By Matthew Gourlie
In the past couple of months, Leeds United unveiled one of the most universally mocked badges in history, Major League Soccer’s change kits have largely gone monochrome and Roy Nasrallah and his Canadian Premier League team crossed the country to tour prospective markets and some possible franchise names hit the internet. So, it feels like the timing is right to discuss branding in the new Canadian league.
There will be a lot of ways that the Canadian Premier League can establish credibility and make a statement about the league’s aspirations. To date, through their initial hires and the way they have engaged with supporters, optimism is high that the CPL is on the right track to appeal traditionalists and their hardcore base of supporters.
The product on the pitch and the quality of the experience of attending a match will be the true litmus test for the public. However, several months before a ball is kicked, the CPL can do a lot to establish credibility through how the teams are named and presented. They can also help the bottom line by creating looks and logos that appeal to a broader public than merely those who attend matches.
While I have a lot of faith in Nasrallah, Jon Rogers et al. — and know full-well that some people will complain no matter how good the idea or design is — here is some wholly unsolicited advice in three parts on how the Canadian Premier League should proceed with branding as they move forward.
Call it a badge, a crest, a logo or even a primary mark, the visual identity of each club is arguably the most important part of the brand.
My one hope is that the Canadian Premier League dares to be great and tries to put out strong designs instead of the generic, average efforts that are becoming the norm in North America.
Major League Soccer initially made a statement out of the gates with their names, kits and logos that they were going to different, edgy and a product of their time. Too often those logos and names felt instantly gimmicky and dated. Now, MLS is trying to appeal to traditionalists with their names and look, without always seeming to know how to achieve that. Almost every new MLS logo (and in fact most new North American soccer logos period) have tried to look traditional and have aimed at being inoffensive. Which has prevented most of them actually being very good.
Modern soccer logos are almost like a mad lib: take a circle or a shield, add the name of the club and FC or SC, add a ball or a number (or both!) and then add some lines or a ton of lines or even chevrons (this element always represents something specific to the region that is not at all obvious or very appealing) and you’re done. It looks like a traditional badge without having any real symbolism that connects it to a place. Sure I know that the angle of the lines in the Sporting Kansas City logo is supposed to signify the Kansas-Missouri border and the interlocking SC is supposed to look like Asclepius’ rod, an ancient Greek symbol of health (the snake around a staff) because the new Sporting KC owners are from the health industry, but I would expect most people just wonder why the S and C look so squiggly and weird. Columbus’ badge is meant to evoke the region’s German heritage and has nine stripes to represent the other founding teams (I wish I were kidding). The ball in the San Jose logo is supposed to harken back to their (shockingly bad) 1974 original logo that was so bad it lasted a scant two years. It all feels a little obtuse and too much like a first year Fine Arts student explaining the symbolism of their work. Just like a joke, if you need to explain a logo, it doesn’t really work.
For many current MLS logos, once you strip away the badge, what is inside is usually not a very strong design element — if there is much of anything inside at all.
Conversely, the few that do have a strong design inside the outline, would be better served if the shield or circle wasn’t there at all.
The most egregious example is Orlando City, who have a fine lion/sun logo that ties into their USL nickname and a bit of their history while simply evoking the Sunshine state. The golden sun-maned lion is on a purple shield. A purple shield which is then on a purple home kit. To accommodate the shield, the actual logo is shrunk by about half which makes it very hard to see with the naked eye. Tottenham Hotspur just did the same thing for no reason, so this isn’t an exclusively MLS problem by any means. If the badge is absolutely necessary for the logo, then fine, but there’s no reason to have it on the kit.
The Philadelphia Union have a nice coiled snake — a nod to The Gadsden flag and Benjamin Franklin’s Join, or die cartoon from the Revolutionary War — which is then on a shield which is then placed in a circle. The snake is the best element of the logo, but it gets lost when viewed from any distance.
Minnesota United’s loon is a welcome departure. The blue sash on the badge mirrors the kits and works fine, but there’s no real reason to even have the shield. The loon and the six-pointed north star would be a cleaner look. It is somewhat heartening to realize that Minnesota United rejected more quality logos in 2012 from Zeus Jones than there are in the rest of the league combined. Not all of those are winners — there are too many shields still — but there are significant things within the shield in the best of them. Clearly there are good ideas out there, teams just need the conviction to run with them. Or the willingness to reject average concepts.
Shields aren’t the enemy. The ubiquitousness of shields in world football is one of the reasons they’ve become short-hand for authenticity on this side of the pond. But the use of the shield has to make sense and be the background for what’s really important and special about the logo.
I think the advice of the North American Vexillological Association about the traits of a good flag applies pretty well to what makes a strong logo: it should use meaningful symbolism, use 2-3 colours and be simple enough that a child can draw it from memory.
It is probably personal preference, but I think there are a lot of good arguments for the CPL taking a more modern design path than other North American leagues and focus on good design first and foremost.
The 1960s and 1970s were the golden age of logo design in North America. The designs were clean and simple and the best ones have endured to this day.
Yet that didn’t translate almost at all to soccer despite it being a boom period for the sport with new franchises popping up every year. Simple and clean designs were created across the “big four” North American sports and though that period of ’70s expansion was hit-and-miss at best, a lot of those logos have endured better than their teams did.
The Hartford Whalers great use of negative space to create an H in their logo stands out from that era as does the Milwaukee Brewers logo. The Vancouver Canucks’ rink, stick, C design is almost too basic, but it joins the likes of the Atlanta Hawks and the Atlanta Flames (both designed by Bob Wages from McDonald & Little) and the oft forgotten Buffalo Braves logo as designs that have endured beyond their era — even beyond their teams in some cases — but still stand out as clean and sharp.
