Name that team: How major pro sports franchises came by their names

Los Angeles' NBA teams kept their watery nicknames when moving from San Diego and Minneapolis.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The origin of pro team nicknames ranges from local tradition to fan contests. Here’s a snapshot of how the teams in the NBA, MLB, NFL and the NHL got their names, with help from the website


Atlanta Hawks — Initially named the Blackhawks like Chicago’s hockey team, after the Sauk Indian Chief Black Hawk. It was shortened to Hawks when the team moved to Milwaukee in 1951; the team moved to St. Louis in 1955 and Atlanta in 1968.

Boston Celtics — Team owner Walter Brown picked the name Celtics in 1946; he liked the winning tradition of the Irish name because the New York Celtics were successful in the 1920s.

Brooklyn Nets — Early on the team, which started in the American Basketball Assn., played in New York and the name rhymed two other teams in the city, the Jets and Mets. The NBA team kept the name when it moved to New Jersey before the 1977-78 season, a year after the ABA was absorbed into the NBA in a merger, and when it moved to Brooklyn before the 2012-13 season.


Charlotte Bobcats — It was one of three name-the-team finalists for Charlotte’s 2004 expansion franchise, and owner Bob Johnson was fond of the winning name.

Chicago Bulls — As a new franchise in 1966, team owner Richard Klein was considering Matadors and Toreadors when his young son reportedly said, “Dad, that’s a bunch of bull,” and the name stuck.

Cleveland Cavaliers — The nickname was chosen by fans in a 1970 poll by the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.

Dallas Mavericks — After a name-the-team contest, the finalists were given to then-owner Donald Carter, who chose Mavericks over Wranglers and Express.

Denver Nuggets — As an ABA team, Denver was known as the Rockets. The name was changed in 1974 in anticipation of the merger with the NBA, whose Houston franchise already was called the Rockets. A name-the-team contest resulted in the Nuggets, a nod to the city’s mining tradition.

Detroit Pistons — Obviously fitting for the Motor City. But the team traces its roots to Fort Wayne, Ind., where they began life as the Zollner Pistons; owner Fred Zollner supplied pistons for auto companies. When the club moved to Detroit in 1957, Zollner was dropped from the nickname.

Golden State Warriors — The team originally was the Philadelphia Warriors and kept the name first when it moved to San Francisco in the early 1960s. When the club moved to Oakland in 1971, the team was renamed the Golden State Warriors.

Houston Rockets — Originally the team played in San Diego and Rockets was chosen from a name-the-team contest (Atlas rockets were built there). And when the team moved to Houston in 1971, keeping the name made sense because Houston is home base to NASA.

Indiana Pacers — The team’s original investors came up with the name, according to one of them, lawyer Richard D. Tinkham. It refers to the state’s harness-racing pacers and the pace car for the Indianapolis 500. Initially it was thought the team might play throughout the state, hence the use of Indiana instead of Indianapolis.

Clippers — Initially the team was the NBA’s Buffalo Braves; the nickname Clippers, adopted when it moved to San Diego in 1978, referred to the sailing ships in San Diego Bay. When owner Donald Sterling relocated the team to Los Angeles in 1984, he kept the name.

Lakers — When the Detroit Gems were moved to Minneapolis before the 1947-48 season, they settled on Lakers because of Minnesota’s thousands of lakes. The name was kept after the team moved to Los Angeles before the 1960-61 season.

Memphis Grizzlies — Initially located in Vancouver, the club chose the Grizzlies — a species indigenous to the area — from a name-the-team contest. When the team relocated to Memphis before the 2001-02 season, Memphis-based FedEx reportedly was prepared to offer $120 million to change the name to the Express, but the NBA rejected the offer.

Miami Heat — When the team was awarded an expansion franchise to start play in 1988, the Heat — appropriate for South Florida — was chosen from a name-the-team contest.

Milwaukee Bucks — Selected from a name-the-team contest in 1968, apropos to the hunting tradition in Wisconsin.

