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Why MLS clubs are rebranding, how some got it wrong, and why that's an opportunity to build fan trust

Eray Dursun couldn't believe what he was seeing. Nor could anyone in his Chicago Fire FC supporter circles. A new logo had leaked online and, well, it wasn't good.

"All the fans that I know and talk to, including myself, really were just in disbelief," the director of communications at supporter group Section 8 said. "We thought it had to be a joke, that somebody must have filed that patent for the logo just throw us off. And then they would give us an actual good logo. When the club actually announced that was the logo, we were even in more disbelief."

The so-called "Fire Crown" logo was widely ridiculed following its debut in November 2019. According to team sources, the displeasure found an understanding listener in new majority owner Joe Mansueto, who took over the club two months before the new crest's introduction. He suggested they wait a few months to see if the logo grew on supporters -- change, after all, is always tough -- but if it didn't, they should look to create a new mark. A rebrand of the rebrand, if you will.

Months passed, the anger didn't subside, and the Fire contracted designer extraordinaire Matthew Wolff to exclusively work on the new vision. The team met with supporters, asking for their feedback and ideas. In late 2021, they launched a new identity, one that drew inspiration from the club's history and the colors of Chicago, one that's been much more successful. (The Fire kept the "FC" addition to the team name, however, because of course they did.)

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The Fire are far from the only Major League Soccer team to redo their brand and identity in the past few years. The Columbus Crew (née Columbus SC, née Columbus Crew SC, née Columbus Crew), the New England Revolution, Houston Dynamo FC (née the Houston Dynamo) and Club de Foot Montreal (née the Montreal Impact) have all relaunched with varying degrees of success, and their reasons for doing so vary, too.

Business considerations are one factor, as a new logo means new merchandise to buy. Sporting Kansas City, which arguably launched the trend of European naming conventions when it abandoned the Kansas City Wizards identity in 2011, saw its merch sales jump from $30,000 in 2006 to more than $1 million in 2020.

For the Revolution, the last of the original MLS squads to rebrand, the time had come. "As things started to accelerate in other areas -- the business, the training center, having all our [designated player] slots filled, Bruce Arena getting hired -- it just felt like the visual identity of the club was stuck back in, you know, I hate using the term, but the MLS 1.0-type team," said Cathal Conlon, vice president of marketing and fan engagement.

In Houston, the rebrand came together partially because the previous identity felt dated -- the club originally launched in just five months, after moving from San Jose -- but also because the organization had grown to include an NWSL franchise: the Houston Dash. Uniting the two made sense.

"It wasn't just the Dynamo that we were considering, but the Dash as well," said Zac Emmons, vice president of marketing and communications. "The process started with the discussion of the Dynamo identity, but as we went through it, we saw the opportunity to bring the Dash into it as well." The team partnered with a Houston-based firm to ensure the new identity would mesh with the makeup of the city.

Changing a brand's identity is always a fraught exercise, but never more so than when the passions of sports fans are involved.

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Gomez fumes at Columbus rebrand decision

Hercules Gomez reacts to news that Columbus Crew will be rebranding to Columbus SC.

"It's just more intense," Tosh Hall, the global chief creative officer of creative agency Jones Knowles Ritchie, said of working with sports teams. His firm led the effort to rebrand the Revolution, in addition to other companies, including Budweiser, Burger King and New England staple Dunkin'.

When the process goes wrong, it usually goes wrong for a couple of reasons. Teams can ignore the past in an effort to focus on the future. They can also ignore their fans.

"The two biggest things that I try to approach with these rebrands is to unify the greatest number of fans and to retain elements from the past," Wolff, the Fire designer who also worked on crests that included the New York City FC, LAFC and Angel City FC, said.

When the Revolution began to consider rebranding, they coordinated with MLS league offices to conduct a series of generic, non-Revolution-identified focus groups on professional soccer in New England. The goal was to hear unvarnished opinions, to let the supporters speak freely. Two solid conclusions came from these meetings. The first was that the old logo, affectionately known as the Crayon Flag, had to go. While some people loved it, the majority wanted a more modern look. The second was that the name of the team needed to stay. That surprised the Irish-born, Liverpool-supporting Conlon.

"My opinion had been that we need to change the name of the team," he said. "I could not have been more wrong. When you actually asked fans and listened to them, they said that the name was right, that they got it correct in 1996."

Having these directions made narrowing down the choices going forward a bit easier.

Getting buy-in from the fans is vital because it can help a club avoid a mistake like using symbols that can be easily misconstrued, such as the crown and Chicago, but it also encourages supporters to be a bit more charitable when the eventual rebrand is launched (or, as it seems to happen frequently, leaks). The quality of a logo, after all, is a bit of a subjective thing. Fans and members of supporter groups who are incentivized to support the result because they feel like they are part of the process can go a long way to creating positive reception.

That's not a cynical ploy; that's the reality of how to successfully change something people love. With more fan input, Montreal might not have chosen to change the name, which wouldn't have created the need for a petition to change the name back and an ugly scene all around. Supporters' groups around MLS feel for their Canadian compatriots.

"It stinks that we have to feel sorry for another fan base," Section 8's Dursun said.

If there's a silver lining to a bad rebrand, perhaps it's that MLS ownerships groups can listen to their supporters, respond and work to rebuild trust. Columbus added "Crew" back into the name after a fan revolt. In May, Montreal announced a new logo following its disastrous rollout in 2021. While the team will keep the CF Montreal name, the reworked identify does lean into the club's history.

"The employees, fans and partners we met clearly expressed their desire to reinstate certain elements that have marked the club's history and are at the heart of our identity," Joey Saputo, club chairman of the board of directors, said in a statement announcing the news.

In Chicago, Dursun said that he was part of a group of supporters who were consulted about the Fire's new-look identity. He's not totally sure how far along in the process the team was when he got on a Zoom call, but he appreciated being part of the process regardless. The relationship between the supporter groups and ownership in Chicago is better than it has been in the past.

In a few years, perhaps they'll all sit back, have a drink, and laugh about the Fire Crown while wearing kits emblazoned with their sharp new logo.