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Let Duke Ellington Name Washington’s Football Team, Not Jason Wright

A simple choice between greatness and mediocrity

Duke Ellington and Orchestra in Reveille with Beverly

I would like to start this piece by thanking all of the Hogs Haven readers and writers who have contributed entries and discussion points in the Naming the Brand Challenge. The response to date has far exceeded any expectations I might have had when I posted it. I am now busily working through the submissions to compile a long list of Grand Prize entries, which I hope to pare down to a shortlist of finalists by the time the new name is announced on Groundhog Day. It won’t be easy, because there are many prize-worthy entries already, and it’s still open for submissions.

One thing I didn’t expect is that the contest submissions and comments would teach me so much that I didn’t know about the history and culture of my birthplace. For example, ShahShahS21T’s long-listed entry “The DC Mumbo Sauce Slathered Half Smokes” gave me reason to read up on that local DC delicacy. A trip to Ben’s Chili Bowl is now on my to-do list for the next time I’m back that way, whenever the hell that is.

One of the most notable submissions was a single post by WDCNMN, which contributed five or six entries to my long list. Situated amongst other gems, such as The Gayes (for DC native Marvin Gaye, of course), The Marchers, The Scandals and The Gridlocks, there was a reminder of something I did know, but had forgotten about. Duke Ellington was a DC Native.

If the team is interested in coming up with an original, new name that has some meaningful connection to the DC area, I think they could do a lot worse than exploring the works of one of the greatest artists of 20th century for inspiration. But that would require a complete rethink of the direction they appear to be headed.

Cleveland Indians Officially Become Cleveland Guardians Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Aiming for Mediocrity

In my What’s in a Name? article, I offered my thoughts on what makes a good sports franchise name. In summary, I argued that the best team names and associated brands have something unique, unusual or original about them.

I contrasted this viewpoint with the approach that the Football Team appears to be taking, if we believe everything we have heard from them to date, including the leaked (partial?) list of alleged finalist naming options. To this point, we have heard and inferred a number of things the Team aims to achieve in a single name. The new brand will appeal to a broad fan base. It will honor the team’s legacy. And from the leaked list and previous statements, it appears there may be an intention to exploit honor the military.

If all of that is true, I think it’s setting us up for failure. Each one of those stated aims places constraints, which limit the creativity of the marketing team, if they had any to begin with. Rather than simply trying to find a great name, they seem to be seeking a least common denominator, which ticks all the boxes and is least objectionable to the most people. If that’s the approach they are taking, we can expect to end up with something bland and generic, like Admirals or Commanders, or maybe a forced construct like Red Hogs.

I cited a few examples to illustrate my point that an original, distinctive brand can be arrived at in a variety of different ways, limited only by the creativity of the brand engineers. One of my favorite NFL team names is the Baltimore Ravens. Ravens is unusual amongst sporting franchise names by virtue of being a literary reference, honoring Baltimore’s great author, Edgar Allen Poe. It also has sinister undertones if you are familiar with The Raven, which most of us read in elementary school.

In addition to Baltimore, The Saints’ branding draws on multiple associations to their city’s rich history and culture. For one, the name Saints recognizes New Orleans as the birthplace of Jazz, one of America’s great contributions to world culture, via the reference to the jazz standard When the Saints Go Marching In, which has been embraced by fans and team alike as an unofficial theme song.

Fairly or not, Washington DC isn’t really known as one of America’s great cultural meccas like New Orleans, New York and LA, amongst others. It does, however, have its own unique art and music scenes and can claim a few significant contributions to American culture. That brings us back to Duke Ellington.

Why Not Strive for Greatness?

Portrait of Duke Ellington

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington DC on 29 April 1899, long before another Ted Kennedy became a household name around town. The older Edward was better known as Duke Ellington and became a central figure in the golden era of jazz.

Duke Ellington is not just a famous local artist like the Bad Brains, Trouble Funk or even Marvin Gaye. Ellington is generally regarded as the greatest composer in the history of jazz. In fact, many music critics, historians and fans consider him to be one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, regardless of genre. He is recognized internationally for having pioneered establishment of jazz as the popular dance music of its day, and his band’s residence at the Cotton club was a focal point of the flowering of African Culture in New York during the 1920’s and 1930’s, known as the Harlem Renaissance.

In short, Ellington was one of the greatest American artists of the 20th Century, and he was born in DC. The DMV has every right to claim his body of work as our cultural heritage, even if his great works were largely produced in New York.

The Duke was also highly prolific, writing over 3,000 songs, many of which have become jazz standards. The Ellington songbook therefore provides a rich seam of inspiration, from which even the most unimaginative marketing executive should be able to draw at least a few good ideas for team names.

Naming the Brand - Ellington Style

Switching back to the not entirely serious Naming the Brand theme, I thought I’d have a look through Duke Ellington discography to see if I could come up with any good alternative naming options. Some of these are meant for fun, while a few would seriously be better team names than Brigade or even Redhawks; nearly all would be better than Armada.

Flaming Swords – maybe a bit gothic, but it is sure to strike the fear of God in opponents.

Blue Surge (adapted from Blue Serge) – imagine fourth-and-goal from the two-yard line, heavy jumbo formation. OK, the blue might be a problem.