Minnesota Timberwolves — The result of a name-the-team contest in 1986 for the new franchise. The most popular entry was Blizzard, but the team wanted a nickname more unique to the state.

New Orleans Pelicans — The team originated in Charlotte and a name-the-team contest resulted in Hornets; during the Revolutionary War a British commander reportedly referred to the area around Charlotte as a nest of hornets. The name stuck when the club moved to New Orleans but was changed last April to the Pelicans.

New York Knicks — The term “knickerbockers,” referring to pants rolled up just below the knee by Dutch settlers, was a common nickname in New York and the NBA team’s founder Ned Irish reportedly chose the name, which later was shortened to Knicks.

Oklahoma City Thunder — Chosen by a fan vote after the Seattle Supersonics relocated to Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 season.

Orlando Magic — A name-the-team contest came up with Challengers, referring to the space shuttle that exploded in 1986, but a panel of judges went with Magic, a nod to Disney World.

Philadelphia 76ers — After the Syracuse Nationals relocated to the city in 1963, the team was renamed the 76ers in reference to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776.

Phoenix Suns — After a name-the-team contest in 1968, general manager Jerry Colangelo settled on the Suns over Scorpions, Rattlers and Thunderbirds, among others.

Portland Trail Blazers — After the city was granted an expansion franchise in the 1970s, Pioneers was the most popular choice but nearby Lewis & Clark College already used the nickname. So officials went with another popular entry, Trail Blazers.

Sacramento Kings — Originally known as the Royals when it played in Rochester, N.Y., and Cincinnati, the club became the Kansas City-Omaha Kings via a name-the-team contest in 1972 and retained the name when the club relocated to California in 1985.

San Antonio Spurs — Originally an ABA team called the Dallas Chaparrals, the name first was changed to the Gunslingers after the move to San Antonio but then quickly was switched to the Spurs, reflecting Texas’ Western heritage.

Toronto Raptors — After a Canada-wide vote in 1994 to come up with potential names, Raptors — short for velociraptor, which the movie “Jurassic Park” had helped popularize — was chosen over Bobcats and Dragons.

Utah Jazz — The name comes from the team’s origin in New Orleans in 1974, and was retained after the club relocated to Salt Lake City in 1979.

Washington Wizards — The Baltimore Bullets moved to Washington in 1973 and kept that name for nearly 25 years, until then-owner Abe Pollin grew frustrated over the association of his team’s name with gun violence. After a name-the-team contest, Washington chose the Wizards before the 1997-98 season.


Arizona Cardinals — The team originated in Chicago and an early owner bought faded maroon jerseys; the “cardinal red” outfits spawned the name. It’s still in use since the team moved to St. Louis in 1960 and Phoenix in 1988.

Atlanta Falcons — The result of a fan contest when pro football was brought to Atlanta in the mid-1960s. The winner had written that “the falcon is proud and dignified, with great courage and fight.”

Baltimore Ravens — Another result of a contest and a reference to the famous poem by Edgar Allan Poe, who is buried in Baltimore. Of the more than 33,000 voters, more than 21,000 picked Ravens.

Buffalo Bills — When owner Ralph Wilson acquired an AFL franchise in 1960, he chose Bills in homage to a defunct Buffalo team in the All-America Football Conference.

Carolina Panthers — Mark Richardson, president of the 1995 expansion team, chose Panthers because “it’s a name our family thought signifies what we thought a team should be — powerful, sleek and strong.”

Chicago Bears — When George Halas bought the team in 1922, he changed its nickname from Staleys to the Bears. The club at the time played its home games at Wrigley Field, home of baseball’s Cubs, and Halas decided to stay with the ursine theme.

Cincinnati Bengals — Former owner and coach Paul Brown nicknamed the then-AFL expansion franchise the Bengals in 1968 in honor of a Bengals team that played in the city from 1937 to 1941.

