Almost half of the NFL teams got their names through naming contests while others used advisory committees/focus groups to choose names.
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Let’s see how NFL teams got their name.
Soon the Morgan athletic club was moved to Chicago’s normal park and renamed the Racine Normals. Racine was chosen because the normal park was on Racine Avenue in 1901.
The owner bought used uniforms from the University of Chicago but they were so faded that they looked red instead of maroon, because of those dirty uniforms the team was renamed the Racine Cardinals.
This team was forced to pause operations for world war I and the Spanish flu but began playing again in late 1918. In 1920 the NFL was founded as the APFA and the Cardinals are one of two remaining charter members.
The other of whom we’ll discuss in a bit the franchise fee for joining this new league was a whopping 100 or about 1200 bucks today.
in 1922 the APFA was renamed the national football league, a new team from Racine Wisconsin entered the league, and confusion over the Chicago-based Racine Cardinals’ name prompted a change to the Chicago Cardinals.
Because of world war ii, there was a player shortage. The cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers merged for a single season to field a team and were known as “Cardpit”. By the 1950s the Cardinals were completely overshadowed by their cross-city rivals the Bears, averaging barely three wins a season, The team was nearly bankrupt and the NFL demanded a hefty relocation fee that the owners of the Bidwell family could not pay.
Luckily for the Cardinals, the prospective buyers of the team decided to start their own league the American football league creating this new competition for the NFL.
It prompted the league to allow the team to finally move to Saint Louis in 1960. Instead of changing the team name to be different from the already existing baseball team in St Louis. When the Cardinals moved they became informally known as the St Louis football cardinals.
The Cardinals struggled to find success in St Louis. Their stadium got old the tendons dropped and the team ultimately decided to move in 1988 to Phoenix Arizona. They became known as the Phoenix Cardinals.
Finally, six years after their move to Arizona the team was renamed for a final time the Arizona Cardinals.
The Packers are one of the oldest teams in the NFL. They were founded in 1919 and competed independently before joining the NFL in 1921.
The team gets its name from one of the founders who worked at an Indian packing company. Lambo needed money for uniforms and equipment for his newly founded team.
And his bosses at his day job gave him the funds on the one condition that he named the team after the company. And that’s how the Packers got their name.
The Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears are the only other team along with the Arizona Cardinals that were a part of the original inaugural season of the NFL in 1920.
They have originally named the Decatur Staley, after a Staley food starch company. They were actually, a company team owned and operated by the company. In 1921, The team was sold for a whopping hundred dollars and moved to Chicago becoming the Chicago Staleys.
A hundred dollars sure doesn’t buy what it used to the following year they changed the team name from the Staleys to the Chicago Bears.
He chose bears to better align with the Chicago cubs with whom they shared Wrigley field until 1971.
The New York Giants
The New York Giants joined the NFL in 1925. The team took the same name as the New York Giants baseball team.
To distinguish between the two these New York Giants became known as the New York Football Giants.
A name that continues to be their legal corporate name to this day despite the fact that the baseball team moved to San Francisco in the 50s.
The Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions were originally founded in 1930 in Portsmouth Ohio and were called the Portsmouth Spartans.
At the time Portsmouth was the NFL’s smallest city and the team was struggling to survive. So in 1934 the team was sold and relocated to Detroit.
The name “Lions” was chosen to better match the Detroit baseball team the “Detroit Tigers”.
The Washington football team
Washington began as a franchise in 1932 established in Boston as the “Boston Braves”. Braves were chosen to match the baseball team that they shared a stadium with also called the “Boston Braves”, later the “Atlanta Braves”.
A year later they ended up moving to Fenway and shared a field with the Boston Red Sox.
So they renamed the team again to avoid confusion about having the same name as the crosstown rivals.
At that time Redskins were chosen to differentiate their team from other sports franchises with Native American names.
In 1937 the team was moved from Boston to be closer to the owner’s home in Washington DC.
The name was kept upon relocation and this is how we got the “Washington Redskins” in 2020 spurred on by the protests happening over the summer. The team finally announced the decision to retire the name Redskins.
The team would simply go by the Washington football team until a new name is made permanent in 2022 which frankly I like the sound of the Washington football team. It brings a little bit of a European flair similar to the names we see in the MLS.
The Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers were founded in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1933 as the “Pittsburgh Pirates”. Pirates were chosen to mimic their landlord the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team.
In 1940, the owner decided he wanted a unique name and identity separate from the baseball team.
So a contest was held to determine a new team name. A panel selected the name Steelers from the entries a reference to the city’s steel industry.
During world war ii, the Steelers twice merged for a single season with other franchises in order to field a team while many players left for war. First, in 1943, the Steelers merged with the Eagles Roster to form Phil Pitt also called the Steagles.
