As the Vegas Knights look to win hockey’s ultimate prize in their very first season, the effects of some questionable branding decisions have left a few chinks in their armor.
[The second of a two-part blog post.]
Part 2: The Evidence and the Verdict.
The buzz generated in the City of Lights around their already beloved NHL Golden Knights has been unprecedented and remarkable. From the initial announcement of the new franchise, to the unveiling of the name and logo, to the berth in the Stanley Cup Finals, sports-famished Vegas fans arguably have embraced the team like no other expansion team in major league sports history.
The advantageous expansion draft format aside, the organization has shown incredible poise and sharp decision-making from the top down. Or so it seems. But amid all the understandable pandemonium lurks an ongoing trademark dispute born of a few questionable branding decisions. A dispute with the Army’s U.S. Military Academy and the College of Saint Rose (Albany, New York) that appears to be in the final negotiation stages based on the latest information available from the United States Patent and Trade Office, the governmental agency that process trademark requests and disputes.
For a more detailed description and timeline of the dispute, you can read Part One of this blog post. In a nutshell, the application to the trademark the name Vegas Knights and Vegas Golden Knights by the team ownership group was denied due to potential confusion with both the West Point U.S Army Parachute Team (The Golden Knights) and the Golden Knights College of Saint Rose who actually owns the trademark for the name. And following formal protests and delays in the approval process by both entities, the Vegas NHL franchise twice requested a suspension of the proceedings pending settlement negotiations — legal-speak for hashing out a deal that could be expensive and potentially limiting to the Stanley Cup contenders.
A Silver Heritage.
Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley is a West Point graduate who’s been upfront about his plans to incorporate that proud history into the new hockey team. After his first choice of the name Black Knights was rejected by the NHL, his next best name was the Golden Knights. This is where my self-appointed branding referee status has to call a timeout, for a couple important reasons.
It’s clear that the selection of Knights for the team mascot was a non-negotiable for Foley. Fair enough. Owner’s prerogative is a benefit of sitting on the throne. My biggest question regarding the choice of Golden Knights stems from one simple fact…Nevada is The Silver State. Not The Golden State. That official nickname was adopted by their western neighbor California 1968. Nevada has been known as The Silver State ever since its “silver rush” days of the mid-1800s. In fact, Nevada played a crucial role in helping the North win the Civil War by providing large quantities of the metal to help pay for the Union war efforts. A proud heritage if there ever was one.
From a branding perspective, this heritage qualifies as a full-blown golden opportunity (pun intended) for the team to embrace the history of their home state with chainmail-covered arms. Hence the first charge against the team– one huge count of precious metal-envy. The benefits of choosing Silver Knights would have been a branding hat trick: embracing the state nickname would show unity and a willing acceptance of their new home; the silver color would be a natural choice because of its nearly exclusive use in medieval armor; and not using the gold or black references in the team name would avoid the negative PR that the trademark dispute with the two educational institutions has brought about. If the team had instead chosen the name SilverKnights, a trademark dispute would likely still have ensued due to the ownership of that name by the Syracuse Silver Knights of the Major Arena Soccer League. But it’s my guess that a settlement with that team would have been much less difficult to achieve and certainly less contentious and high profile. Not to mention it would have avoided provoking a fight with the owner’s alma mater and risking that unnecessary bad blood.
But most importantly, rejecting the use of silver in the name and branding of the team was also a blatant disregard for SBJ Rule #13: Never reject low-hanging fruit. With his well-meaning but vision-impaired West Point “homer” perspective, the owner ignored a ripe branding peach ready for the picking. And that’s never a smart move because low-hanging fruit is a free gift from the branding gods.
Talk softly and carry a big hockey stick.
The second charge against the team is two counts of bully-branding (one each for the Army and the College of Saint Rose). Proceeding with their assumed ownership of the Golden Knights brand was a dead giveaway that from the beginning, the owners haven’t been a bit concerned about the legal implications of their team name. With the behemoth power of the NHL, and its deep pockets and brute legal strength behind the new team, successfully bulldozing their way to the eventual trademark ownership would be an easy assumption. And they may ultimately end up being right. But I guess it’s the whiff of arrogance and assumptive power combined with my tendency to root for the little guy that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
So while we await a still-possible Stanley Cup win in their inaugural season (they trail the Washington Capitals 3 games to 1 as of this writing), we also await a settlement announcement that I’m guessing will see a hefty amount of cash (or can they pay in casino chips?) headed from the Knights to one or both of the parties contesting the issue. Whether it will be enough to put a chink in the Golden Knights’ offseason free agency signings is a drawbridge they’ll need to cross when they get there.
Anatomy of Grays.
The last of the charges against the new team is regarding the design of the logo, uniforms and branding system. From a designer’s perspective, there’s a lot to like about the Golden Knights. A design team from Adidas created the logo and although initially, I was so-so about it, I’ve come to like it quite a bit. The use of the “V” as an integral part of the knight’s helmet was very nicely done and the black negative space even creates an intimidating persona for the face of the knight. The gold, black and gray colors create a strong primary palette.
The secondary logo element (a standard part of sports branding systems these days) is a crest-style design of clashing crossed swords and introduces red into the color palette. It’s simply crafted, has good balance and supports the valor, protection, and sacrifice that were integral concepts in the choice of the knight as the team mascot in the first place. I question the red, but the design certainly needed a “punch color” so I can see why they chose it.
Photo: Yahoo Sports
For me, the major disappointment was the jersey design, and my chagrin goes back to the precious metal-envy charge. To set off their desired gold highlights, the design team selected a risky but dubious slate gray as the major dark home jersey. Intended as a neutral background for the gold to “pop” against, it instead became an overwhelming dull color. When you consider how cool the home sweaters could have been with a dominant silver color instead of the gray, it seems like a big lost opportunity. All designers love gray. It’s in our DNA, and some say we bleed gray. But for me, this leads to the final charge against the team: overuse of gray. Especially where silver could have shone oh-so-much brighter.
Win or lose, the Vegas Golden Knights have accomplished something unique and rare in professional sports. Not since the 1950 NFL Cleveland Browns, has an expansion team won a professional sports championship in its very first year. It remains to be seen if the expansion-favorable draft format will allow the new Seattle NHL team to ride a similar dream season in 2020-21, but for now, we bow to King William and his Court for their enthralling run to The Cup.
As for the verdicts, Sports Brand Jury finds the Vegas Golden Knights guilty of precious metal-envy (and shameful ignoring of SBJ Rule #13 in the process). We find them also guilty on both counts of bully-branding, and overuse of gray.
But one thing they aren’t guilty of is losing. And as they say, winning solves everything. Personally, I hope they pull off the great Stanley Cup Finals comeback. I really want to see the players in those dull gray uniforms holding up that giant shiny silver cup!
Sports Brand Jury welcomes your opinions, comments, and suggestions for future cases. If we use your idea for a future post (if we haven’t already planned on it), we’ll send you some SBJ swag as a thank you.