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Anatomy of a Nickname – and a Fan Base

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where it’s always Rivalry Week.

Credit: Sports Flags and Pennants

Can anyone guess the most intense battle over a sports team nickname in recent memory?  Syracuse University?  Nope.  University of Illinois?  Think again.  Take a trip to Grand Forks instead, the epicenter of the debate over whether or not the University of North Dakota (UND) and its athletic teams can keep calling themselves the Fighting Sioux.

The arguments on both sides are no different than we’ve seen in other name-questioning cases around the nation.  In the “pro-change” camp, the name is offensive, disrespectful and even derogatory; in the “anti-change” category are those who value the logo, the tradition, etc.

What makes the UND situation so different from all the others, however, is the passion the resistance has fought with.  This battle has raged – no lie – since 2009, and it got new life yesterday with UND’s decision to go ahead and just keep the name and logo.  This, despite the NCAA’s standing ban on UND hosting any sanctioned regional/national events, UND’s conference threatening expulsion and more.  Yes, that’s all true.

It’s no shock that supporters of great brands are intensely loyal.  Look at Coca-Cola, or Skittles, or any major Detroit automaker…whether in business or sports, brands create experiences, feelings and identities that encapsulate us.  Over a very long time, the UND logo and nickname has become an identity for Grand Forks residents and ardent UND fans – in many ways, it IS who they are.  Syracuse?  It’s a city of 145,000, with 3-4x that amount in its immediate area, a dynamic economy and Buffalo, Rochester and even NYC within a few hours.  Champaign-Urbana, Illinois?  A smaller city and total college town, but still 200,000 people give or take in the area and definite ties to Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis.  Grand Forks?  A population of roughly 67,000, and definitely the most isolated of the three.  Quite simply, there’s less in Grand Forks, and accordingly there are fewer things that residents naturally have to identify with, support, get behind and endorse.  This means their affinity for the local institutions/brands they do have – aka UND – is often stronger.  Conversely, this means it’s harder for them to disassociate from those entities, or make a simple switch to new ones.

I’m not here to say whether the school should keep their name or not.  I’m not ripping Grand Forks for being a smaller, more isolated city either…far from it.  All I’m saying is that the long history of the Fighting Sioux nickname and the unique geography of North Dakota have contributed to a particularly strong and passionate UND brand and identity.  While other institutions have found ways to adjust and move on, UND supporters have resisted hard, proving they can’t live without the nickname – or won’t it give up without one helluva fight.  It just reinforces how strong a brand can be, and how valuable significant/shared experiences can be to an institution.

But they can’t have their cake and eat it too – if they keep their name, and the rest of the college sports world moves on without them, they’ll have to adapt and assimilate or risk fading out of the picture.  That of course would be far more damaging to UND and the region than a name change, especially now when athletic programs as a whole are generally on the rise.

That’s all for now.  I’m out like Carmelo Anthony.

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