Dan Simon has stayed true to a seemingly simple principle during his 20 years of designing logos and brands for minor league baseball teams:
Don't create anything embarrassing.
"You can have a fun identity while also being appropriate for a professional baseball team," said Simon, the founder of Lexington-based Studio Simon, which has designed logos for dozens of teams as well as league all-star games, seminars and eight of the past 10 Winter Meetings. "Professional athletes have to wear this (logo) on their hat, across their jersey, and they don't want to be embarrassed by what they are wearing."
Simon's belief in moderation, however, is not shared by much of minor league baseball these days. Minor league teams have swung to an opposite extreme, in which teams that have tried to outdo each other with over-the-top promotions are now doing the same with nicknames and logos.
Leading that charge into silliness is Brandiose, the company previously known as Plan B Branding, which strives for a different goal than Studio Simon. "We're always looking to stretch the bounds of what has been done before," said Jason Klein, who runs Brandiose with his lifelong friend Casey White.
The contrast in styles epitomizes a crossroads for minor league baseball and leaves many people who work in the industry on opposite ends of a salient question: Is the trend of teams adopting outrageous names and logos just another example of the sport’s mission to provide family-friendly entertainment or have these franchises taken something fun too far?
“Irreverence is very good for minor league baseball, but there’s a fine line between irreverence and just plain old goofiness,” one minor league team official wrote in an email. “I think the line might have been crossed a bit recently, although I don’t think the new brand jumped the shark.”
Said another team official responding to the same question: “I think it is good for minor league baseball to embrace the irreverent names as it helps paint our league as fun, a little offbeat and really ahead of the curve in developing a brand. As long as teams aren’t changing names yearly to create some sort of shock value, I think it is one of the defining traits of the minor leagues and helps the general public identify with minor league baseball on a national level.”
The Name Game
Brandiose, which promises to make its clients famous by tapping into the outrageous spirit of minor league baseball, pushed the bounds to a new limit this offseason when it designed six new team logos—including perhaps the company's most controversial creations.
Klein and White, both 34, certainly helped create a buzz in October. It started when the Pacific Coast League franchise moving from Tucson to a new ballpark in El Paso selected “Chihuahuas” as its new nickname and unveiled a Brandiose-designed spiked-collar dog as the primary logo. One week later another Brandiose client stepped into the national spotlight when the Akron Aeros (Eastern) announced they were swapping their longtime moniker for the name RubberDucks, as part of a makeover under second-year owner Ken Babby intended to pay tribute to the city's ties to the rubber industry.
Both names were greeted with plenty of raised eyebrows, and anti-Chihuahua campaigns led the news in El Paso for several days after the unveiling. But both have also sold well, with both teams reporting a spike in merchandise sales.
The response, both positive and negative, is all part of the game, Klein says. So long as people are talking, Brandiose is doing its job.
"People always ask us, 'Isn't the worst thing when people hate what you do?' We say, 'No, the worst is if someone is apathetic about what we do,' " Klein said. "If you are a one-day story, that is bad news for us. Minor league teams don't have major league budgets. We can't spend the kind of money to get the advertising you get when you throw money at TV ads or huge campaigns.
"So at the minor league level, you have to figure out how to get the most attention with the least amount of money. If that thing is going to be a weeklong story or a monthlong story or season- or yearlong, that is what we are looking for."
And, apparently, so are teams. Brandiose designed six of the seven new logos released this offseason and is responsible for 14 of the 38 new primary logos teams have unveiled since 2011.
The San Diego-based company's portfolio doubles as a catalog of irreverent team names and top merchandise-selling franchises, including the Lehigh Valley IronPigs (International), Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (International), Omaha Storm Chasers (Pacific Coast), Reading Fightin’ Phils (Eastern), Richmond Flying Squirrels (Eastern) and Pensacola Blue Wahoos (Southern).
"I love the new names," a minor league general manager wrote in an email. "I believe some will work better than others, but I think the spirit of what the teams are doing is spot-on with what minor league baseball is known for: fun, goofy, family-friendly entertainment."
Simon, 51, sees no reason for a team identity to fuel animosity from a fanbase. Instead, he believes there are ways to pair creativity with what he describes as a responsibility to the profession of baseball.
"We're not trying to go down the middle," Simon, 51, said of his company's philosophy. "We're trying to create something that people love. We specifically go out there to create something people love, but also not something that people are going to rail against."
Simon accomplished that with his design for the Hillsboro Hops, the creative name for the Northwest League franchise that debuted in 2013 and whose primary logo features a hop plant donning a ballcap with the letter H. Simon took similar approaches in recent years in his other work, which included an update for the Rochester Red Wings (International), and new identities for the Aberdeen IronBirds (New York-Penn), Bradenton Marauders (Florida State), Charlotte Stone Crabs (Florida State), Erie SeaWolves (Eastern), Jackson Generals (Southern), Toledo Mud Hens (International) and Visalia Rawhide (California).
"There is a line that can be crossed in going too far," another minor league executive wrote in an email that seconded Simon’s philosophy. "That line is in a different spot for all of us. I think some have definitely crossed it for the sake of merchandise sales. Greed has overtaken respect for the game and industry in these cases . . .
"Going too far trivializes the professional game. Does it sound and look professional? Would a professional athlete be proud to say they represent the (team)? In some cases, I think not. Some names sound like they should be for teams in a comic book or Disney movie."
