We’re early in the USL PRO offseason, and that seems like a good time to make pretty basic, but fundamentally important point. With its MLS cooperation agreement, the ascension of Orlando City SC to the brink of big-league promotion, and with two solid expansion clubs set to begin play next season, 2013 has been a good year for our league. Sometimes it feels like baby steps, and there may have to be a few steps back, but progress is occurring.
So here’s the thing: With the league moving forward into new markets, new partnerships and new opportunities, you’ve got to be ready to sell the league to all those new potential fans you’re trying to attract. And since they most likely have never seen your brand of soccer played on the field, their first impression is going to be based on looks alone.
We’re talking logos here, folks. And the logos that make up the collective USL PRO brand are great, modern-looking logos… if you just woke up last week from a coma that began in December of 1985.
Look at the image up top. The Rochester Rhinos are one of the great smaller-market franchises in North American soccer. They’ve got history, tradition, loyal fans, a great identity… and a cartoonish logo that represents an outdated vision of sports marketing.
Now look at the original logo for Sacramento Republic FC. I don’t think it’s the greatest logo on earth, but that’s what a modern logo looks like. It looks like it was designed by adults, for adults. It represents the city, the state, history, place, pride. It looks professional, but not cold. It’s got traditional elements and a sophisticated color palate, but you can deconstruct its pieces and reassemble them for a variety of uses and products — T-shirts, hats, pint glasses, scarves.
Is it any surprise, when you look at what SRFC has done with its logo, that this organization is already being discussed as a future MLS expansion candidate?
So let’s go through the USL PRO branding universe and see what needs to be done.
The league logo(s)
One of the things people like about soccer is that when you pick a club to support, it comes with all sorts of quirks and traditions and personality that have nothing to do with the club’s formal branding. For Chelsea it’s celery. Liverpool fans never walk alone. If you stand in the Timbers Army section at JELD-WEN Field, you’re going to sing “You Are My Sunshine” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” at the same time in every match, match after match.
But that’s still kind of a European thing. Here in North America, we’re still making our traditions.
So does it make sense to copy European sensibilities — or at least borrow inspiration from them? Or is it better to orient your branding toward successful North American sports leagues, in order to create an association in the minds of potential fans?
Here in the States, it looks like we’ve done a bit of both. “Major League Soccer” clearly patterned its name and identity after Major League Baseball, making a claim to significance back in the mid-1990s when significance was still a long way off. It’s easy to see MLS influence in the USL PRO logo. That said, it’s common for North American soccer entities to borrow traditions of heraldry from Europe (shields, banners, etc.).
But notice something about the USL logo and the EPL logo. In England, they simply reference the idea of a shield instead of drawing one. They leave out gradients and busy stuff. It’s EPL in white, blue and red, and it’s quite clear and useful. The USL shield has a flaming soccer ball and I have no clue what that’s supposed to say about the USL family of leagues.
Here’s another one: This is the logo for La Liga in Spain. Not my favorite, but it’s recognizable from a distance, can be presented as a vertical, a horizontal or a “square” (even though it’s a circle). And notice how clean it is.
The MLS log and the Bundesliga logos probably look the most “modern,” with their various Abobe Illustrator three-dimensional effects. And I know a lot of people don’t like the MLS logo because it’s so literal. But look — both are actually fairly simple, easy to recognize from a distance, and have the benefit of looking like they were created intentionally by professionals, rather than cheaply by the commissioner’s niece, who always had such a nice eye for color.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT: I’m not crazy about the USL PRO logo, largely because of two things: I’ve never liked that the “Pro” is styled as “PRO,” as if the front office down in Tampa were screaming at the rest of the continent “WE’RE PROFESSIONALS! DO YOU HEAR THAT? PROFESSIONALS! WE PLAY PROFESSIONAL SOCCER, ONLY WE CALL IT ‘PRO!'” As if no one ever explained to them that capital letters are the typographical equivalent of shouting “PASS THE GRAVY BOAT” during the blessing of the meal. Oh, and the other thing is, I don’t like using a soccer ball — even a stylized one — as a stand-in for the letter “O.”
