In their successful push last year to woo the Pawtucket Red Sox from Rhode Island, boosters in Worcester worked to secure a $32.5 million commitment from the state, vowed construction of a $90 million downtown stadium, and flooded team officials with 10,000 individually signed postcards extolling the virtues of Massachusetts’ second-largest city.
Now comes the hard part: the perilous, high-stakes question of what nickname to give the team.
With the Red Sox’ Triple-A affiliate set to arrive in Worcester in 2021, the venerable and universally recognized PawSox nickname will be retired, along with all the branding and merchandise sales that go with it.
And in baseball’s minor leagues — a world more Barnum & Bailey than Moneyball, where teams rely on everything from funeral giveaways to free vasectomies to drum up fan interest and revenue — there might be no more vital decision than how to brand the home team.
The team will be officially called the Worcester Red Sox, but it launched a campaign for nickname ideas beyond the not-entirely-original WooSox moniker that some have unofficially adopted, and all involved seem to sense what other minor league operations already know.
“In the minor leagues,” says Ralph Nelson, CEO of Alabama’s Rocket City Trash Pandas, “the team name is probably the most important thing you do.”
Look no further than the recent spate of eyebrow-elevating team names, the result of an arms race for the most original idea possible.
The movement has begotten such names as the Amarillo (Texas) Sod Poodles, the Montgomery (Ala.) Biscuits. and the Binghamton (N.Y.) Rumble Ponies. The PawSox’ league alone features the Lehigh Valley (Pa.) IronPigs, the Gwinnett (Ga.) Stripers, and the Louisville (Ky.) Bats.
Team names are typically steeped loosely in local terrain or lore — but beyond that there are few rules.
“The worst mistake you could make is to play it safe,” says Jason Klein, a partner at Brandiose, a San Diego-based branding firm that has helped select names for more than 50 minor league teams. “Safe is risky. A good name, you should feel a little uneasy about.”
The good news for Worcester’s team, as it embarks upon what is sure to be a lengthy and involved process? There is no shortage of possibilities.
Since inviting fans to submit possible nicknames in November, the team has been flooded with close to 1,000 responses, with countless more being lobbed via social media.
Among the suggestions are those ranging from the traditional (Bears, Sluggers, Rockets) to the curious (Meatballs) to the so-strange-as-to-defy-explanation (Tongue Slingers, Mitten Kittens). Some have had a decidedly local flair (Chowdaheads, Triple Deckers), while others have sought to maintain a strong Red Sox connection (War Sox, Worm Sox, Ankle Sox, Tube Sox, Blood Sox, Smiley Sox).
Some, it’s safe to assume, will never adorn caps and jerseys. “Moving The Team To Worcester Is A Mistake Sox,” offered one Twitter user. “The Traitors,” suggested another.
But as the team prepares for its eventual move north, team officials are keeping an open mind.
“We’re still kind of wrapping our heads around all the suggestions,” says Bart Harvey, special assistant to the team’s chairman, Larry Lucchino. “We have 27 months until opening day in Worcester, so we’re in no rush.”
In the meantime, those in Worcester are making their cases.
From the moment Lucchino referred to the PawSox as a “to-be-named baseball team” during a press conference announcing the move, debate in Worcester has raged over how the team should henceforth be identified.
In the absence of a permanent moniker, many have taken to calling the team the WooSox.
Already, unofficial WooSox merchandise is being hawked, while The Beer Garden restaurant in Worcester has added The Woo Sox — an Italian sausage with peppers on a roll — to its menu.
To Mike Lawton, a blogger and cable station worker from Millbury, it’s a natural choice: It combines two great entities — Worcester and the Red Sox — into a simple, phonetically pleasing package.
“The trend in minor league baseball these days seems to be . . . combining verbs and adjectives together from a hat,” says Lawton, who also has a personal stake in the decision, having secured the @WooSox Twitter handle in July. “My biggest fear is they’re going to be called the Worcester Flying Crickets or something.”
Plenty of others, though, think the team can do better, chiding WooSox as unflattering and unimaginative.
The debate has grown hot-button enough that local politicians are keeping a healthy distance.
“When I’m out and about, [people] will say, ‘What do you think about the WooSox?’ ” says Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty. “I try to be diplomatic.”
For its part, the team seems to understand the gravity of its impending decision.
In addition to enlisting the assistance of Worcester residents, the team has hired Brandiose to help with the rebranding — a good move, perhaps, as name and logo unveilings aren’t always immediately well received.
Though now considered a beloved local brand, the New Britain Rock Cats’ 2015 rebranding as the Hartford Yard Goats sparked an initial backlash so strong that some locals vowed never to attend a game.
“We were the most hated people in Connecticut,” says team president Tim Restall. “We got calls from politicians, fans, people that were upset that we were not paying respect to goats.”
Nelson, too, admits to more than a little unease when the name Trash Pandas was first pitched as a possibility — in truth, he says, he attempted to have the name vetoed.
Today, however, following a warm reception that has included a shout-out on “The Late Late Show’’ with James Corden and a windfall in merchandise sales, he stands humbly corrected.
“We now have what I think most people will agree is the top brand in minor league baseball,” Nelson says.
At least, he adds, until the next one comes along.