Last week two new football clubs revealed their name, logo and colours.
The West Sydney Wanderers will make their A-League debut later this year, while the WARL backed West Coast Pirates are odds-on to join the expanded NRL in 2015.
Two teams, two completely different brands. One attempts to be fresh and edgy; the other is staid and proper, at pains to prove it’s not another FFA flash-in-the pan franchise. One was sprung as a surprise; the other slowly teased out at public fan forums. One turns its back on the code’s local history and the stain of Super League; the other hangs its hat on a hundred year narrative. The Wanderers’ sure-footed heritage look seems to have struck a chord. What of the Pirates’ more fierce and flashy ensign?
Going for youth
It’s obvious that the Gold Coast Titans’ logo was a reference point for the Pirates’ visual identity. Same composition, similar style artwork.
The heavy black pointed brushstrokes have a bold comic feel that mirrors the illustrative logos popular in US sports during the mid 90s (the rebranding of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers comes to mind).
It’s a look designed to excite kids and move merchandise. To me it feels a bit dated, but that’s not to say it doesn’t work. Some of world sport’s most iconic logos are graphic time capsules, proudly thumbing their nose to any notion of trendiness. The West Coast Pirates logo may not be brilliantly contemporary, but neither is it clumsy or cringe-worthy.
What happened to the Reds?
There will be no mistaking the Pirate’s marauding mascot. In their final years the NBL’s Canberra Canons incorporated a pirate skull into their emblem, before becoming the Hunter Pirates for a brief season. Other than that, no top-flight Australian team has ever owned the ‘Pirate’ name. Branding is the art of differentiation, and in that respect the Pirates earn a tick.
But good branding is also about making things meaningful; playing to how people think and, more importantly, feel. During the 90s the Reds gave Perth a taste, albeit briefly, of big time rugby league. Crowds were respectable, but the club was cruelly sacrificed for the sake of the Super League truce.
Why not build on this relatively recent history? Not only is ‘Reds’ familiar, but it lends itself to an emotively parochial us-against-them storyline: ‘Sydney screwed us. They stole our team. But now we’re back and ready for revenge’.
The Pirates may have adopted the Reds’ colours, but stories are written with words. Without the Reds name there’s no strong connection to the Reds’ narrative. The Pirates may argue that the Reds name is off-limits as it’s already being used in the A-League and Super Rugby. But these are different codes in different markets. Their existence doesn’t dilute the memory and meaning of the Reds to the people of Perth.
The West Coast Pirates, much like the Brisbane Bombers, are culturally meaningless marketing inventions that stand for nothing but their own selves. There’s nothing about a Pirate that speaks to Perth or Western Australia. Where’s the engrained community connection? Where’s the shared story? Enrollment through storytelling lies at the heart of branding. We all love to be part of a good yarn; Do the Pirates have one?
Why West Coast?
If the reason for not resurrecting the Reds is to avoid an overlap with the A-League and Super Rugby, then why use West Coast? Say ‘West Coast’ and you think one thing – Eagles. Double so if you live in WA. How do the Pirates benefit from confusing their brand with the goliath in their own backyard?
Perth Pirates has a ring to it, but the club went with West Coast in a bid to win over the whole state. It sounds sensible: cast a net over the widest possible market and maximize your potential supporter base. But good branding is about being personable, not generic. It’s about tuning into the way people see themselves. People say ‘I’m from Perth’; does anyone say ‘I’m from West Coast’? It’s a vague and contrived catch-all label, and in branding being vague and inclusive are two very different things.
But what of the Eagles? Using ‘West Coast’ has hardly harmed them. But when you own a market the way the Eagles own Perth you can get away with a bit of slack in your brand. They were the first team to play the biggest game in town on the code’s ultimate stage.
A virtual state side, the Eagles became the parochial flag bearers in WA’s longstanding feud with Victoria, whose VFL clubs had been pillaging the state of its finest players for decades.
The Eagles’ cause was bigger than football. From their first game they had a strong local story that was intuitively felt by their fans. Beating the Vics to win two AFL flags within their first decade ensured the Eagles a fanatical following and an armchair ride in the Perth press that continues to this day.
Not all Eagles fans love the ‘West Coast’ brand. AFL commentator and WA football doyen Dennis Cometti decries it as imported “American crapola” and has pulled for the club to be renamed the Perth Eagles. Similarities between the club’s inaugural jumper and the jersey of the then LA Rams suggest that the Eagles may well have been looking California way when they coined the slick ‘West Coast’ title. Cometti claims that club officials have privately admitted that the name is a problem and that a change had been considered, however Eagles CEO Trevor Nisbett disputes this.
75% of WA’s population live in Perth. Would it make sense for a fledgling expansion club to concentrate their limited resources on cornering this market? The Glory are focused on Perth. The Wildcats are focused on Perth. They started life in 1982 as the vaguely named Westate Wildcats. Two years later they changed their name to embrace the city that actually supported them. I think it would pay for the Pirates to think local and do the same.
Where were the fans?
Last week Seattle Sounders Director of Business Development Bart Wiley was in Sydney to speak at the Sport is Fantastic conference. NBA Commissioner David Stern has described the MLS club as “the most successful expansion team in the history of sports.” For Wiley this success all comes down to fan ownership, and giving supporters final say over their team’s name was a vital step in making the Sounders Seattle’s team.
In contrast, the West Coast Pirates name seems to have been dished out from the top down. Who owns it? The WARL. As chairman Richard Campbell said at the launch, “We are excited by the [Pirates] brand and felt it time we opened it up to the community.” I’m sure the Pirates name was probably fed to the odd focus group, but maybe the whole process of naming the club should have involved the community from the get-go.
Real excitement doesn’t come from graphic window dressing or having a cool sounding name. It comes from being a part of the action. I’m not sure there’s much in the West Coast Pirates brand for the people of Perth or greater WA to identify with.
To me it sounds like a glossy franchise, not a heart and soul football club. An actor dressed as Jack Sparrow was a key part of the name unveiling, which makes me wonder if the whole identity is all about piggy-backing the popularity of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies. A football club based on a film based on a rollercoaster…where’s the substance? The last team to look to Hollywood for their identity were the Toronto Raptors. That probably says it all.