Then in 1944, they merged with the Cardinals to form a Card Pit. The following year they returned to being the Steelers and they have remained the Steelers ever since.
The Eagles were founded in Philadelphia in 1933 after a previous franchise went bankrupt only two years earlier and they have always been known as the Eagles.
The name eagles were chosen as a reference to president FDR’s new deal and their national recovery administration that used a Blue eagle as its logo.
Briefly in 1943, just like the Cardinals in 1944, the Eagles merged for a single season during world war ii with the Pittsburgh Steelers and were known briefly by fans as the struggles the following season.
They returned to being the Philadelphia Eagles.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams began life in 1936 as the Cleveland Rams. Rams were chosen for the owner’s favorite college football team the Fordham Rams of Fordham University in New York.
In 1946 the owner threatened to close up shop if he wasn’t allowed to move his team to Los Angeles.
Eventually, the league conceded and the move was finalized giving us the Los Angeles Rams at least the first time that they were the Los Angeles Rams.
Because in 1995 siding a poor stadium and a disappearing fan base, the owner moved the Rams to St Louis.
Again because of a poor stadium but also the appeal of the second biggest US market. Immediately following the conclusion of the 2015 season, the Rams, along with the Charters and Raiders all filed for relocation to Los Angeles.
In 2016, the league voted to allow the Rams to relocate giving us the new Los Angeles Rams.
Cleveland Browns were founded in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1944. They played their first season in 1946 in the inaugural season for the AAFC which was a competitor to the NFL.
Their first head coach was named Paul Brown and he previously coached the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Because of his popularity, fans wanted to call the team the Cleveland Browns. And despite his objections, the owner eventually gave in naming the team the Browns.
The browns would eventually be one of three teams to join the NFL after a merger in late 1949.
The AAFC was absorbed by the NFL and the browns are one of the two AAFC teams still in existence today. The browns paused operations in 1996 when the team relocated to Baltimore but the NFL promised a new team that would retain all the logos and history of the browns.
They got that team as promised in 1999, once again giving us the Cleveland browns.
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers were founded as the first professional sports team in San Francisco in 1944.
Playing their first season in 1946, they are the other still surviving, a team from the AAFC that merged with the NFL in 1949.
The name 49ers comes from the prospectors who moved to San Francisco in search of riches during the 1849 gold rush.
But joined the NFL 100 years after the gold rush that they’re named for the 49ers retained their name as always remaining the 49ers.
The Colts were founded in 1953 in Baltimore, Maryland as the Baltimore Colts, were named after the third AAFC team that came to the NFL after the merger also called the Baltimore Colts.
But financial issues meant that the original Colts team would only play one season in 1950 before folding. And this new Colts team would be founded just a couple of seasons after.
The Colts were chosen in honor of Baltimore’s history of horse racing. The Preakness stakes are one of the events in horse racing’s triple crown and take place in Baltimore every may.
By 1983, the relationship between the owner of the Colts and the city of Baltimore deteriorated. The Colt’s owner was shopping the team with different cities and by marching the city of Baltimore passed legislation to seize ownership of the team by eminent domain.
So within 48 hours, the owner agreed to deal with the city of Indianapolis and moved the team in the middle of the night. Like literally at 2 am, they loaded up 15 moving trucks with all of their stuff and drove it to Indianapolis to add insult to injury upon arriving in Indianapolis.
The team name was retained despite its ties to Baltimore’s famous horse race and that’s how we got the Indianapolis Colts.
The Bills were founded in Buffalo, New York in 1959. Buffalo had previously had an AAFC team called the Buffalo Bison which was founded in 1946.
But decided to change their name to Buffalo Bills after only one season. Buffalo Bills is a play on the name Buffalo Bill Cody a famous figure of the wild west.
the AAFC Buffalo Bills were folded as a part of the merger with the NFL in 1949, a decade later a new league was formed called the American football league.
Like the AAFC before it, the AFL was a league created to compete directly with the NFL.
This is the league that the Buffalo Bills we know today were originally a part of. The AFL would run for 10 seasons before merging with the NFL.
This is when conferences were created in the NFL, the existing 10 AFL teams from the merger along with the Baltimore Colts, the Cleveland Browns, and the Pittsburgh Steelers would become the American football conference the NFL.
The rest of the existing NFL teams at the time of the merger became the national football conference. The AFL Buffalo Bills kept their name when the leagues merged and they joined the NFL in 1970.
The Denver Broncos were founded in 1959 in Denver, Colorado, and were also a founding member of the American football league.
The owners held a name in the team contest and the winning name was the Broncos.