Cleveland Browns — Browns was the most popular submission in a 1945 fan contest but there’s some debate over whether the name mainly reflected Paul Brown, its coach and general manager who later went on to lead the Bengals, or a reference to Joe Louis, known as the “Brown Bomber,” the heavyweight boxing champion of the era.

Dallas Cowboys — The team that began play in 1960 originally was named the Steers, but general manager Tex Schramm first changed it to Rangers and then the Cowboys before that season began.

Denver Broncos — A charter member of the AFL, Denver chose the name from a name-the-team contest. A Denver minor league baseball team had used the same name in the 1920s.

Detroit Lions — When George A. Richards moved the Portsmouth Spartans to Detroit in 1934, he renamed the team the Lions, a name likely intended to pair with Detroit’s baseball team, the Tigers.

Green Bay Packers — Team founder Earl Lambeau’s employer, the Indian Packing Co., sponsored Green Bay’s team and provided equipment and access to its athletic field, hence the name.

Houston Texans — Owner Bob McNair chose Texans for his 2002 expansion franchise over Apollos and Stallions. Several other pro football teams have used the name Texans, including Arena Football League clubs and an original AFL franchise in 1960, the Dallas Texans.

Indianapolis Colts — Originally the Baltimore Colts, named after the region’s history of horse breeding, the name was retained when the club was moved to Indianapolis in 1984.

Jacksonville Jaguars — Selected in a fan contest in 1991, two years before the city was officially awarded an NFL team. Other finalists were Stingrays and Sharks.

Kansas City Chiefs — After the team began play in the AFL in 1960 as the Dallas Texans, owner and AFL co-founder Lamar Hunt changed the name to Chiefs when he moved the franchise to Kansas City in 1963. Hunt said Native Americans had once lived in the area but the name might also be a nod to then-Kansas City Mayor R. Roe Bartle, who was nicknamed “The Chief” and helped lure the team to Kansas City.

Miami Dolphins — Another fan-contest vote chose the Dolphins for the team that entered the AFL in 1966.

Minnesota Vikings — Team general manager Bert Rose recommended the name because “it represented both an aggressive person with the will to win and the Nordic tradition in the northern Midwest.” One of the first pro sports teams to feature its home state, rather than a city, in its name.

New England Patriots — Also the result of a fan contest, the first part of the team’s name was changed from Boston to New England in 1971 but “Patriots” remained.

New Orleans Saints — After being awarded an NFL franchise in 1966, owner John Mecom chose the name from a name-the-team contest as a nod to the city’s jazz heritage and the popular song, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

New York Giants — Early owner Tim Mara borrowed the nickname in the 1920s from the National League baseball team of the same name. Baseball’s Giants, of course, later moved to San Francisco.

New York Jets — Originally the Titans, the team was renamed the Jets in 1963 after Sonny Werblin led a group that bought the club. The Jets played at Shea Stadium, close to La Guardia Airport, and the country was entering the “space age.”

Oakland Raiders — In a name-the-team contest in 1960 when Oakland was an original AFL franchise, the winning name was the Señors. A backlash ensued, partly because sportswriters complained that they didn’t have accent marks for the ‘n’ in their headline type. The name was changed to another finalist in the contest, the Raiders.

Philadelphia Eagles — After the bankrupt Frankford Yellowjackets were bought in 1933, the new owners renamed the team the Eagles in honor of the symbol of the National Recovery Act, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal effort during the Depression.

Pittsburgh Steelers — The city’s football team shared the same nickname as its baseball team, the Pirates, from 1933 to 1939, and then held a rename-the-team contest in 1940. That “Steelers” won was no surprise given the city’s huge steelmaking industry.

San Diego Chargers — In 1960, when the team began as an original AFL franchise in Los Angeles, then-owner Barron Hilton sponsored a name-the-team contest and, reportedly, after getting one submission with “Chargers” liked the name so much he didn’t open another letter. He said the name referred to the “trumpet call, followed by the roar of ‘Charge!’”

