During the American Revolutionary War, Brigadier General Anthony Wayne was noted for his intense, explosive personality. He would later become the army’s General in Chief, a US statesman, and a member of the US House of Representatives, but it was his early military career that earned him the nickname Mad Anthony.
One of the credits on his résumé, besides having a fiery temper, is the 1794 construction of a fort named in his honor, Fort Wayne, in what would become the state of Indiana.
In 2007, when the NBA’s Development League established a team in that very same Fort Wayne, team president Jeff Potter was on the lookout for a unique name. They were batting around some ideas (some of them more memorable than others), but Potter wanted something that would be noticed, and he took note of what was happening in other sports’ minor leagues.
“We had names like Thunder, Fire, oh gosh, I can’t even remember another one,” he said. “We were sort of intrigued by what the Toledo Mudhens had done. Kind of a fun name like that. They’re not the only one, but that was one that stood out.”
Always on duty, the idea came to him during a social occasion. “I was at a party once and everyone was talking about Mad Anthony Wayne, who our town is named after,” said Potter, who was named the D-League’s executive of the year in 2014.
The city had a charity called Mad Anthony’s Children’s Foundation and a local establishment called Mad Anthony’s Brewing Company. But Potter had a new take on the nickname. “It just kind of popped into my head,” Potter said. “Why aren’t we called the Mad Ants?”
Potter circulated the idea and people loved it. “I don’t think they frankly thought too much of it at the time,” he said.
Well, okay, the right people loved it. “I forwarded that on to some of our investors, and it kind of stuck.”
The team had a name-the-team contest, and this one, like nearly every name-the-team contest, was basically rigged. “We were going to go Mad Ants regardless,” Potter said. “I would have put my thumb on the scales if need be, but it was the one that won out.”
Once the name was decided on, the next challenge was coming up with a logo. “The frightening part was what does a mad ant look like?” Potter asked.
He met with graphic artist Jeff Dollens, who sketched ideas for the four names the team was considering (possibly but not definitely Fire, Thunder, something else not memorable, and Mad Ants), and he hit on the look the team was looking for right away.
“I didn’t want a cartoony logo, which I saw in a lot of minor league franchises,” Potter said. “It was just sharp, and it worked out well for us.”
While a lot of minor league franchises in other sports were adopting fun, unique nicknames, this was not the sort of thing you saw a lot in the D-League. The league featured teams with names like Skyforce, Flash, Energy, Jam, D-Fenders, and Valley Vipers, among others.
“There hasn’t been a lot of that in minor league basketball,” Potter said. “I don’t know the reason behind that. I think our league, in some ways, tries to position itself as, I don’t know, a little bit more serious.”
The unique and more fun nickname has helped the team in terms of visibility, according to Potter. “The great thing about it is that when someone has something to say about the D-League, they invariably use the Fort Wayne Mad Ants,” he said, “probably because of our name, and the success we’ve had with the logo and the mascot.”
The red and yellow color scheme, unique to the league at the time of the team’s debut, derives from the insect itself. “We looked at a lot of different ants, and it just kind of fit—you know the reddish, fire ant type thing,” Potter said.
While I recognize that the nickname derives from General Anthony Wayne, with the mention of fire ants, I was compelled to ask whether there are any in the state of Indiana. Potter said, “Oh God, I don’t know. I should look that up.”
I thought I’d do the team a courtesy and do that for them.
According to this map from the USDA, Indiana is safe from fire ants for now— but that’s not the case when it comes to Nightmare Ants.
From the Even Bad Publicity is Good Publicity file, Potter said: “I remember Deadspin had some fun with it and called it Nightmare Ant and different things, which was great.”
Starting a team from scratch is not an easy thing, and Potter acknowledges that some aspects of the process went better than others in their early days. But the decision to push the envelope when it came to naming a D-League team was a good one. “It ended up being one of the better things we did as we got this thing up and running,” Potter said.
There’s still a different feel in minor league basketball than in other minor leagues, but the Mad Ants’ influence is starting to be felt in the D-League. The Maine Red Claws debuted in 2009 with a fun look of their own, and the reception was good. When we look back at a new era of unique D-League logos and nicknames, we may point to the Mad Ants as the ones who paved the way.