Caravan or Caravans – keeping with the Blue Surge theme, think of a pulling guard, followed by a fullback lead blocking for a running back.

Bojangles – jazz classic, honors legendary tap dancer, actor and singer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Ties in with the footwork that is essential to the play of quarterbacks and tackles.

Cotton Tails – this one would appeal to those fans who wanted the team nickname to be ‘Tails and feel let down that Redtails seems to have been dropped from consideration.

Blue Rambles, Azures, Mood Indigos – I’m noticing that blue, for blues, is a bit of a theme for the Duke. His major works were mostly written in New York. Maybe we should leave him to the Giants. No, I’m going to keep going. Perhaps I just need to switch tacks. How about:

Flamingos – gets your attention, but too pink.

Come Sundays – that’s more like it. Games do tend to come on Sundays. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the Manchester scene alt-rock band Happy Mondays.

Perdido – even better. It’s Spanish for lost, a name that any fan of the team for the last 30 years can relate to.

The I’ve Got It Bad and That Ain’t Goods – just in case Perdido wasn’t enough for you.

That was fun, but I don’t think I’m really getting anywhere.

Even so, I would rather have the new team name be Blue Surge, Caravan, Bojangles, Mood Indigos and maybe even Flamingos than Admirals, Armada, Brigade, Commanders, Defenders, or Presidents. I’m kind of neutral on Redhawks and Sentinels, because that’s the kind of name options they are, and I might be warming to Red Hogs if I can just drop the Red and call them the Hogs.

I still think we can do better. Perhaps if I try to be serious for a minute.

John Riggins Runs with the Football Photo by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

A Better Name for the Football Team

To come clean with you, dear reader, there is one really good team name that immediately came to mind as soon as I was reminded that the Duke was our native son. With no further ado, I give you:

The “A” Trains, after the Billy Strayhorn tune Take the “A” Train, which was the signature tune of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and became a great jazz standard. This is one of the most recognizable tunes in all of jazz and is perfectly suited to a marching band. As a bonus, Take the “A” Train immediately becomes a great new team theme song, like When the Saints Go Marching In is to New Orleans.

At the risk of repeating myself, the name honors a great artist from Washington DC who was a key contributor to development of one of America’s original art forms.

Most importantly, it’s also a great name for a football team. A New York City subway car is 85,200 lbs. of steel, barreling down on you at 55 mph. I don’t care how many first round picks you have invested in your defensive line, you can’t stop that.

“A” Train even sounds like a nickname you would give a bruising running back, like the way Jerome Bettis was nicknamed The Bus.

The name lends itself to a wide range of logos and associated branding material. The helmet could feature a speeding train engine, a big band, instruments, musicians, musical notations, a mug of the Duke, or even a simple A.

And last of all, in keeping with my argument on what makes a good franchise brand, it’s original. There is nothing really like it throughout the NFL or other major league American sports. Only one other NFL team is named after a mode of transportation, and Jets isn’t even remotely close to “A” Train.

Looking further afield, thanks to the Railserve website, I can confirm that throughout American sports the highest profile teams with railroad-themed names are the NCAA Division I Purdue Boilermakers and the University of Tennessee at Chatanooga Mocs. After that, its just a lot of minor league baseball and hockey teams and some lesser known college teams. The Railserve link also provides a good idea of what a creative logo designer can do with a rail theme.


What Are They Really Doing at Inova Center?

There you have it. In a manner of a few days, armed with Google and a passing knowledge of jazz, I have been able to come up with a better name for the Washington Football than Jason Wrong’s team of marketing professionals claim to have come up with after 18 months of consulting with fans and key stakeholders, mocking up designs, running focus groups and making cringeworthy corporate marketing videos.

I don’t just think that “A” Trains is better than Admirals, Armada and Commanders, I think it’s far superior. And it really didn’t take me that long. As soon as I was reminded that Duke Ellington was from DC, it popped into my head.

I realize these things are completely subjective. You might not think that “A” Trains is that good at all. My real point is that coming up with a good name for a football team is not nearly as difficult as they seem to be making it appear, provided that you attack it from the right angle. That is, look for something that is original or distinctive, has some kind of meaning and lends itself to a good logo design. Then leave it at that, rather than creating a long laundry list of specific requirements, including that it doesn’t bother anyone or sit adjacent to something that someone might find objectionable.

I have no doubt that if we pulled together a group of fans, some with creative and business backgrounds, and brought in a few of the designers from the community whose submissions are featured on the WFT website, in about two weeks we could come up with a list of brand concepts that would far exceed what the team’s corporate brain trust has shown us thus far.

Acknowledgement: Thanks as usual to James Dorsett for editorial assistance. Also, thanks to all the HH readers who have made the Naming the Brand Challenge so much fun.


Which name would you prefer?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    "A" Trains
    (78 votes)
  • 2%
    Capital City Go-Go’s
    (30 votes)
  • 2%
    Bad Brains
    (26 votes)
  • 5%
    One of: Admirals, Armada, Brigade, Defenders, Presidents, Redhawks, Red Hogs, Sentinels
    (59 votes)
  • 3%
    (44 votes)
  • 1%
    DC Football Commanders - The People’s Team
    (17 votes)
  • 40%
    (460 votes)
  • 23%
    (272 votes)
  • 13%
    Washington Football Team
    (156 votes)
1142 votes total Vote Now