Commentary / The Overlap

The Overlap: Soccer in the Flower City, Part 2

Image courtesy of the Rochester Rhinos

When last we spoke about this, Jamie Vardy’s purchase of an ownership stake in the Rochester Rhinos had just been announced. I was surprised to hear that news, but skeptical that it meant anything good—for the Rhinos, or for soccer in Rochester.

Fast forward a few months, and this week we received the promised but un-asked-for rebranding of the team. Suffice it to say, my worries have not been assuaged.

What’s in a name?

There’s so much that is wrong with this rebrand.

The best part about it—the crest, with its stylized waterfall—is nevertheless bland. It’s as if someone said, “Hey, let’s make Helvetica a soccer crest.” Don’t get me wrong, Helvetica is great. But it’s ubiquitous to the point of irrelevance, used as a shorthand by designers signaling modernist intentions without doing anything original. Does the crest look classier than a cartoon rhinoceros? I guess so, but which is more memorable?

But the travesty, of course, is the name: Rochester New York FC.

I can barely contain my disdain for this. The name of my city, Rochester, is not pretty. In the mouths of Western New Yorkers like myself, with our nasal, Midwestern-tinged accent, it often sounds like RAHCH-ter. Why would we highlight that? And because there is another Rochester, in Minnesota, we feel the need to append “New York” on the name? Is the goal to make the name harder to say?

Many Rochester sports teams and businesses use shortened versions like ROC (pronounced “rock”) or Roc City, which actually flows off the tongue. If a name change was necessary, surely there were better, more interesting, less generic options. Rochester New York FC sounds like placeholder text on a trademark application, rather than something with soul or history.

And don’t even get me started on the use of “FC.” Aside from the fact that we play soccer here, not football, using FC (or SC) is simply aping the traditions of other cultures. No non-soccer professional sports team in America labels the sport it plays in its name. Nor do our professional sports teams grow out of community athletics clubs, where a name like that might make sense.

In the end, why change the name at all? Whatever history Rochester soccer has is heavily linked to the exploits of a team known as the Rochester Rhinos. Rochester New York FC isn’t a continuation of that story, it’s an erasure of it.

Dubious ambitions

In the marketing video above, the team suggests that the reasoning behind jettisoning the only link to the past the team has was in order to become “a global brand.” A global brand? The thinking is flawed three times over.

First, it’s demonstrably false that a name like the Rhinos would hold the team back from being recognized or taken seriously around the world. International club soccer is full of teams with strange, silly, or meaningless names: Arsenal, Young Boys, Tottenham Hotspur, Sheffield Wednesday, Tigres, Kashima Antlers, Dynamo Kyiv, River Plate—the list could go on and on and on. Restricting ourselves to just lower division soccer in the United States, where Rochester New York FC will play, the most well-known brand is almost certainly the New York Cosmos, a team with a silly ’70s-era name that no one would dare suggest changing. In the top division, the best-known MLS brands are the Galaxy and Sounders. No one’s changing those names, either.

Second, the idea that Rochester New York FC has any hope of becoming a global brand is risible. The high point in Rhinos history was winning the U.S. Open Cup, beating four MLS teams on the way. Barring the introduction of promotion and relegation into the American soccer pyramid, that’s the highest a lower-division team can aim for recognition in the U.S. Perhaps doing that again would raise the club’s profile sufficiently to be known worldwide, for a short time, anyway. Or perhaps the plan is to join MLS in some future round of expansion. Either path would require a level of investment far beyond Jamie Vardy’s capacity. In a worldwide soccer marketplace populated by billionaires and nation-states, is a team from this midsize city on Lake Ontario going to become something kids in Mexico City or Marseille or Melbourne want to watch or whose jersey they will buy?

It’s not happening.

Finally, the goal of global expansion is wrongheaded, in and of itself. The mission of any soccer club should be to serve its home market, first and foremost. No club can exist without local support, without fans actually in the seats. And the brands with the richest histories and most fervent fan bases are those with the strongest local ties. If a team leans in to those connections, and forges something genuine with its fans, then it has the potential to become something more. Without that, it’s just a vessel for soulless corporate appetites.

Reserving (further) judgement

I’m not naive.

I understand that the true purpose of any business is to make money. If the owners of Rochester New York FC believe they can make more money by stripping the club of its ties to the past, then that’s what they will do. But for a business that is, so far, built solely on nostalgia for a team that hasn’t existed for more than four years, and is dependent on the goodwill of a fanbase that remembers the before times, I think it’s a huge and completely preventable mistake.

I’ll wait and see. They could turn things around and prove me wrong. And if the team, whenever it actually appears, wins games, that will help a lot.

But I’m not holding my breath.

5 Comments

  1. blech
    .
    How are we supposed to grow the culture in the US when we keep erasing it

    • Bingo. And shouldn’t we encourage the parts of the sport that are unique to us? That scream American soccer culture rather than hollow impressions of what some marketer thinks is hip in Europe?

  2. Agreed, Jeremy.

    I continue to wonder what the hell is wrong with people in marketing. This decision looks like it was made by a student of graphic design, not anyone actually thinking about what is best for the team. By all means, update the crest. But why would you think removing the rhino from the team name and replacing it with an utterly forgettable hodgepodge of MLS-approved letters is going to do anything for your “global brand.” Your identity is gone.

    The only Japanese professional baseball team I can name is the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. Why? Because their name is the bloody Ham Fighters! Keep the Rhino, Rochester. Don’t let a bunch of marketing goons destroy the most identifiable part of your history to accomplish something that’s not possible to begin with. It’s ridiculous.

  3. boorish_grishenko says:

    So much meh, so little time! I could ask so many questions of the ownership and their decision making and marketing process here… or I could go look at Flower City Union’s crest and merch remember there are nice things in this world.
    .
    Fine I’ll take their bait and waste my time on this nothing burger of a rebrand. I mean, why’d they spend any time at all caring about and pushing the legacy of Rochester Rhinos if your goal is a sterile global brand? The globe doesn’t care about Open Cup wins. I don’t even think Rochester cares about Open Cup wins. They can’t be rolling in cash, and rebrands and marketing cost money. I’d think the likeliest chance of being a “global” presence would be leaning in to Rhinos and creating merch powerhouse. But what do I know?
    .
    Rebranding from the start would have been no small mercy.

  4. I liked their former name and rhino logo/mascot. Now they’ve traded it for bland euro kitsch. American sports name traditions capture local and/or fighting spirit imagery to inspire players and fans alike.
    . . .
    The ‘Philadelphia Union’ captures the area’s history with founding the nation and the labor movement. So did ‘Bethehem Steel’ that spoke for itself when the club was based there.
    . . .
    If we had called ourselves something bland like ‘Philadelphia FC’ or ‘AC Philadelphia’ or–worse–copied some other club and national sporting names in a reductive manner like ‘Real/Inter/Sporting/Dynamo Philadelphia’ it would reflect no local identify and pride at all. We are who we are and others are who they are…vive la différence.
    . . .
    Simply put, North American naming traditions are nothing to be ashamed or avoided as inauthentic or unfitting for soccer. MLS is a North American league, amd our naming traditions shouod ne in the mix just like they are for others elsewhere.

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