In five American cities, anonymous rugby teams are taking part in a unique sports experiment this year. It’s not just that the Professional Rugby Organization (PRO Rugby, for short) is a league of professional rugby union teams—something rare enough in the United States. It’s that the five teams are playing their first season without team logos or nicknames. For now, they’re identified only by their location and team colors.
The names will be chosen by an extended process through which fans will submit suggestions for names during this inaugural season, then vote on finalists selected by the league.
“That was always our plan, to give ownership to our initial fans,” said Douglas Schoninger, the league’s CEO. “It’s really the only way you can do it, right? The other way seems forced…. I think people are really taking the opportunity to grab the ownership we’re trying to give them.”
That “other way” Schoninger references would be to do what most teams in most sports do, decide on team names before those teams begin playing games. But Schoninger wants that decision to rest with the fans, not just because it builds a sense of ownership with fans, but because the league has enough on its plate just trying to get the league off the ground.
“I get a lot of criticism,” Schoninger said. “If I walk on the wrong side of the street, they’re like, ugh, I can’t believe he’s walking on the north side of the street. He obviously hates the south side of the street. So can you imagine…? If I had to drop a name in and a logo in, I can’t even imagine.”
In the meantime, teams are wearing jerseys that feature their location and team-specific colors on jerseys designed by the firm Addis of Berkeley, California.
“The branding company that did our league branding did a little study on what’s authentic to each of the five venues,” Schoninger said.
“We wanted to stay away as much as possible—in some cases we couldn’t—from existing teams,” Schoninger continued. “Obviously in San Diego we’re quite close to the Chargers, but not exactly on them.”
While the teams do not have nicknames or logos yet, there are a few things we know will be true when we finally do see those identities. For one, PRO Rugby strives to be a major American sports league, and when it comes to their identity, they’re going to dress for the job they want, not the one they have.
Right now, the league’s teams are playing in front of crowds of around 2,000 or 3,000 people—more consistent with minor league baseball than the NFL. But that’s not the point.
“We’re going to be a major rugby country,” Schoninger said. “We have all the assets in place. Everyone believes it. So we have to design ourselves with that in mind. We can’t really design ourselves for where we think we are now.”
“We’re a serious sport,” he continued. “We’re the professional version of this sport in this country, and we need to look it.”
Of course, when it comes to a fan-generated name-the-team contest, you never know what you’re going to get, but Schoninger has been pleasantly surprised with what they’ve seen so far. “I thought it would be a lot of jokes,” he said, “kind of like Boaty McBoatface and all that stuff, but there’s been very little of that.”
While the current jersey designs will only be in effect for one year, the colors are here to stay. When the logos are unveiled, the colors that fans have come to know this year will still be in place in 2017.
“We’re going to stick with those colors,” Schoninger said. “The logo mandate would be to design a logo around those colors, utilizing those colors.”
Right now, the league’s look is simplistic, and that’s by design.
“When we came up with the jerseys, they were very plain. That was on purpose,” Schoninger said. “Number one, we wanted it to be like a blank slate.”
In the absence of logos and nicknames this year, the jerseys are the league’s opportunity to establish itself as the new kid on the block.
“When we came up with the jerseys, we were going to have a traditional rugby jersey manufacturer do it,” Schoninger said. “We looked at the big Nike, Under Armour guys, but that was not right for us, or them.”
The final product from Addis, which has done quite a bit of work in the world of cycling, but less so in rugby, caught the traditionalists off guard.
“A lot of people said it doesn’t look like a rugby jersey,” Schoninger said. “Yeah, okay. Right. That’s true, but we’re not trying to look like a rugby jersey.”
Perhaps most important in developing identities for PRO Rugby’s teams is that fact that the league is not trying to ride the coattails of the major US sports leagues or international rugby leagues, but rather to establish itself as a unique brand.
“We’re trying to be a new version, an American version, of rugby,” Schoninger said. “There are rules and there are laws of the game that are sacred, but the presentation can be different.”
Of course, this didn’t stop rugby fans from sending almost comical suggestions rooted in traditions that have nothing to do with the era and location of this new league.
“They were sending me images of lions and crowns and all this stuff,” Schoninger laughed. “I’m like, we’re trying to be authentic to America in 2016.”
It will be at least a few more days before we see the suggested names that rugby fans in five cities came up with. The open submission process is closed, and the league’s website indicates that we should “stay tuned for more naming information.” Once we see those names, and more importantly, when we see the logos that derive from those names, the new PRO Rugby league will have an entirely different feel. Whether it’s one that catches the public imagination remains to be seen, but however this league turns out, this unique experiment in team branding is one to remember.