the current team branding, tell us why.

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