Nobody was afraid of Bucco Bruce—and with very good reason. Bucco Bruce was a pirate with a dandified plume in his hat, a singularly unmenacing dagger in his teeth and a rakish expression, complete with a wink, on his face. Oh, and he was orange. All the same, in 1976, the brand new Tampa Bay Buccaneers thought Bruce would be the perfect logo to represent the team. So they put him on their helmet and went out to play. They lost their first 26 games over two seasons.
It would not be until 1997 that Bucco Bruce—and the Creamsicle color scheme that came with him—would be replaced by a truly menacing-looking pirate flag on the team’s helmet and a red and pewter-gray uniform. They Bucs went 10-6 that year, beginning an 11-year stretch in which they appeared in the playoffs seven times, including a Super Bowl win in 2002. With that, the mystical power of the sports logo showed itself again.
In an industry in which hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year on scouting, training facilities, player contracts and coaches’ salaries, the captains of sport like to think that they’ve teased as much randomness out of the system as possible. But the logo and uniform have always been a wild card.
This year, the Miami Dolphins abandoned nearly half a century of tradition, doing away with their old and surpassingly silly logo—a dolphin wearing its own little football helmet—and replaced it with a more dignified (and helmetless) variation on that theme. They opened the season 3-0 for the first time in a decade. Last year, the Baltimore Orioles, after 14 straight losing seasons, abandoned the ornithologically correct bird on their cap and went back to the cartoon Oriole they wore throughout their glory years in the 1960s through 1980s. They returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1997. In 1998, the always hopeless New York Jets got rid of the simple text logo they had used through two disastrous decades, returning to a version of the logo they wore in their only Super Bowl, and promptly made it to the American Football Conference championship game.
“There’s a context for all uniforms and all teams,” says Angus Mugford, a personal and organizational performance consultant to the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and a director at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, a sports training institute. “Changing a logo can be one way to signal that you’re changing the culture. With that, you change the motivational climate too.”
It defies reason, of course, to suggest that a purely symbolic bit of graphic art is all that’s necessary to transform a team’s fortunes, but sometimes there’s not a lot else to point to. In 1988, for example, the Orioles weren’t just bad, they were historically, record-settingly bad, losing the first 21 games of the season and finishing 54-107. The next year, as in 2012, they changed their logo, that time dropping the cartoon bird in favor of the onithologically correct one. They finished second, at 87-75, and contended for the playoffs until the last day of the season. And they did it with essentially the same team, manager and player roster they’d had the year before. But while changing the logo certainly didn’t hurt, it was their very awfulness the previous season that may have, perversely, been more responsible for their improvement. When the world already expects you to be a laughingstock, the pressure’s off.
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“Many organizations often perform at their best when they feel there’s nothing to lose,” says Mugford. “They start to relax. The challenge, of course, is when you do have something to lose, when you suddenly become the favorite. The best organizations are the ones that can carry that through and concentrate on closing out the task.”
That idea of focusing not just on the current iteration of the team but on the culture of the organization as a whole can be key—and here something as trivial as a uniform or logo may indeed make a difference. The engineer of the Buccaneers’ rise was their coach, Tony Dungy, who upon being hired in 1997 made it clear that the franchise’s first 21 years of failure would be left in the rear-view mirror. That meant changing the coaching staff and the player roster, as well as the way practices were conducted, playbooks were written, talent was scouted and more.The past would be jettisoned in ways big and small.
“Dungy addressed the whole organization,” says Mugford. “The logo and uniform became a visible indicator of that clean slate. They got away from the baggage of the past.” NFL coaching legend Bill Parcells, who took over the Jets in 1997, similarly retooled his entire organization, and similarly used the return to the team’s old trademark as a way to signal that floor to ceiling renovation.
Logo change doesn’t always work, of course—especially if it doesn’t come with a meaningful organizational shakeup. Sometimes it may even have the reverse effect. In 1995, the New York Islanders, who had been bouncing around 3rd, 4th and 5th place in their National Hockey League division throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, dropped their decidedly prosaic logo—little more than a map of Long Island with the team name over it—and replaced it with an unintentionally hilarious sea captain at the helm of a fishing boat. They dropped to 7th for two straight seasons. The next year, the map came back.
Then, of course, there are teams that need to make a change for other reasons entirely. As the clamor grows for the Washington Redskins to drop their racially charged nickname, even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has at last conceded that, “If one person is offended, we have to listen.” If the League does listen, the Redskins’ longtime helmet logo—a hook-nosed, high-cheekboned, braided and befeathered native American—may not be around much longer. That might be hard for traditionalists to take, but not for nothing Redskins fans, your team is currently 0-3. Just sayin’.