By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 20, 2019) US Soccer Players - On Thursday morning Louisville City did something striking. The USL Championship side released a statement acknowledging that the recent redesign of their crest had gone down like a lead balloon among their fans and the general public.
"To be blunt, our recent brand rollout has failed you," wrote club president Brad Estes. "We had the best intentions, but we lost sight of our responsibility to engage you in the process. We make no excuses; we simply commit to making it right. We have stopped production on merchandise with the new crest and have opened dialogue with supporter group leadership about how to improve our club's branding and crest. This will be an inclusive process, and we will update you as more information is available."
Few are so humble as to admit when they fall short. In fairness, Lou City is just one of many clubs attempting to walk the tightrope between familiarity and freshness, tradition, and innovation.
"I haven't seen any statistics on it, but anecdotally it does seem like there's an uptick in rebrands," longtime soccer executive Peter Wilt, currently with the USL, told USSoccerPlayers.com this week. "And perhaps it's just in the arc of the sport in our country where professional outdoor soccer teams have now been around for 20-plus years, or at least 10-plus years in a lot of cases. And they feel for a variety of reasons that it's time for a rebrand."
Over the past few years, a strange sort of stripping-down process has unfolded across a range of American soccer markets. The Carolina Railhawks became North Carolina FC. Tulsa Roughnecks FC cast aside a nickname dating back to the old NASL's heyday in favor of FC Tulsa. The Chicago Fire, owners of a proud 20-year tradition and one of the last MLS crests still remaining from the 1990s, ditched their logo and colors almost completely this winter. Then they replaced "SC" with "FC".
Brand-new clubs are getting in on the trend too. Austin, a quirky city that once played home to lower-division teams like the Soccerdillos, Lone Stars, and Aztex, will enter MLS in 2021 as simply Austin FC. They're one of 11 and counting teams in the league with "FC" as part of their official identity. Even as we await word of the name chosen by the new MLS Charlotte franchise, the organization's patent filings have already confirmed that FC is at the end of all their potential selections.
In many other cases, new crests replaced or "refreshed" established visual identities. That's due to new chapters in the clubs' history, new ownership wishing to stamp their mark on their new possession, or reasons unclear. In general, minimalism has surged. Some visual identities end up looking more like empty vessels. Even MLS itself has gone in this direction with its logo.
"How they attach themselves to the visuals. How they attach themselves to the merchandise. How their personal intersects. Everyone has their own velcro onto the brand," said Nathen McVittie, a designer and consultant with extensive experience in US and English professional soccer. "Everyone nitpicks their own little piece of it, and they have their own interpretation of it. The inherent [idea that] one team or one person is creating this logo that potentially millions of people will associate with is probably a flawed construct in itself. But it's the only one we really have at the moment."
Many pro clubs today aspire to be both touchstones of civic or regional pride and purveyors of the world's most popular game. That duality drives them towards what Wilt calls "global soccer identifiers" that seem to poll well in focus groups and the like, even if it can end up looking like a hasty shortcut to legitimacy.
"In my experience the "Football Club moniker," the desire for "Football Club," often comes from the executive level more often than it comes from the creative level," said McVittie. "And I think that trends because often the people that are in a position to be able to own and direct teams, whether that's ownership or just executive-level management, it's often people who skew a bit older."
Creative firm Doubleday & Cartwright drew rave reviews with their creation of Inter Miami's pink, heron-adorned crest. They've also done projects for the New York Red Bulls and the soccer departments at Nike and Puma. So they would appear to have been an ideal choice to redesign the Fire's brand. However, most of what's left of the team's long-suffering fanbase responded to the "Chicago crown" crest concept with even more ferocity than Louisville's, likely fueled by lingering frustrations over many years of losing seasons and organizational missteps.
"There's a difference between building an identity and building a brand. An identity is much larger than just a specific brand," said McVittie.
Over the past five years MLS added two Cities, one Sporting, tripled its number of Uniteds, and have an Inter on the way. No teams with a traditional North American nickname have joined up since the Montreal Impact in 2012, and the shift might be even more pronounced among the lower divisions.
"The assumption, I think, is that those making the decision are trying to connect more with younger adults who are familiar with naming conventions, especially in Europe but overall in the rest of the world, rather than a traditional American naming convention," Wilt said, adding that FC Tulsa's market research had shown that "roughneck" had little to resonance among their target demographic even as a term for oil workers, much less their local soccer club.
It seems that what older generations consider cherished and hard-won American soccer traditions are simply not as compelling to millennials and their successors.
"Rebrands often allow you to 'reframe your preposition' and allow you to attract new people or re-engage older fans in a monetarily rewarding way," noted McVittie, who in the past worked for the New York Cosmos. "Really, America has still, after 25 years of MLS and 140 years of soccer history, somewhat of a lack of real legacy brands. We're probably butting up onto an age where we will start to define those, but I'm not sure we have them yet."
Have we over-conceptualized our soccer identities into oblivion? Not everyone believes so. I also spoke with a veteran graphic designer who's worked on myriad projects in soccer and other US sports, who elected to remain anonymous so as not to show disrespect in commenting on colleagues' creations.
"I don't see a problem at all with the thought of vague identities or names. The need for a very strict naming convention is very American, and very much an American sports thing," he wrote. "The concept of a location + FC/SC is common throughout the rest of the footballing world, and it's because those teams started out being something for their local fans to cheer for. I think for most of these teams, that's the best place to start and sometimes trying to veer too far away from that can set teams down a path of brand confusion and muddying who their core demographic is."
Knowing who your customers are and what they like remains crucial, if sometimes still overlooked. Wilt has drawn praise for the savvy branding and fan-friendly approaches at clubs he's launched or operated. That includes the Fire in their early years, Indy Eleven, and most recently Forward Madison FC. That USL club has drawn legions of fans with their flamingo mascot, sharp colors and merchandise, and maverick mentality.
Wilt says he himself prefers "SC" to "FC." But in Madison, "we put it out there for voting and it came back two-to-one in a public vote in favor of FC over SC. And I'm more in favor of letting the fans choose the direction to go than I am in favor of choosing my own direction," he revealed with a chuckle.
"I think that teams with the most passionate fanbases operate that way," he added. "They operate with the management building support on a broad case with feedback from the grassroots. And not just one-way feedback coming from the fans but also an information flow coming from the team going to the fans. It's a dialogue, whether in person or online. That dialogue is critical to maintaining the support of the fanbase."
Charting a balanced path forward can be tricky. Especially with social media providing a megaphone for instant reactions and criticism that can grow with devastating speed.
"It's made it a lot harder, without a doubt. Without a doubt," said McVittie. "In industries in which there is such fandom, entertainment industries, particularly, the reactions are always going to be more vitriolic or opinionated than in other companies. No one really gets as annoyed at a software company rebranding."
More from Charles Boehm:
- "Soccer in the City" aims to tell a new story of the American game
- Is American big money finally warming up to soccer?
- What I’m grateful for in soccer this Thanksgiving
- Lessons from November as USMNT re-learn the CONCACAF ropes
Log courtesy of Louisville FC