In the North American Soccer League, the Atlanta Chiefs logo endures and is often cited as one of the best in the modern game in its re-appropriated use as the Kaizer Chiefs logo in South Africa (the man who founded the Kaizer Chiefs, Kaizer Motaung, played for the Atlanta Chiefs from 1968-71). The Los Angeles Aztecs logo was a winner and so was the Portland Timbers’ axe-T, wood grain logo that has been adopted by their MLS incarnation.
The Canadian NASL teams logos ran the gamut from the very good (late-era Vancouver Whitecaps and Edmonton Drillers) to the very bad (the Calgary Boomers’ pub softball team logo and early-era Vancouver Whitecaps) to the solid, but uninspiring (Vancouver Royals, Montreal Manic and Toronto Blizzard).
You can feel the NASL’s tenuous position in the sporting landscape and consciousness in the way they branded themselves. Nearly every team had a soccer ball in their logo. Many of those logos had a kid-friendly cartoon person or animal interacting with the ball. It projects both the idea that they’re marketing to kids and an insecurity that if they didn’t make it explicit what they were, no one would know.
Contrast this to the National Football League. They take simplicity to the extreme and then absolutely own basic concepts. The Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints were born in the ’60s. In almost any other sport you would get a logo of a caricature of a saint or a cowboy, likely playing that sport (the San Diego Padres’ friar swinging for the fences comes to mind). Not in the NFL. New Orleans…French Quarter… fleur de lys. Simple. Dallas… the lone star of Texas.
The Cowboys were a new team who wouldn’t win a game in their first season, but they appropriated a state-wide symbol — and one of the most elemental symbols on the planet — and trademarked it. It was that kind of hubris that led to them being called America’s Team and leaving a hole in the roof of Cowboys Stadium so “God could watch the Cowboys.”
If the CPL is aiming to be a league that will exist in 100 years — as president Paul Beirne has said — it could use a little hubris and a little daring.
Dallas and New Orleans are extreme examples, but football teams in the ’60s were masters of design. It’s more impressive when you think of how hard some teams are to brand and how easy some concepts are to get wrong. The Kansas City Chiefs could have gone so many bad directions that would demand revision in the 21st century. Instead, a simple arrowhead and an interlocking KC still holds up. The Pittsburgh Steelers stole their tri-star look from U.S. Steel, but it’s effective and a massive upgrade from their old look.
There’s a lot to be said for simple. There’s nothing complicated about a crossed N and Y, but it is world famous — and lifted from a New York City Police medal of valor that was designed by the studios of Louis C. Tiffany in 1877. Similarly, the Old English D that the Detroit Tigers wear has become a symbol of the city. Great sports logos have that power.
“The Whalers logo is a modernist approach to design, formally,” said Peter Good, the man who designed the Whalers logo in 1979. “The problem I have to a lot of these sports logos is that they’re just so complicated. There’s no definition. If you stand back they become confusing. There’s no separation. If you think about some of the most successful ones…. the New York Yankees monogram, the NY, it’s the Coca-Cola of Major League Baseball. It’s a 19th century monogram. it doesn’t need multiple colours. It doesn’t need anything else.”
Briefly stepping away from the world of sports, there are plenty of modern companies where I don’t even know what they sell (skateboards? shoes? clothes? all of the above?), but I know their logos. Whether it’s the Etnies logo or the Element logo or DC Shoes or Zoo York their logos are visible and everywhere. You could say the same about Lacoste’s crocodile or Munsingwear’s penguin. That’s just good branding. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with having a logo that is going to look as good on the breast of a golf shirt, a t-shirt or a hoodie as it does on a kit.
You can make a valid argument that what makes for a good apparel logo doesn’t make for a good soccer logo. And you would have a point. However, putting a team name, a ball and/or some lines in a shield doesn’t make a good logo — soccer or otherwise — either.
I don’t really expect many (or any) modernist logos, but I do think those are the ones most likely to stand the test of time. Of course there are cases where that’s not the right tack for the CPL.
The Halifax club has so many opportunities for a more traditional look that could draw from the rich history of the region and a lot of interesting associated iconography. Assuming they adopt the Halifax Wanderers as a name — as they should — then there is already a very simple pre-existing Wanderers Athletic Association logo and even just incorporating the St. Andrew’s cross or the Lion Rampant (obvious as that is) is a small nod to the original Wanderers club. That is just a jumping off point though. Either the Bluenose racing ship or the belted kingfisher are great images to work with and around. The Kingfisher is usually accompanied by four arrows (as seen on the Halifax city flag). The Halifax regional municipality coat of arms has a pair of seahorses supporting the coat of arms. I’m not suggesting doing the same exactly (lest it look too much like Newcastle United), but there are lot of meaningful symbols to the region that a smarter designer than I could combine into a sharp, heraldic logo.
The Canadian Soccer League set the bar low in terms of logos. The Vancouver 86ers arguably had the best logo, but the league had a perpetual combination of trendy names and lazy logos. As every new team seems to fall into the same pattern of putting not much into a shield or circle, the CSL teams fell into the ’80s trap of writing out the nickname and then trying to do something with that while incorporating a ball. No matter what the CPL comes up with, I am nearly certain that it will be better than the bulk of the CSL’s efforts.
The most reassuring thing about logo design for a new league is that nothing has to last forever. You would hope that they would be strong enough to endure, but even iconic logos have gone in and out of style. If the Canadian Premier League can create a couple of enduring logos out of their launch, that would be great, but at the bare minimum I hope that they at least shoot for the stars. Or even something as basic and iconic as a lone star.