San Francisco 49ers — The team, which began play in the All-America Football Conference in 1946, was named after the settlers who went to the region during the 1849 gold rush.

St. Louis Rams — Initially in Cleveland and then Los Angeles from 1946 to 1994, the Rams trace their name to former general manager Damon Wetzel, who chose the name because his favorite college football team was the Fordham Rams.

Seattle Seahawks — A name-the-team contest drew 1,700 unique names and Seahawks prevailed. The team’s helmet design is a stylized head of an osprey, a fish-eating hawk of the Northwest.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers — The name is a reference to the pirates who raided Florida’s costs in the 17th century and was chosen by a panel of local sportswriters and officials of the NFL expansion team from a list generated by a fan contest.

Tennessee Titans — After moving to Tennessee from Houston in 1995, the team played two seasons as the Oilers before owner Bud Adams held a contest to rename the team. Titans was chosen over Tornadoes, Copperheads and Wranglers, among others.

Washington Redskins — Originally based in Boston, the team was known as the Braves. It soon was changed to the Redskins, reportedly to honor coach William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz, a Native American. The team kept the name after moving to Washington in 1937.


Arizona Diamondbacks — This type of desert rattlesnake was the winning choice of a fan vote in 1995. Other suggestions were the Coyotes, Rattlers and Scorpions.

Atlanta Braves — The team played in Boston and Milwaukee before moving to Atlanta in 1966, and the name goes back to James Gaffney, who became president of the club in 1911. He was a member of the Tammany Hall political machine whose name was derived from an Indian chief. Before that the Braves were called the Beaneaters, Doves and Rustlers.

Baltimore Orioles — When the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore in 1954, the team reassumed the name of the Baltimore team of the National League in the late-1890s. The oriole is the state bird of Maryland.

Boston Red Sox — The team was the Americans in 1907 when owner John Taylor announced the club was adopting red as its new color and would be renamed the Red Sox.

Chicago Cubs — Formerly known as the White Stockings, Colts and Orphans, the team was dubbed the Cubs by a local newspaper in 1902, when they had several young players, and the name stuck.

Chicago White Sox — The team adopted the Cubs’ former name and became the White Stockings, which was shortened to White Sox a few years after the club joined the American League in 1901.

Cincinnati Reds — Initially called the Red Stockings because that’s what the players wore, the team later would become the Reds and, for a brief time in the 1950s, the Redlegs.

Cleveland Indians — The team originally was the Naps, after player-manager Napolean Lajoie, but club officials and sportswriters agreed on renaming the club the Indians in 1915.

Colorado Rockies — While the name is appropriate for the region, some fans questioned why the team adopted the same name used by the city’s failed NHL franchise.

Detroit Tigers — The city’s original minor league team was referred to the Wolverines and Tigers, a nickname for members of a Michigan’s oldest military unit, the 425th National Guard infantry regiment. When Detroit joined the American League in 1901, the team received permission from the regiment to use the name.

Houston Astros — Originally the Colt .45’s, the name was changed by team president Judge Roy Hofheinz in 1965 because Houston was “the space-age capital of the world.”

Kansas City Royals — When the city was awarded an expansion franchise in 1969, the team chose the Royals from more than 17,000 entries in a name-the-team contest.

Angels — The name had been used by Los Angeles’ Pacific Coast League team from 1903 to 1957. The full name has gone from Los Angeles Angels to California Angels to Anaheim Angels to its current Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Dodgers — The name goes back to when the team played in Brooklyn and was called the Trolley Dodgers, because pedestrians had to dodge trolleys in the streets. The team was called the Robins from 1914 to 1931 in honor of manager Wilbert Robertson before switching back to Dodgers. The franchise was also known at various times in its early Brooklyn days as the Superbas, the Bridegrooms, the Grooms and the Grays.

Miami Marlins — The name was taken from a minor league Miami team, and the team long was called the Florida Marlins to give it more regional appeal. When the club moved into its new stadium in 2012, it became the Miami Marlins.