How Did We Get Here?
Irreverent and unusual team names are not new to minor league baseball. In many ways, their recent resurgence is a tribute to early 20th-century minor league baseball, when the sport was dotted with such regional gems as the Bonham Boogers, Grand Rapids Furniture Makers, Shenandoah Hungarian Rioters and Wheeling Stogies.
Even during minor league baseball's modern revival, which began with the release of the movie “Bull Durham” and the first wave of new ballparks in the late 1980s, a handful of offbeat names stood out from the pack of teams named after animals or their big league affiliates. The Toledo Mud Hens, whose name dates back to the late 1800s, have become accepted since the team's International League debut in 1965. The same can be said of the Lake Elsinore Storm (1994) and Montgomery Biscuits (2004), whose logos are more outrageous than their names, as well as the Lansing Lugnuts (1996) and Everett AquaSox (1984), whose logos are still among the sport's best sellers.
Teams' interest in logos and merchandise changed when Minor League Baseball formed a national licensing program in 1991 under former president Mike Moore. What had primarily been an afterthought sold at ballpark concession stands grew into a revenue-generator for the industry when team-branded products started selling at national retailers and later on the internet. The national licensing program, which consists of the 160 clubs in domestic-based leagues, generated an estimated $54 million in sales in 2012—the third-largest yearly total since the program's inception.
"We were able to do the licensing program and the marketing program," Moore told Baseball America before retiring in December 2007. "We were able to work with the leagues and get them to learn that the value in the industry is in everyone working together."
Offbeat names have been on the uptick since the 2008 debut of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, which Klein describes as a turning point in Brandiose's philosophy. Brandiose paired the unusual name—submitted as part of a name-the-team contest before the franchise moved from Ottawa to Allentown, Pa.—with a grimacing, steel pig intended to pay tribute to the region's connection to the iron and steel industry. The IronPigs have since become one of the minors' flagship franchises, tying creative promotions and catchphrases to their nickname—like "Laugh. Cheer. Oink."—while leading the sport in attendance three of the past four years at trendsetting Coca-Cola Park.
"In the instance of IronPigs, we felt that the name gave us a lot of legs, a way that we can play on the pig theme and the steel industry theme," former Lehigh Valley president Chuck Domino said. "It gives us two themes to play on and opens up a lot of possibilities for marketing and merchandise opportunities."
And it became a template of sorts for Brandiose to use with other clients. The Reno Aces debuted in 2009 with a variety of playing-card inspired logos. Domino partnered again with Brandiose in 2010 for the Richmond Flying Squirrels, whose superhero rodent logo has been the centerpiece of the team's marketing and promotional efforts that has helped it finish near the top of the Eastern League in attendance the past four seasons despite playing in a crumbling ballpark. Opening Day 2011 introduced the Omaha Storm Chasers and their lightning-bolt logos at a new ballpark. One year later the Pensacola Blue Wahoos arrived at a new waterfront ballpark with a colorful fish-themed logo.
And in 2013, Brandiose helped Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Reading drop their traditional names (Yankees and Phillies) in favor of something a tad more unusual (RailRiders and Fightin Phils). With their names came equally offbeat logos: Scranton's features a grimacing porcupine riding atop the name RailRiders in the shape of a locomotive; Reading's depicts a fighting ostrich as a tribute to the team's popular Crazy Hot Dog Vendor mascot, who comes on to the field every game in an ostrich costume and flings hot dogs into the stands.
And that leads to next season, when six new Brandiose creations will hit the market. In addition to the Chihuahuas and RubberDucks, Brandiose designed new logos for the Arkansas Travelers (Texas), Charlotte Knights (International), Inland Empire 66ers (California) and Vermont Lake Monsters (New York-Penn).
Domino recognizes that offbeat names don't work as well for teams that share a market with a major league team. "The tendency (there) is not to go too far and fuel the inferiority that some of us feel already,” he said. “So they try and go a little more conservative."
But he does believe the recent trend is only the beginning.
"More and more teams are seeing that these crazy names and logos are doing pretty well merchandise-wise, and it's attractive," said Domino, who also advised Akron and Reading during their name changes. "I don't know what the expiration date is on names, but maybe it's 20 or 30 years. And even if you're not changing your name, you will probably tweak your logo or colors. So I think it is something that is going to be an ongoing thing."
Klein challenges the notion that names like RubberDucks or Chihuahuas don't relate to baseball. To the contrary, he thinks they match the business model for minor league teams.
"It's cliché, but (minor league baseball) is family-fun entertainment. It's about families," he said. "Kids love Flying Squirrels and IronPigs and RubberDucks and love seeing those mascots coming out and getting to interact with them everyday at the ballpark. And all those names and mascots celebrate fun, and kids love that."
Simon agreed that more and more teams are choosing an over-the-top appearance. He admitted that his business has decreased in recent years as Brandiose acquires more clients, but he is not willing to redesign what he believes is best for baseball.
"It seems like the industry is moving in that direction,” he said. “If people want things that are over the top, I'm not sure we are the right choice for them. We are going to give them something appropriate for what the product is, not something that disregards a large part of their fans or disregards the core principals of brand identity development . . .
"We don’t rely on gimmicks to make an impression. We’re not just looking to make a quick initial splash, we are looking to build a brand identity that leaves a positive lasting impression."