A team by any other name: why are MLS clubs so keen on rebrands?

Graham Ruthven
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Mitchell Layton/USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: Mitchell Layton/USA Today Sports

In the lineup of 27 Major League Soccer club crests for 2021, there will be three that are new to those who haven’t paid much attention since the end of last season. One belongs to Austin FC who kick off their inaugural campaign as the division’s latest franchise. The other two, however, belong to clubs that have undergone a rebrand.

Indeed, the Houston Dynamo have a new badge while Club de Foot Montreal (CF Montreal) have a whole new identity, bringing to a close their history as the Montreal Impact. This comes after the Chicago Fire unveiled a new look for 2020 and DC United changed badges in 2015. Of MLS’s 10 founding franchises, the New England Revolution are the only ones to have kept their original crest this long. Four (Dallas Burn, Kansas City Wiz, New York/New Jersey MetroStars and the San Jose Clash) have changed identities entirely and go by different names.

New isn’t always better, though, and rebrands aren’t always popular. In fact, over 5,000 aggrieved Montreal fans have signed a petition in protest at the club’s new identity. “We weren’t expecting the Impact to do something so drastic,” Felipe Vera, a member of the Ultras Montreal group that launched the petition, told the Montreal Gazette. “To change something like that, it’s kind of like saying what happened before is no longer considered.” The Chicago Fire’s 2020 rebrand caused such disgruntlement among supporters that the club has already vowed to design a new badge for next year.

Outside MLS, rebrands aren’t so common. So why do MLS teams go to the bother? What tangible value do they get out of a new badge, new colours or even a new name?

“A strong visual identity can be a powerful gateway drug to a soccer addiction,” explains Matthew Wolff, the man who has designed crests for Los Angeles FC and New York City FC and has been hired to work on the new Chicago Fire badge for next season. Indeed, the aim of any rebrand of a club is almost always to attract new fans, whether they be local or further afield.

Related: Not feeling the (Dallas) Burn: why MLS teams tried to sound more European

Sporting KC present perhaps the best case study for clubs looking to achieve this. This was a franchise that, as the Kansas City Wizards, sold around 600 season tickets per season around the mid-2000s. Merchandise revenue in 2006 totaled just $30,000. Now, Sporting KC sell at least 10,000 season tickets, on top of around $1m in merchandise, a season. While MLS – and soccer’s growth as a whole in the US – has helped boost income, the club’s new identity also played a part.

MLS itself was rebranded back in 2014 ahead of its 20th season. That the boot and ball disappeared from the league’s logo was reflective of how clubs have moved away from literal representatives of the sport and towards iconography related to local geography and mythology. See, for example, how the Houston Dynamo removed the soccer ball from their old badge in favour of an abstract ‘HD’ symbol that pays tribute to the city’s waterways. North American soccer fans no longer need a literal ball to recognise a soccer team.

“Sports fandom is a way to express civic pride. Ideally, a soccer club feels like a reflection of its community,” says Wolff. “The crest is an illustration of that reflection. Ideally, supporters will see themselves – their community, their values – in their club and their club’s crest.”

The rebranding of clubs isn’t too common outside North American soccer, but it should be noted MLS is a league very much still in its infancy, even as it approaches its 30th anniversary. It hasn’t gone through the process that most other soccer leagues went through at the start of the 20th century, when Newton Heath became Manchester United and Woolwich Arsenal became just Arsenal.

Juventus controversially redesigned their crest for the start of the 2017/18 season, with the Italian club coming up with what they believed to be “a symbol of the Juventus way of living,” whatever that means. But while the new ‘J’ badge is drastically different from the clipart crest that went before, Juve still play in black and white. They’re still called Juventus. A number of MLS clubs have gone much further in their rebrands, and the further you go, the more risk is attached.

To look forward, it’s sometimes safer to look back first. Inspiration can often be found in the past with kit designs currently going through a phase of retro fixation. While not an MLS franchise, the New York Cosmos did this for their relaunch in 2010 having found worldwide fame in the 1970s and 80s thanks to their association with players such as Pele.

“Often we would look at historical assets and the legacy of the team to balance retro with contemporary, but even so, a team needs to reinvigorate its creative presentation from season to season,” explains Nathen McVittie who worked as a creative for the Cosmos. “You cannot simply continue to use what was made last year in the digital age – but you must evolve, keeping many of the flavours fans have come to expect while adding something fresh to engage them.”

Some clubs look to transcend soccer with their identities as lifestyle brands. Paris Saint-Germain have done this through their partnership with Air Jordan, which Wolff worked on, while USL Championship franchise Oakland Roots have leaned into their advocacy for social justice and equality. When LAFC revealed their new art deco-inspired, winged club icon over a year before their entry to MLS, they sold thousands of branded hats before a single jersey was shifted. It was a move straight out of the New York Yankees playbook - make the brand stand for something other than just the sport being played.

Not everyone can emulate the New York Yankees, though, and coming up with something from scratch is easier than overhauling and rebranding a club that has already embedded itself in the public consciousness. Rebrands are risky that can leave some fans disillusioned. The bet owners make is that a new badge and identity will attract more supporters than it loses. That the numbers that sign the petitions won’t outweigh those who buy a season ticket for the first time. Sometimes they are more trouble than they’re worth, but other times they can revive a club.