Friday, 20 December 2013


Of Neology and Nicknames

The Canadian Football League has an Ottawa franchise once again. Third time’s a charm.

Fans who can recall the Beatles split will remember the original black and red Rough Riders and the simple white serif capital R on their helmets. Fans who can recall the Backstreet Boys breaking up will remember the dismal black and red Renegades. Fans destined to recall the Rolling Stones ceasing corporate operations will remember the piebald Ottawa Redblacks (Postmedia News publications).

Or RedBlacks (The Globe and Mail).

Or REDBLACKS (official web site).

Or something anyway that begins with that iconic capital R. Something that seems to be a desperate, poorly executed grasp at heritage branding by an expansion team with neither history nor identity. A handle already hostage to the whims of various sports editors and the insanely demanding and mostly ignored wordmark usage rules of the club’s marketing department though the players have yet to take the field. Brands may be recognized by their distinctive packaging but they do not just spring genie-like out of sleek green bottles or Tetrapaks. They need time to gestate, time to grow roots. Redblacks, RedBlacks or REDBLACKS for the league’s third go-round in the capital read like bad seeds in arid ground.

This new digital age has been especially kind to the sports industry. Aside from actual reality (not redundant but increasingly passing strange), sport is pretty much the last bastion of live media consumption and sole need to know this instant. Games really, really matter. And if they matter, we have chosen sides. And if we have chosen sides, chances are we’ll add to the industry’s official merchandise revenue stream, outfit ourselves in the laundry to mix and meld with the strangers in our tribes. Newly minted Redblacks, RedBlacks or REDBLACKS fans can discuss typography.

Sporting clubs have always had nicknames. Some have existed for a century or more (and some have not kept pace with more enlightened times). Utilizing uniform colours is not uncommon. There is the exquisite jazz synergy of hockey’s St. Louis Blues; the monochromatic statement of the Maori All Blacks, baseball’s Cincinnati Reds and Alabama’s Crimson Tide. One colour to unite fans: I recall watching a Chelsea–Liverpool match in a Gloucester pub and ducking my head under the ‘Go Blue!’ and ‘Go Red!’ shouting and peering down at the infants and cigarette butts on the floor.

In Quebec of course things are different. Some might say distinct. The second best football team in the province is Laval University’s Rouge et Or (Red and Gold). They play against Sherbrooke’s Vert & Or (Green & Gold). Given the bilingual nature of the National Capital Region and the fact that the market of Gatineau, QC is just across the Ottawa River, Ottawa has fumbled with their meaningless, slightly cryptic, neologism. A simple conjunction would not only recall the city’s bygone teams and suggest the game’s early roots in rugger, but Red and Black would translate elegantly to Rouge et Noir. Finally, the nickname would be consistently rendered in print: newspapers, magazines, t-shirts and blogs.

The Rough Riders despite a long and successful history met their end of days as mismanaged sad sacks. The Renegades started off ineptly enough and got worse. Here’s hoping Ottawa’s new football operations personnel have a better handle on things than their predecessors and their current ad agency. The only foolproof sports marketing strategy is winning games. Trouble is, even in a nine team loop there are eight losers. Even money says the Ottawa franchise will be re-branded before they post a respectable record in the CFL's East Division.

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