This name was likely popular due to the Denver Broncos baseball team that played in Denver in the 1920s.
The Broncos also kept their name when they joined the NFL in the merger of 1970.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs were founded in 1959 in Dallas, Texas as the Dallas Texans. They were also a founding member of the American football league.
When the NFL established the Dallas Cowboys A year later in 1960 interest in the Texans faltered due to the NFL’s massive popularity.
The team was then relocated in 1963 to Kansas City and originally the plan was to retain the name Texans probably wasn’t the best idea.
Unsurprisingly when put into a fan contest Texans were rejected and Chiefs were chosen in honor of Harold Bartle. The mayor of Kansas City was partially responsible for bringing the team there.
Bartle’s nickname was chief, the Chiefs retained their name when the leagues merged in 1970 giving us the Kansas City Chiefs.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers were founded in Los Angeles in 1959 and were also a part of the American football league.
Chargers was chosen in part because of the common sports fanfare that was first written at USC in the 1940s that goes followed by the crowd yelling Charge.
The Chargers began playing in Los Angeles before moving in 1960 to San Diego, becoming the San Diego Chargers.
They too kept their name when they came to the NFL in the 1970 merger but prior to the 2017 season, the Chargers moved back to Los Angeles and once again became the Los Angeles Chargers.
New England Patriots
The Patriots were founded in Boston Massachusetts in 1959 and were also founding members of the American football league.
A contest was held to choose a name and Boston Patriots were the winning name. It refers to the colonists that rebelled against the British in the American revolution.
After the AFL NFL merger in 1970, the Patriots moved to Foxborough and briefly changed their name to the Bay State Patriots before ultimately deciding on the regionally representative New England Patriots before the start of the 1971 season.
New York Jets
The Jets were founded in 1959 as the Titans of New York. They too were a founding member of the AFL.
In 1963 the owner filed for bankruptcy and the league sold the team to a new ownership group who renamed the team the Jets.
Jets were chosen from a list of 500 candidates beating out names like Dodgers, Burrows, and Gothams, but the Jets was eventually selected because of the site of their new stadium between new york’s two major airports.
When introducing the name they called jets a symbol of this speedy and modern age. In 1970, when the AFL and NFL merged, they remained the New York Jets that we know today.
The Tennessee Titans were founded in 1959 in Houston Texas as the Houston Oilers.
They too were a founding member of the AFL. Oilers was chosen as the name in reference to the oil industry in Texas and they kept that name as they joined the NFL in 1970.
The team then moved to Tennessee in 1997. They retained their name becoming the Tennessee Oilers playing that first season in Memphis.
Once their stadium was built in Nashville they became the Tennessee Titans in 1999.
The owner wanted a new name that was connected to Nashville as well as reflected power, strength, leadership, quote, and other heroic qualities. Titans were seen as the name to fill that criterion. Titans also serve as a nod to one of Nashville’s nicknames.
The Athens of the south Titans is a reference to the Titans of Greek mythology also like Athens in Greece Nashville is known for its cultural focus on arts and education plus it also has a full-scale replica of the Parthenon an ancient temple located in Athens Greece which is pretty awesome.
The Dallas Cowboys were founded in 1960 in Dallas, Texas. Names such as Dallas Steers and Dallas Rangers were among the favorites.
But ultimately Cowboys was chosen to avoid any confusion with the Dallas Rangers minor league baseball team.
Wasting no time they began playing that very same season in 1960.
The Minnesota Vikings joined the NFL as an expansion team in 1960. The name was chosen from a list that included names like Chippywas, Miners, and Voyagers.
But Vikings were eventually chosen to reflect Minnesota as a part of the country with a large Scandinavian, American population.
They have remained the Minnesota Vikings. Their entire existence since 1960 playing their first season in 1961.
Las Vegas Raiders
The Oakland Raiders were founded in 1960 in Oakland, California. They were also a part of the American football league a contest was held by the Oakland Tribune to name the team the winner was the Oakland Senors realizing they were the butt of a joke.
Nine days later the owners chose to rename the team to the Raiders which had finished third in the contest.
In 1970 they joined the NFL as a part of the AFL NFL merger. In 1982 following a messy lawsuit the Raiders moved to Los Angeles against the wishes of the league.
However, unable to really find a foothold in LA, the team moved back to Oakland in 1995 but after a decade of failing to secure a new stadium in Oakland, in 2017 the NFL granted the team permission to move to Las Vegas. In 2020, the Raiders officially moved to Las Vegas keeping their iconic name and giving us the Las Vegas Raiders.
The Falcons were founded in Atlanta Georgia in 1965. The name Falcons were suggested by a high school teacher named Julia Elliott whose entry beat out over 40 other contestants.