Milwaukee Brewers — When the expansion Seattle Pilots moved to Milwaukee in 1969, the team adopted a name that’s a nod to the city’s beer industry.

Minnesota Twins — When the Washington Senators moved to Minneapolis in 1961, club officials settled on the Twins because Minneapolis and St. Paul are known as the Twin Cities.

New York Mets — A fan contest generated 644 names and Mets was the resounding winner. There also was the tie to the New York Metropolitans that played in the American Assn. from 1883 to 1888.

New York Yankees — When the original Baltimore Orioles moved to New York in 1903, they were called the Highlanders. The nickname Yankees, or Yanks, was coined by New York Press editor Jim Price in 1904 and it officially became the team name in 1913.

Oakland Athletics — Athletics is one of baseball’s oldest names, going back to the Philadelphia Athletics. The name was kept when the team moved to Kansas City in 1955 and Oakland in 1968.

Philadelphia Phillies — Founded in 1883 as the Quakers, the franchise changed its name to the Philadelphias and later the Phillies.

Pittsburgh Pirates — In the late 1800s, Pittsburgh signed a player named Lou Bierbauer, whom the Philadelphia Athletics had forgotten to place on their reserve list. That prompted a sportswriter to say Pittsburgh had “pirated away Bierbauer” and the nickname was born.

San Diego Padres — When San Diego was awarded an expansion team in 1969, the club adopted the nickname of the city’s Pacific Coast League team.

San Francisco Giants — When the New York Giants moved to San Francisco in 1957 they retained their name, which dates to 1885 when, according to legend, their manager Jim Mutrie referred to his players as “giants” after a big win over Philadelphia.

Seattle Mariners — Mariners was the winning entry in a name-the-team contest for Seattle’s expansion franchise in 1976.

St. Louis Cardinals — After the St. Louis Browns became the Perfectos in 1899, a local columnist wrote that a woman referred to the team’s red stockings as a “lovely shade of cardinal” and fans liked the nickname. The next year, the team officially changed its name.

Tampa Bay Rays — Devil Rays was chosen for the expansion team and the club dropped “Devil” after the 2007 season. The next year, the Rays made a surprising run to the World Series.

Texas Rangers — When the Washington Senators moved to Arlington, Texas, in 1972, owner Robert Short renamed the team the Rangers after the Texas law-enforcement agency.

Toronto Blue Jays — A panel of judges and then the club’s directors selected the name from a public name-the-team contest that generated more than 30,000 entries.

Washington Nationals — When the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington in 2005, the team revived the Nationals nickname that had been used at times in reference to Washington’s original Senators.


Ducks — When the team joined the NHL in 1993, owner Walt Disney Co. named it the Mighty Ducks after the hit movies. The name was shortened to Ducks in 2006 after Disney sold the team.

Boston Bruins — When grocery store tycoon Charles Adams brought the team to Boston, he asked his general manager Art Ross, a former star player, for a nickname. Adams also insisted the team’s colors match his stores — brown and yellow — and Ross decided on Bruins.

Buffalo Sabres — When Buffalo entered the league in the 1970s, owners Seymour Knox III and Northrup Knox held a name-the-team contest and settled on Sabres.

Calgary Flames — The team first played in Atlanta and the name referred to the burning of Atlanta during the Civil War. The name remained when the team moved to Calgary for the 1980-81 season.

Carolina Hurricanes — After the Hartford Whalers moved to Raleigh in 1997, owner Peter Karmanos Jr. named the team after the devastating storms that hit the region.

Chicago Blackhawks — When the team entered the NHL in 1926, owner and World War I veteran Frederic McLaughlin named the team after the 86th Infantry Division, dubbed the “Black Hawk Division,” in which he served. The name officially was changed to Blackhawks from Black Hawks in 1986.

Colorado Avalanche — When the Quebec Nordiques left Canada for Colorado in 1995, the name Rockies — which an earlier Colorado hockey team had used before becoming the New Jersey Devils — was being used by Denver’s baseball team. So management settled on the Avalanche, another mountain reference.

