It is said that Austin’s celebrated weirdness is being alloyed by corporate conformity as the Texan capital gentrifies, but its Major League Rugby club is here to show that rampant commercialism can be off-the-wall, too.
Last month, less than two weeks before the start of the third MLR season, the artists formerly known as the Austin Herd declared that they are now the Austin Gilgronis, in reference to “a new Texas-sized cocktail, to be released soon”.
In the land of innumerable Tigers, Lions, Eagles, Knights and Bulldogs, it is rare for a professional team to adopt an explicitly corporate moniker - let alone one that promotes alcohol.
Born the Austin Elite in 2017, the team rebranded as the Herd only last September, reinventing itself as the Gilgronis after being taken over by Australian investors and moving to a new home at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA), where they will share a pitch with the Austin Bold minor-league soccer team.
Gilgroni is presumably a spin on Negroni, the Italian aperitif. One of the club’s backers is an Australian gym tycoon named Adam Gilchrist (not the famous cricket player of the same name). The Giltini Group made trademark applications last year for names such as “Gil Tai”, “Gilacolada”, “Giljito”, “Gilgarita” and “Gilmopolitan”.
According to a statement, the club aim to introduce festivities including a human fireball and cheerleading championships in order to deliver “the greatest rugbytainment experience in the world”. Tim Prukop of COTA said in the statement that the addition of rugby to the Formula One track’s facilities offers “yet another way to experience the thrill of being alive”.
Reaction to the rebrand on social media was, as they say, mixed. “Honestly, this is weird as hell,” one Twitter user wrote. The Gilgronis, who kicked off their 2020 season on Sunday, were approached for comment for this article but did not respond.
Austin were decidedly un-elite in 2019: they struggled to reach four-figure attendances and lost every game. “This is a really weird and unique case because this can pan out to be a brilliant move, that everything falls into place and it’s great, or it can be a disaster,” says Vassilis Dalakas, professor of marketing at Cal State University San Marcos and visiting professor of sports marketing at San Diego State University.
“No matter what the name, the simple fact that they’re switching the name again is a little bit of a bold and potentially problematic decision. Having said that, they went winless last year, 0-16, so in that respect it might be a somewhat brilliant strategy because what you’re trying to do is give the fans the impression that you’re starting with a clean sheet, forget the past.”
Though “Gilgronis” evokes neither toughness nor local pride, in contrast with successful brands such as the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers, Dalakas said that in smaller leagues a corporate name “may not be as problematic, it might be a smart way for the teams to generate some extra revenue.” In the gimmick-strewn minor leagues, clubs, it seems, will try anything for a buck or two (see: Salute to Indoor Plumbing Night).
Dalakas did, though, point to the apparent dissonance between the Gilgronis’ stated intent to launch youth initiatives and provide a family-friendly atmosphere and the overt link with alcohol. Still, as innumerable commercials and sponsorships can attest, fandom and drinking are interlaced in popular culture. Baseball’s St Louis Cardinals play at Busch Stadium, the Colorado Rockies are at Coors Field and the Milwaukee Brewers take the field at Miller Park.
Benetton Rugby are a leading Italian team, while corporate names are commonplace in Japan, where rugby’s Suntory Sungoliath (owned by the whiskey-makers) join the likes of the Toshiba Brave Lupus, the Mitsubishi DynaBoars and the NTT Communications Shining Arcs.
The NFL’s Green Bay Packers were briefly the Acme Packers. Based near Disneyland and owned by Disney at the time, the Anaheim Ducks of the NHL were born in 1993 as the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, their name a nod to The Mighty Ducks, a 1992 kids’ film starring Emilio Estevez. The Ducks shared an arena with the LA KISS, an Arena Football League side that folded in 2016 and was co-owned by two members of the rock band.
In 2011, stars including Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo played for magicJack, a Florida-based Women’s Professional Soccer side named for its owner’s phone technology business. The league folded in 2012. Originated as works teams, Bayer Leverkusen and PSV Eindhoven are among Europe’s best-known football clubs, though Red Bull’s recent incursion into the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig is widely resented as cynically rapacious.
The energy-drink maker took over the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in 2006, rebranding the Major League Soccer team as Red Bull New York, then the New York Red Bulls. They signed Thierry Henry, Rafa Márquez and Tim Cahill, helping raise the profile of MLS, even if the genuflection to blatant commercialism seemed to underline the tenuous financial and cultural status of professional soccer in the US.
But no other MLS franchise has adopted a corporate name. In fact, the league has trended in a contrasting direction. Teams are seeking to convey authenticity and gravitas by adopting traditional European-style handles such as FC and United that are, in a North American context, affectations.
Austin’s MLS side, which enters the league in 2021, is simply called Austin FC, on the basis that the city is an inherently appealing brand that needs no embellishment, and its logo features intertwined oak trees representing “the bond between club and city”.
Hardly innovative, but it may prove a smart choice if it makes fans feel connected and influential. More than a dozen NFL franchises owe their nicknames to public submissions, including the New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens (who are named after Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, The Raven).
Placing a business at the core of a club’s identity, meanwhile, undermines the idea that teams are community symbols rather than for-profit enterprises and forces fans to think of themselves as consumers rather than supporters.
Sports marketing is about leveraging civic pride and monetising emotional attachment, and it’s hard to feel passionate if you feel less like you’re being asked to root for your city, and more like you’re the tool of a drinks company’s advertising department.