Have the sports leagues run out of mascots?

The stadium scene.
Feb. 19 2003 10:27 AM

Name That Team

Have the sports leagues run out of mascots?

The new NBA franchise in Charlotte needs a mascot, and the city fathers have uncapped the suggestion box for the public. One of the informal guidelines is no insect names—the city had its heart broken by its last team, the sharply named Hornets, who blew town to play in New Orleans. So, what creature has emerged as the early front-runner? Some heretofore unused beast? Nope. The people have spoken, and they're clamoring for the Charlotte Cougars, the lamest idea they could have possibly come up with.

No, really. Cougars steadfastly conforms to every tried-and-staid rule for how to name your sports franchise. For one thing, the leagues long ago reached the saturation point for large felines. Major League Baseball puts up the Tigers, the NHL sports Panthers and Predators (tigers of the saber-toothed variety). The NFL fields Lions, Jaguars, Bengals (barely), and the Carolina Panthers, who play home games a wind-aided punt from the site of Charlotte's planned basketball arena. Twenty-five years ago, North Carolina supported an ABA team named the Cougars, and there's already a Women's Football League team in Greensboro that shares the same nickname.

More disheartening, though, is the mascot cul-de-sac that "Cougars" would signify. Two of the last four NFL expansion teams were cats, and another was the "Texans," hardly a revelation. The NBA's latest growth spurts brought the laudable Raptors and Timberwolves but also uninspiring singular nouns like Heat and Magic. Major League Soccer (10 teams, no animals) is big on these kinds of mascots, too, offering up the United, Burn, and Galaxy. The neophyte WNBA sports the Sun, Sting, Lynx, Mercury, Liberty, Storm, Shock, Fever, Fire, and Sol.

A proper mascot shouldn't be singular or adjectival (can United players exist separately?). Animals are usually a safer bet, but really, Cougars? Can't we as a civilization uncover mascots with more panache than another round of conspicuously plush animals?

Actually, we can. The Charlotte Regional Sports Commission has received more than 750 different name submissions thus far, mostly at its Web site. It has been passing along the realistic candidates to the team ownership, which is headed by Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson. "Cougars" has lots of support, but some of the less obvious offerings are sheer delight. Sarcastically, perhaps, "Charlottans" has been proposed. E.B. White might have been flattered with "Spiders." Charlotte's per capita donation to its arts council is the highest in the nation, so there were artsy suggestions—"Sculptors," for example.

The city also boasts the country's richest banking center outside of New York City, so someone chipped in "Bankers"—and, hey, why not? Just as the Hornets' home court was known as the Hive, the Bankers could play in the Vault, and arena sponsorship would be a shoo-in. Bankers is a copy editor's dream—abundant financial puns, on down to the bank shot. There's also the ironic acknowledgement that the NBA isn't a league of fearsome predators so much as it is a league of somnambulant millionaires pushing the ball up the court like a loan application across a desk.

Regional animals are overrated, anyway. Just look at the latest baseball expansion teams. What kind of personality can you possibly ascribe to a Devil Ray? Would fewer than 95 percent of Diamondbacks fans run like hell if they encountered the real thing? "Hornets" worked because it was more legend than local fauna. When Charles Cornwallis led troops through downtown Charlotte in 1780, his boys were peppered with shots from militiamen hiding behind trees and bushes. He kvetched later that it was like walking into a nest of hornets. Charlotte residents still revel in the association—though it should be noted that their first choice for that team was the singular and nauseatingly generic "Spirit." In one of its few laudable acts, team ownership overrode them.

Admittedly, the Hornets fit the city so marvelously, that nothing, not even "Bankers," could live up. But the healing won't begin by snaring yet another feline into mascot captivity, stuffed toy sales be damned. The Charlotte bosses still have time (the NBA wants a proposal by early April) and plenty of options. If all else fails, they could always just roll out "Wildcats."

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