That said, it’s really not beyond redemption. Take the type out of italics (translation: It’s all action and excitement here all the time, yeah!), borrow your color palette from the (one hopes, soon-to-be-updated) USL logo, and give your font a little weight, three-dimensionality, and substance. Oh, and get rid of the racing stripes behind the text.
Seriously. Without changing this one radically, you could have a thoroughly professional-looking logo with multiple uses. And since you don’t want to change your branding very often, updates and tweaks are really the order of the day. Just ask MLS. They’ve been modernizing and simplifying their logo for years.
Figure out a way to get a visual tie-in to MLS, and you’re really on your way to logo success here. After all, you’re in partnership. And you want to remind everyone that NASL is an outlier, but without coming out and saying so.
No. 13: Harrisburg
It takes awhile, but eventually you figure out that Harrisburg named its team after the location where it plays: City Island, which sits in the middle of the Susquehanna River. Somehow that morphed into the idea that an “Islander” was a natural reference to the balmy Caribbean. So the image that represents the team is a blue palm tree. A closed steel mill would be a better representation, but hey, maybe the club had a beer contract with Corona and they were trying to move product.
Still, does anything excuse that font?
WHAT CAN BE DONE: Absolutely nothing. Either you embrace the absurdity that is this name and brand for exactly what it is, or you just start over.
(Please, please, for the love of God and all that is right and good with soccer, start over.)
No. 12: Rochester
WHAT CAN BE DONE: Look, a rhino is a great mascot for a sports franchise, and your colors are classic, Old-School colors. Bring in a few independent designers, send them back to study your local and team history, and see if one of them can come back with a fresh concept. Because this rhino is extinct.
Hell, just a silhouette of a rhino and the name “Rochester” could make a great patch. Just don’t over-do it.
No. 11: Pittsburgh
WHAT IT SAYS: We hired the same carpetbagging sports-marketing scam artists who came up with the “Charleston Riverdogs” name back in the 1990s, and they skipped town with all our marketing and design money.
WHAT CAN BE DONE: Whereas the Riverdogs are kinda stuck with their stupid name due to years of success at Riley Park, the Riverhounds are just starting over — after no particular tradition of success — in a beautiful new stadium. So step No. 1 is acknowledging that you have a moronic name. It’s not too late! You can do so much better!
When you come up with that new and better name, hire professional designers who can produce a brand identity that has more than one application. The Riverhounds logo can only be presented as a horizontal. If you stack the name under it and squeeze, you can kinda get to square. But look around at the rest of the league. Most of the teams use logos that are essentially vertical. If you don’t give me that option when I’m creating marketing and promotion materials, you’ll stand out… and not in a good way. The only thing I’d keep from this failed experiment is your team colors.
No. 10: Orlando
It’s actually kind of hard not to rank this as the worst logo in the league simply on wasted opportunities alone. Your mascot is a lion, for crying out loud, and your team color is purple. The lion is the symbol of kings. Purple is the color of royalty. The heraldry for England is three lions on a shield. Put it all together and what do you get? Cerebus, the three-headed dog, guardian of Hades, waking up from a three-day bender in purple haze and a very bad mood.
You wanna know what’s gonna happen when you show up at Don Garber’s doorstep with your big MLS franchise fee? The Don is going to say “Thanks for the money, but lose the logo.”
WHAT CAN BE DONE: Step one, calm down. And by that I mean, your color scheme looks like a kindergartener’s juice box just exploded all over the back of a mauve mini-van. Put down the purple crayon, Harold, and back away from the easel.
Step No. 2: Figure out whether you’re going emphasize your past — with its ties to Stoke City and English football — or your future, with its aspirations to becoming the North American team that rich people in Brazil and South America call their own. Nothing about this logo says anything about Orlando, or Florida, or Latin America… or even England, for that matter.
No. 9: Charlotte
So in case you didn’t know, the USL PRO runner-up Eagles are a religious sports-mission first, and a professional soccer club second. Considering that they just won the the Southern Derby Cup for the second year in a row and made it to the Championship game, that’s a pretty impressive year for a group that puts athletics and profit behind proselytizing.