Columbus Blue Jackets — The name was the winning entry in a name-the-team contest, and the team’s website says it celebrates “patriotism, price and the rich Civil War history in the state of Ohio and, more specifically, the city of Columbus.”

Dallas Stars — When the Minnesota North Stars — whose name was decided by a fan contest — moved to Texas in 1993, they dropped the North but kept the Stars.

Detroit Red Wings — After purchasing the Detroit Falcons in 1932, James Norris renamed the team after the “Winged Wheelers,” the nickname of the Montreal Hockey Club for which he once played.

Edmonton Oilers — The capital of Alberta is located in a major oil-producing region. Edmonton began play in 1972 in the World Hockey Assn. and kept the name when it joined the NHL in 1979.

Florida Panthers — Florida’s second NHL team chose the name because, as team president Bill Torrey said at the time, a panther “is the quickest striking of all cats. Hopefully, that’s how we will be on the ice.”

Kings — The late Jack Kent Cooke settled on Kings as the nickname from entries submitted in a fan contest.

Minnesota Wild — The name was chosen in 1998 from a field of six finalists, which also included the Blue Ox, Northern Lights and Voyageurs.

Montreal Canadiens — A charter member of the NHL, the Club de Hockey Canadien was created by John Ambrose O’Brien in 1909. The team is often referred to as “The Habs,” or “Les Habs,” short for “Les Habitants,” the name for early settlers of New France.

Nashville Predators — The result of a fan vote, it refers to the saber-toothed tiger remains discovered in the city in 1971.

New Jersey Devils — After the Colorado Rockies relocated to New Jersey in 1982, a fan contest resulted in the Devils. Legend has it that a harmless creature known as the Leeds Devil, or the Jersey Devil, roamed southern New Jersey from 1887 to 1938.

New York Islanders — The team plays its home games in Uniondale, N.Y., on Long Island.

New York Rangers — After Tex Rickard was awarded a team in 1926, it was dubbed “Tex’s Rangers” as a pun in reference to the paramilitary force founded in Texas in the 1930s.

Ottawa Senators — An obvious choice as Ottawa is the capital of Canada.

Philadelphia Flyers — When Ed Snider brought hockey back to Philadelphia in 1967, his sister reportedly suggested the name Flyers, which sounds nice when paired with Philadelphia but doesn’t have any other meaning.

Phoenix Coyotes — When the Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix in 1996, Coyotes was the winner in a name-the-team contest. The runner-up was Scorpions.

Pittsburgh Penguins — Although there was a name-the-team contest, the wife of co-owner Jack McGregor reportedly suggested Penguins after she heard that they called the city’s Civic Arena the “Big Igloo.”

St. Louis Blues — The team website says owner Sid Saloman Jr. chose the name in 1967 after W.C. Handy’s song, “St. Louis Blues.”

San Jose Sharks — The result of another fan contest, Sharks was chosen from 2,300 entries. When it was selected, several shark species made their home off the California Coast.

Tampa Bay Lightning — A thunderstorm in 1990 inspired former team president and Hall of Famer Phil Esposito to name his team the Lightning, plus the term expressed the fast action of a hockey game.

Toronto Maple Leafs — Conn Smythe changed the name after buying the team in 1927, partly because Smythe fought in the Maple Leaf Regiment in World War I and because there was a former Toronto hockey team called the East Maple Leaves.

Vancouver Canucks — Not only is Canuck slang for Canadian, there also was a political cartoon character named Johnny Canuck who became a comic-book action hero during World War II.

Washington Capitals — Despite a name-the-team contest, owner Abe Pollin decided on the apt nickname Capitals.

Winnipeg Jets — The current franchise is the second incarnation of the Jets; the first, which began in the WHA, relocated to Phoenix in 1996 and became the Coyotes. The current franchise originally was the Atlanta Thrashers before being sold to a Canadian group and relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.

Twitter: @PeltzLATimes