Ralph Sampson, the 7-foot-4 former NBA star and University of Virginia standout, was driving to church one Sunday in the summer of 1999, tapping his leg to gospel music when the answer fell from the heavens. After grappling with possible names for his new minor league basketball team — including the Rebels, the Raccoons and the Road Dogs — a gospel-infused inspiration struck: The Richmond Rhythm.
Sampson's team of second-run college and professional basketball players lasted all of two seasons. It lasted longer than the region's women's pro basketball team, the Richmond Rage, which played a single season in 1997. The Rhythm and the Rage had problems consistently drawing fans and may simply have been peddling the wrong sport for Richmond. But they also lacked something all teams need to succeed: a strong identity.
It's a challenge likely to vex two new arena-football teams and a minor league baseball club expected to begin play in 2010, making a crowded sports market in a city the size of Richmond. Increasingly, experts say, team names play a crucial role in their marketing and merchandising.
“The name and the logo have an impact [on merchandise sales], more so than the play on the field,” says Steve Densa, a spokesman for Minor League Baseball, which sold $54.8 million last year in merchandise among 251 baseball clubs.
Though eight of the league's top 25 team sellers had losing seasons, the list includes such head-turning names as the Albuquerque Isotopes, the Carolina Mudcats, the Lansing Lugnuts and the Lehigh Valley IronPigs.
“I think the team name is really important in terms of generating interest for a local fan base, and creating something that fans can really rally behind,” says Brad Higdon, an account director at The Martin Agency, who oversees the advertising agency's NASCAR, Wal-Mart and BFGoodrich accounts.
Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., is hesitant to attribute that much importance to a team name. He says other factors — such as the team's win-lose record and its colors and logo — are more important to a franchise's long-term success.
Zimbalist cites the example of the Arizona Cardinals, which nearly won the Super Bowl in February. When the St. Louis Cardinals football team moved to Arizona in 1988, it took the name with it. Even though cardinals are not a bird native to Arizona, Zimbalist says the name had little effect on the team's popularity.
The most successful locally owned franchise, the first incarnation of the Richmond Renegades hockey team (1990-2003), drew more than 10,000 people to the Richmond Coliseum in 1995, when it won the East Coast Hockey League championship, and averaged more than 6,000 fans for home games.
But a team doesn't have to be good to be financially successful. John Traub, general manager for the Albuquerque Isotopes, a minor league baseball team, says the name and marketing are more important than winning. A team's record has little effect on attendance and merchandising sales, he says.
Traub adds that a good team name must have a connection with the region. The Isotopes' name was inspired by an episode of “The Simpsons,” in which the hometown team, the Springfield Isotopes, moves to Albuquerque. It made sense, considering the city's long association with nuclear research.
So how would you name a Richmond team?
“If it's a new team, then what we would want to do is really focus on the core [qualities] of Richmond as a city and the people,” says The Martin Agency's Higdon. For Richmond, Higdon cites its history, its artistic community and its status as a progressive area.
“Anytime you can infuse energy into the name of a sports team, it tends to be very beneficial,” Higdon adds. “The San Diego Chargers comes to mind, in thinking about how Chargers are relevant to that market based on some of the history of that market. At the same time that name connotates energy and excitement.”
Allan B. Harvie Jr., the former owner of the Richmond Renegades hockey team, says the name helps define a team, and adds that a good name is crucial to marketing. Harvie likes the idea of naming a future team the Richmond Ravens because of its alliteration and the city's association with Edgar Allan Poe.
These days, team names usually are chosen by the team's owner or through a contest for fans to submit ideas, as Harvie did in 1990.
Once it worked differently. “In the early 1900s, and even back in the late 1800s, the nicknames for teams came from what was written by a reporter in the press,” says Ron Pomfrey, author of “Baseball in Richmond.” The University of Richmond Spiders, for example, got its name in the 1890s from the Richmond Times-Dispatch when a sports writer wrote that a pitcher had the delivery and style of a “clever, creeping insect” — a spider. The name stuck and eventually applied to all of the university's sports teams.
Past Richmond baseball teams had such monikers as the Lawmakers, the Bloody Shirts, the Johnny Rebs and the Paramonts.
The American Indoor Football Association announced last week that its new local franchise would be called the Richmond Raiders and will begin play at the Coliseum next year. John Morris, the team's owner, came up with the name after e-mailing a database of sports fans in the Richmond area and seeking input.
Another, unrelated arena football team hitting the Richmond area, the Indoor Football League's Richmond team, will play next year at the Arthur Ashe Center until its new home is completed at the $250 million Chesterfield SportsQuest facility. The team is owned by Steve Burton, the founder and chief executive of SportsQuest.
SportsQuest is holding an online naming contest, in which five finalists will be chosen Aug. 12 with the team set to be unveiled Aug. 26.
As for baseball, the long-running controversy over where to put a new baseball team — Shockoe Bottom, the Boulevard or somewhere else? — has overshadowed the actual team expected to replace the recently departed Richmond Braves, here for more than 40 years.
The Eastern League, a division of Minor League Baseball, is working to secure a team for Richmond. It's widely expected that the Connecticut Defenders, which play in Norwich, Conn., will move here in time for the 2010 season.
The president and managing partner of the Defenders, Lou DiBella, didn't return calls seeking comment. Most people, however, seem to think he'll rename the team upon moving to Richmond.
“I'm not sure what Lou will do. But I do think he will have a contest, because it's a good way to generate public interest in a team,” says Kevin Reichard, editor of Ballpark Digest. The team name will be critical, he says.
“It's not just a team name anymore,” Reichard says. “It's a brand.” S