Some of the entries that the Falcons beat were the Knights, the Bombers, the Rebels, and the Thrashers.
But Elliott’s essay describing the falcon as proud and dignified with great courage and fight won out giving us the Atlanta Falcons taking the field for the start of the 1966 season.
The Miami Dolphins were founded in Miami Florida in 1965 as an expansion franchise of the American Football League.
A naming contest was held in which over a thousand different names were entered but the winning name was the Dolphins.
The Bottlenose Dolphin is often found in the waters off the coast of Florida.
The Dolphins were ready to take the field for the 1966 AFL season and when the leagues merged in 1970 the Miami Dolphins officially became a team in the NFL.
New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints have founded in 1966 in New Orleans. Their establishment was a part of the planned expansion that was agreed upon during the AFL-NFL merger to bring the number of teams in the league up from 24 post-merger to 28 total teams.
The merger was then set to take place in 1970.
The name Saints were chosen because of the date of the establishment of the team, November 1st which is the roman catholic holiday of all saints day which fits perfectly with the deep and historic roots of catholicism in new Orleans.
This also fits perfectly with the history of jazz music in New Orleans as well reminding us of the classic when the saints go marching doubtlessly the New Orleans Saints have been a perfect fit since they began playing at the start of the 1967 season.
The Cincinnati Bengals have founded in 1967 in Cincinnati Ohio. They were originally part of the American Football League which would later emerge with the NFL in 1970.
Ironically the team’s ownership group was led by paul brown who had been ousted a few years earlier from his role with the Cleveland Browns.
Paul Brown chose the name Bengals after a football team that played in Cincinnati in the 1930s. He also chose colors that were intentionally close to those of the Browns. You know to throw some shade on his former team.
The Bengals would begin playing for the start of the 1968 AFL season and when the leagues merged the Cincinnati Bengals retained their name joining the American football conference.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
In the NFL the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were founded in 1974 as a part of the same agreement that established the Saints.
The goal of the agreement decided on prior to the merger was to bring the league up to 28 teams but it took until 1974 for the final two teams to be added.
Tampa Bay is a geographic term of regional representation describing the whole metropolitan area surrounding the bay called Tampa Bay including cities like Tampa and St Petersburg in clear water.
A contest was held to name this new team and the Buccaneers won out. The name Buccaneers references the Pirates that would frequent Florida’s gulf coast in the 1600s. And over three centuries later we still have Buccaneers frequenting the same coasts. Ever since they played their first season in the NFL in 1976.
The Seattle Seahawks were the other team added in 1974 with the goal of bringing the league up to 28 teams.
A naming contest was held and the name Seahawks won. A Seahawk is another name for an osprey a type of hawk found all over the world near water.
The Seattle Seahawks would play their first season in 1976.
Two teams were added in a 1993 expansion of the league. In 1993 the Carolina Panthers were founded in charlotte north Carolina as the team name suggests.
The team is meant to be regional attracting fans from both north and south Carolina.
The name Panthers were chosen by the owner’s son presumably earning him some major dad points.
The Carolina Panthers would begin playing at the start of the 1995 season.
The other team to join in 1993 was the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jacksonville Jaguars were founded in Jacksonville Florida in 1993, two years before their first NFL season.
Even before the franchise rights were awarded for Jacksonville an ownership group seeking to bring a team there held a fan vote.
Jaguars was the winning team name beating out names like Sharks, Stingrays, and Panthers.
Their name has remained the same since they first took the field at the start of the 1995 season.
The Baltimore Ravens were founded in Baltimore, Maryland in 1996, 12 years earlier their former team moved to Indianapolis.
So in 1996, the NFL allowed the Cleveland Browns to move and begin life as the Baltimore Ravens.
The name Ravens were chosen by the contest. There were three finalists the Marauders, the Americans, and the Ravens.
Ravens won the vote the name is a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem the raven Edgar Allan Poe himself lived in Baltimore for some time and is buried there.
The Houston Texans were founded in 1999 when franchise rights were awarded to a team in Houston however, the team wouldn’t play until the 2002 season.
The city of Houston was chosen in part to replace the team that moved to Nashville in 1997.
The new franchise unable to make up its mind initially trademarked a plethora of names, including Apollos, Bobcats, Challengers, Cult 45s, Energy, Hurricanes, Roughnecks, Rough Riders, Roustabouts, Storm, Cats, Texans, Tauros, Wild Cats, Wild Cat, Turns and Wranglers but the front runner was originally the stallions.
Ultimately the owner decided that the use of horse imagery in team names was overused in the NFLsee the Broncos and the Colts and also the Chargers which originally featured a horse as well. So in 2000 Texans became the official team name because of Texans and Texas.