WHAT CAN BE DONE: There’s just a lot of cognitive dissonance going on in this image. The eagle is an American bald eagle, the same bird that represents our country, and its fierce glare has attracted the attention of hyper-nationalistic designers over the past decade or so. In this case, the eagle uses its wing to shelter the cross, and he seems to be shooting the viewer a look. Like he’s saying, “You there. This is my cross. Take one step closer toward my cross without stating your intentions and I will fly into your face and rip your eyes out with my talons.”
So what can be done? Well, unless the club actually wanted to design a complicated logo that communicated the message “Soccer in the service of a patriotic theocracy,” my suggestion would be for them to think about their visual communication a bit more carefully.
I’d put the cross front and center and de-emphasize the eagle. You’ll find lots of eagles out there in North American sports, but how many franchises are so openly religious? Tell the world your religious affiliation is a feature, not a bug. Go big!
It’s just that when you start mixing religious symbols and patriotic symbols … well, it’s just generally not a great idea.
No. 8: Antigua
WHAT IT SAYS: I’m a very dangerous and disgruntled fish that is choking to death on a soccer ball. And I don’t have hands, so I can’t take it out. But I can’t close my mouth, either. So this is really approaching a crisis point. Won’t you take the soccer ball out of my mouth? Or, like, maybe call Greenpeace or something?
WHAT CAN BE DONE: After going 0-26-0 in 2013, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which talking about improving the team’s logo has any relationship to reality whatsoever.
Here’s what can be done: The very nice people of Antigua can either figure out a way to put together a real national club team with real Antiguan players, and then subsidize the travel of USL PRO teams that have to fly down to Antigua to play them, or this team can fold, and take its logo with it.
Otherwise, the logo is pretty damned cartoony, but not as cartoony as others, and at least it’s not totally overdone.
No. 7: Richmond
WHAT IT SAYS: Here in Richmond, we kick soccer balls really fast, so that they leave visible vapor trails. And look, they kinda make a letter “K!” Which just happens to be the first letter of our team name! Which just happens to be “Kickers!” Which just happens to be how those balls got propelled so fast! By kicking!
Kickers. Really? I mean, if they were a basketball team, would someone have said “Hey, I know! Let’s call them the Dribblers?”
WHAT CAN BE DONE: First off, the problem with this logo assignment is that the name is an action, and the action is literal. God bless the designer who came up with this abstract attempt to avoid that ticket to design hell. Tough job, not horribly executed.
It’s just that, in the end, there’s something contrived about this logo. It feels like a Portlandia sketch, except it’s set in 1979.
If it was my job to try to save this one, I’d keep the name (because it’s Richmond, they’ve been successful, they have fans and history, not because I like the name) and colors and I’d stick with the idea of avoiding literal design here. I’d use the letter R as the basis of the design, except it would be a regular letter R. Classic. Letter on a shield. Boom. Done.
No. 6: Wilmington
Look, this is another example a team getting points off for blown opportunities. Your mascot is a HAMMERHEAD SHARK. Its head is just about the most distinctive head on the planet. Uh… use that.
WHAT CAN BE DONE: I think I just explained that. Show me the black outline of the head of a hammerhead shark from the top looking down. Put it on a shield. Blue and white background. Boom. Done. We’re badass sharks from Wilmington, NC. We’re going to eat you. There’s nothing you can do about it.
Hell, people who don’t even like soccer would buy that T-shirt.
No. 5: Los Angeles
WHAT CAN BE DONE: Look, on the bright side, it is a very modern-looking shield. And it is very, very blue. And look, there in the background: Mountains. They have mountains in Los Angeles, apparently, and there they are. So you’ve kinda got the whole motif there: Blue waves at the bottom, blue mountains in the distance, all chromed and Art-Deco-shiny.
But what’s with that weird doodle shape? Damned if I know.
