Branding is hard
In the lead up to the unveiling of the XFL identities, a friend asked me if I was excited. I told him I felt anxious. A bad brand can hurt the cause much more than a great brand can help it, so the XFL has about to cross through a necessary threshold that contained more risks that rewards.
Branding is an incredibly difficult and unforgiving exercise. Quality is highly subjective and the public is extremely opinionated. Most brand rollouts result in some level of public backlash. The challenges are multiplied when you’re doing eight teams at once, and you have to consider a brand not just on its own merits but where it might fit in with a range of other potential brands that make up the league. It’s one of the reasons I once advocated for splitting the work between local designers.
And that’s just on the design front. A sports designer recently told me, “the league officials aren’t picking the names; the lawyers are.” Trademark law is a messy, complicated business — we know it prevented AAF San Antonio from using “Defenders.” As an example of the hurdles the XFL faced, look no further than Seattle, where the future NHL team had already trademarked 13 possibilities (including Seattle Kraken, my preference for the XFL team) in an effort to keep their options open. It’s easy to come up with names that we prefer, but it’s hard to evaluate what was even available to the XFL.
This was a lackluster effort
Still, with all these caveats, with all my measured expectations, it was hard not to feel disappointment.
Reaction on social media was predictably savage, but all my in person conversations have been, at best, lukewarm. The names range from hollow (what’s the difference between a Defender and a Guardian?) to low rent (BattleHawks); the logos from underdeveloped (Vipers) to overbuilt (Roughnecks).=. As the XFL measures itself against the AAF’s progress from a year ago, I think this is the first time where the XFL has not clearly been a class above.
I have a lot of one-off complaints, but no single decision was more violently frustrating than to give Houston the name Roughnecks (a colloquialism for an oil rig worker) and the logo of an oil derrick, but then give the primary color of the old Houston Oilers to the Dallas Renegades. (Meanwhile, the Renegades are playing in the old home of the Texas Rangers, whose colors of red, white, and blue are now being worn by the Houston Roughnecks.) It’s such a bizarre decision that I can’t help but wonder if someone mistyped or misread an email at one point and no one made the correction.
It’s even more bewildering when you remember that a) the XFL once teased an Oilers look, b) Oliver Luck snuck Columbia blue into the Houston Dynamo’s logo when he was that team’s president, and c) Oliver Luck told University of Houston communications students that he was partial to Columbia blue for XFL Houston’s colors. This was not an unreasonable expectation.
The only thing I can come up with is that it was nixed by the legal department, as the XFL is perhaps already on thin ice with such obvious references to the old NFL team. But that still wouldn’t explain why you would give the color to the other team in the state.
A lackluster effort might be OK
I certainly was hoping for more, but it’s important to keep in mind the XFL’s top priority with the branding: don’t embarrass ourselves. I see some parallels between naming a team and naming a child. It’s much more important to avoid something stupid than it is to come up with something brilliant.
This is especially true for the XFL, which carries the weight of the original XFL’s infamous missteps. The current XFL’s leadership believes (rightly, in my opinion), that the original’s failure was one of media relations, and there’s no doubt that the league’s branding played a key role in that death spiral. Names like Xtreme, Maniax, and Hitmen were easy targets for pundits who were eager to see the league crash and burn. As today’s XFL attempts to get on its feet, it again faces plenty of people openly rooting for failure, now armed with social media accounts.
So playing it safe makes sense. These brands’ greatest crime is being boring, but that ensures that none (save perhaps BattleHawks) are even interesting enough to be used as a weapon against the league.
There are some legitimate bright spots
I know this all sounds pretty negative, but there were some things I really liked:
- I’m relieved the league went with the colors of the city flag rather than the USA flag for the D.C. team. Red and white with black as an accent will mesh nicely with the backdrop of Audi Field.
- Wildcats is a classic sports name. It’s not sexy, but it will age well.
- I like the concept of using a gargoyle theme for New York and an oil theme for Houston. Execution may not have been perfect, but logos and even colors can always be tweaked or replaced over time.
- The green/yellow color scheme can work for Tampa, evoking the old USF Bulls logo and the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
- The BattleHawk wings should look fantastic on a football helmet.
- I appreciate that the league didn’t overthink the colors or name for Seattle (Fury, Force, Surge, and Wild were also trademark). It’s probably the most well-rounded brand of the eight.
I was also impressed with the roll out itself, which included an online simulcast between XFL.com, ESPN.com, and FoxSports.com. Coverage from national media was robust and even-handed. I was especially glad to see the warm public welcome the league lined up from some of the other major sports teams in town. (For example, the D.C. team received welcome tweets from the Capitals, Wizards, D.C. United, and University of Maryland.) This kind of stuff will go a long way in a crowded sports city. The media relations team is doing an outstanding job.
The uniforms are going to add a lot
Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that we still haven’t seen the most important piece of the puzzle: the uniforms. The undisputed best brand of the original XFL was the Las Vegas Outlaws, and while it’s a strong name with a fine logo, it’s the uniform that pulled it all together. Hopefully the 2020 uniforms can similarly make these brands more than the sum of their parts.
Until next time!