Headbanger: The Story Behind the Fayetteville Woodpeckers

The U.S. Army’s Fort Bragg comprises more than 250 square miles in central North Carolina and is one of the largest military installations in the world. The fifth largest city in the state of North Carolina, Fayetteville, sits adjacent to the fort and reflects a culture that is heavily influenced by the nearby military presence. So in 2019, when the city inherited a Class-A Advanced minor league baseball team, it was important that its brand be tough and fierce.

“We wanted to be pro-military but not in-your-face military,” said David Lane, the team’s general manager.

The answer: a small to mid-sized species of woodpecker that lives in pine trees and eats primarily bugs and fruit.

The nickname Woodpeckers was not necessarily fans’ first choice. A name-the-team contest with 1,300 entries turned up several submissions that were turned away because they were already trademarked—the Iron Mikes by Mike Tyson, Bambinos by the Babe Ruth Foundation, and Highlanders (the name of a team that played in Fayetteville off an on from 1909 to 1956) by the New York Yankees. The end result of the contest was a final five of Fatbacks, Fly Traps, Jumpers, Wood Dogs, and Woodpeckers.

“At first there was some community displeasure with the top five names,” Lane said, “but we kept telling everybody, just be patient, we promise you’ll love the logo even if you don’t like the name.”

The nickname Woodpeckers ultimately won the contest in large part because a specific endangered species of the bird has a significance to the area.

“The woodpecker has a story in Fayetteville; Fort Bragg has the world’s second largest population of the endangered species red-cockaded woodpecker,” Lane said. “In fact, many of the soldiers around here, the retirees, have told us that bird shut down the base a couple times because they would be training and they would come upon red-cockaded woodpeckers and they would have to stop because it was an endangered species.”

One of the benefactors of the new team name is the bird itself. The name has drawn attention to the plight of red-cockaded woodpeckers, which have been struggling for survival since before the Endangered Species Act of 1973 was a thing.

Military officials at Fort Bragg have been working with environmental groups to protect the endangered bird since the 1990s, but the current population of about 12,500 birds is only about one percent of the red-cockaded woodpecker’s heyday, and its geographic range has been severely curtailed by loss of its longleaf pine habitat.

The logo, which was created by the team’s parent club and owner, the Houston Astros, reflects that fighting spirit. Accordingly, the team went with a serious bird rather than a kid-friendly cartoon that might be more in keeping with contemporary minor league baseball trends.

“We designed the logo to be as fierce as possible,” Lane said. “We wanted it to look like a resilient bird that’s constantly fighting extinction, with the tough colors, the black and the red that go with our tough all-American fans here at Fort Bragg. That was the reason we went the way we did.”

The team name and logos are appropriate the area, per Lane, because the attributes of the bird are similar to those of the town itself: “Fayetteville is small but tough,” Lane said.

The avian nature of the nickname has an additional ancillary benefit to the team’s marketing department: “We had data that suggested that bird names perform very well in baseball, especially in retail,” Lane said. (This may explain why three of the five teams in the Carolina League’s Southern Division are the Down East Wood Ducks, Myrtle Beach Pelicans, and Fayetteville Woodpeckers.)

The 2019 season was the team’s first as the Fayetteville WoodPeckers. The franchise was conjured into existence in 2017 as the Buies Creek Astros to replace the defunct Bakersfield Blaze, who were contracted by the California League after the 2016 season. The team played two seasons in Buies Creek while they built a stadium in Fayetteville. (The stadium has black outfield walls and red drink rails to reflect the team’s color palette.)

Photo by jalexartis Photography

It will probably be 2021 before we see the Woodpeckers’ second season because affiliated Minor League Baseball is likely to be cancelled in 2020. Thankfully for fans, the team itself is not endangered longterm—it’s not been seen on any of the lists of teams at risk of de-affiliation by Major League Baseball, and it’s likely safe because it’s owned by the Astros.

When the Woodpeckers do take the field again, the world will be a different place. The structure of Minor League Baseball itself will likely see huge changes before 2021, the name of Fort Bragg (one of 10 U.S. Army installations named for Confederate generals) has been the subject of debate in recent weeks, and who knows what professional sports in general might look like when fans are present in stadiums again?

Whether the post-COVID-19 world is a Mad Max hellscape or a return to relative normalcy, the Woodpeckers will be toughest bird on the block when baseball is back.