I call this a professional response to a tough logo assignment. It doesn’t’ exactly pop, but it doesn’t suck, either. I say quit worrying about your logo, find a real home for your team, and then name it after that place. You’re not the L.A. Blues. You’re a neighborhood in L.A. And you’re blue. Discuss.
No. 4: Phoenix
WHAT CAN BE DONE: In their first year as a franchise, the ambitious folks in Phoenix dreamed big. And boy, did the reality ever fall short of those dreams.
But look, Phoenix is still a great market for soccer. The front office there just needs to dial things back, figure out a way to get to sustainability on low revenues in Year No. 2, and sell the hell out of the idea of team, team, team.
And the good news is, a lot of people will like merchandise with this logo on it. Is it a great brand? No, sadly. It looks like the logo for a Division Two college team that happens to have a really good graphic design department. And maybe they held a logo contest. And maybe a sophomore from Tempe won it. Probably got a good class grade on it, too. Plus people like wolves.
This is a good, competent, North American sports logo. Nothing special, but there’s nothing wrong with it, either. It’s the least of their worries in Phoenix. Take care of the other stuff first.
No. 3: VSI Tampa Bay
So stop me if I’m wrong, but the official name of this club is the VisionPro Sports Institute Tampa Bay Flames Football Club. Except they don’t play in Tampa Bay, where the Rowdies of NASL play, but in Plant City, where the Cincinnati Reds used to hold spring training. It’s kind of a convoluted company — with all sorts of coaching and player development wings — and it was a bit of a cipher in its expansion year, too.
WHAT CAN BE DONE: Real simple. Take the word “Flames” out of the logo up there, and just let it say “Tampa.”
Then stop. Keep It Simple, Stupid. And trust me, you need one simple thing in your organization.
No. 2: Charleston
For years, Charleston had two great sports logos: Battery soccer, and Stingrays hockey. Nothing else moves the merchandise that the Riverdogs do, but when it just came to branding, the Battery logo was a classic: Strong, historic, locally relevant.
But here’s the problem: It’s starting to look dated, at least in its particulars.
WHAT CAN BE DONE: Housecleaning. Freshening. Update the colors to reflect your 2013 jerseys. Revisit that font. Find a way to make those smooth-bore cannon pop a bit more against the background.
One other thing to consider. If you look at some of the things soccer people from off say when talking about the Battery, there’s a perception that the “Battery” is somehow a reference to the Civil War. Well, no matter what your feelings on the Confederacy, the bottom line when it comes to the Civil War is that it still divides people in the 21st century. And that’s not a perception you want to encourage if you’re marketing a soccer team.
You know what part of our local military history doesn’t divide people? The Revolutionary War. The Battle of Charleston Harbor (a.k.a. the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, or the battle of Fort Moultrie) in 1776. If you’re looking to a theme to use whilst tweaking, that’s the one I’d pick.
No. 1: Dayton
WHAT CAN BE DONE: Why would you want to do anything?
The Dutch Lions are called that because they’re part of the international player development system operated by F.C. Twente, a team from the town of Enschede that plays in the Dutch Eredevisie, or first division.
In other words, the colors, the lion, the shield? It is what it says it is. It’s not wannabe Eurosnob, it’s actually European. F.C. Twente runs a couple of “Dutch Lions” programs in the United States, and has multiple “satellite clubs” in different cities in Europe. It’s a cool concept, and the team is just starting to get established here.
Would I want this clean, uncluttered, classic design on my team’s gear? Damn right.
They say you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Same thing goes with soccer leagues.
Getting the right branding isn’t the most important thing a cash-strapped soccer club needs to do. We can list all sorts of other priorities. And even if you do come up with a great logo and team identity, don’t expect everyone to love you for it. Some smart-ass like me is bound to say snarky things sooner or later. Usually sooner.
And look, just because your logo looks bad now, that doesn’t mean it was always teh suck. I’ve still got clothes in boxes from the 1970s. I’m just waiting for them to come back in style.
Finally, remember this: While a great logo won’t make you a success, a truly crappy can actually hold you back. And when it comes to the things that are within the power of soccer clubs to fix, few are less expensive — and offer more bang for the buck — than this one.