Best Unique Team Nicknames in Major U.S. Sport Leagues

*Cover Photo Credit: San Diego Padres


Last week, Major League Rugby announced a new expansion franchise: the LA Giltinis. A Giltini—what is that? According to the press release, a Giltini is, "named after a premium cocktail based on the Martini." 

Los Angeles Giltinis Major League Rugby Logo

Photo Credit: Major League Rugby

While the team is an important step for rugby's growth in the United States, the name has left fans outraged. Via social media, fans have fought the name, created new logos, and even started a petition that has nearly 500 signatures. So far, the nickname has caused quite the stir. 

Even though the Giltinis have met sour reception, Major League Rugby has had other great team nicknames that are both unique and something fans have supported. Other leagues also have unique names that capture their market's support. While names like the Yankees, Patriots, Dodgers, and others have long histories and great stories, I want to look at each major American sports leagues' best, most unique nickname. 


For this list, I am defining "unique nickname" as a name that is not used often in sports. For instance, how many major league, minor league, collegiate, and high school mascots use Eagles, Bulldogs, Bears, Falcons, Warriors, etc.? A lot. While these are common nicknames, I am not suggesting that teams with a these names do not have great branding. Many do, but the name is something fans have seen over and over again.

Next, I will be looking at how well this unique nickname fits into the overall team's market history/culture/geography. For instance, the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers have a very unique name, but their nickname does not fit in with the city; the only lakes around are small ones you find at parks. While the name comes from the franchise's start in Minnesota (Land of 10,000 Lakes), and the team has great branding, the name does not fit geographically. Other teams do a better job and were given higher consideration if they were more reflective of their area.

Finally, I will be choosing unique nicknames that have great fan support. For instance, the Giltinis have a very unique name, but their fans have been in uproar for change. The nicknames I have chosen allow fans to proudly wear team apparel without being embarrassed. 

Without further ado, let's look at each league's best, unique nickname.

NBA - Oklahoma City Thunder

 Oklahoma City Thunder NBA Team Logo

Photo Credit: Oklahoma City Thunder

When the Seattle SuperSonics franchise relocated, fans were bummed. Thank goodness a great unique nickname came about with the move. Thunder is intimidating with big booms, dark skies, heavy rain, and fast winds. The noise also precedes and accompanies tornadoes which happen on average five times a year near the city. 

While this is not the first time a team has been named the Thunder (multiple colleges and high schools) most of those nicknames focus on imagery around Thor the God of Thunder or other animals (Thunder Wolves, Thunderbirds, etc.) This nickname is unique because it uses imagery based on the actual weather. Very powerful and very frightening.

For being Oklahoma City's only major professional team, the fans have embraced this nickname. Like thunder ravaging the land, the fan base is one of the loudest and most hostile in the NBA. This has helped the team stay successful as they have a trip to the NBA Finals (2012) and 10+ playoff appearances since relocation.

Runner Ups: Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers

NFL - Buffalo Bills

NFL's Buffalo Bills Team Logo

Photo Credit: Buffalo Bills

You might be saying, how does this nickname match with the area—there are no buffalo in New York?! True...but there used to be. Before America's major expansion westward, buffalo were said to have grazed in Western New York in the early 1800s. While the city of Buffalo's name origin is disputed, there is no denying that the animal was around in the area making it a good tie-in for the football nickname.

While the team could have just used "Buffalo," or "Bison," as a name, they went with Bills after the most famous buffalo hunter: Buffalo Bill Cody. This name makes the team feel more rugged and wild instead of just being named after another animal. I also liked how the team was first owned by the president of Frontier Oil, Jame Breuil (more wild west tie-ins anyone?). The logo's modern look  and colors also elevate the nickname to have a rugged and wild feeling. 

The city of Buffalo may be away from the spotlight of New York City, but the Bills have the best unique nickname in the NFL. With almost 80 years of experience, and being the only professional football team to make it to four consecutive Super Bowls, the nickname has cemented itself into sports history. 

Runner Ups: Pittsburgh Steelers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

MLB - San Diego Padres

San Diego Padres Old Team Logo MLB

Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated.Com

How many American sports teams do you know that are named after Spanish words outside of soccer? Now, how many do you know of that are named after a religious figure? The Padres are the only one. (The NBA's Spanish jerseys like "Los Suns," "Los Clippers," "El Heat," don't count since they are spin-offs of original English words)

I think this is the best unique nickname for two reasons. First, San Diego was the birthplace of Father Junipero Serra's mission chain to establish Spanish colonies in the region. "Padre" in English means "father" and was used as a term to address religious monks who ran the missions. Second, the region is currently 34% Hispanic. Having a name that ties back to city's early colonizing history and major Latin demographic is great achievement.

San Diego is one of California's most beautiful and diverse cities which is reflected by the Padres nickname. While I like the name, I am glad that they got rid of the 1970s chocolate-covered-banana-colored branding for a more modern navy blue and white color scheme. The modern colors are just easier on the eyes.

Old San Diego Padre Brown and Yellow UniformsPhoto Credit: SB Nation

Runner Ups: Seattle Mariners, Milwaukee Brewers

NHL - Colorado AvalancheColorado Avalanche NHL Team Logo

Photo Credit: Colorado Avalanche

I have to admit that I really like natural disaster nicknames; Colorado pulls it off well. The state's greatest beauty are the Rockies with their snow covered mountaintops. With more snow and mountains, more avalanches can happen. While I do not wish for anyone to get caught in these dangerous snow slides, I do think that this nickname gives the team an intimidation factor against opponents that fans can get behind. Plus, avalanches connect with hockey as a winter sport compared to other names. (Looking at you Calgary Flames; what melts ice the fastest—fire)

Why can't we have more of these natural disaster nicknames in professional sports? They're intimidating, different, and fun. If I had the choice, I would love to see mores names after Twisters/Tornadoes, Floods, Tsunami, Blizzards, Volcanoes, Typhoons, or Droughts (okay maybe not this one as then people would think the team was losing all the time). Anyways, at least we have the Avalanche

Colorado's hockey team is named after a dangerous winter natural disaster that ties back to the state's geographic mountains. Along with winning two Stanley Cup Champions, the fans have fully accepted the nickname making it the NHL's best unique one.

Runner Ups: Vancouver Canucks, Carolina Hurricanes

Major League Soccer - San Jose Earthquakes

 San Jose Earthquakes Major League Soccer Logo

Photo Credit: San Jose Earthquakes

More natural disaster nicknames! From someone who grew up in California near the San Andreas fault line, this name says it all. For some reason, earthquakes are my favorite natural disaster to be in, as they don't scare me at all.

Documented San Jose regional earthquakes go back to 1906, when the deadliest one hit San Francisco. With how close San Jose is, the city sustained a lot of damage. Earthquakes have been a part of the region since then and while they are not as deadly as 1906's, people still have to prepare for them. With how often they do occur, earthquakes are a major part of Northern California life, making it the best soccer nickname to reflect the area..

San Jose may not be as glamorous as San Francisco, but its soccer nickname is perfect for the region. From a fan supposedly contributing the name, to the team having two MLS Cups, the Earthquakes have been embraced by fans and is the best unique name in American professional soccer.

Runner Ups: Portland Timbers, LA Galaxy

Major League Rugby - New England Free Jacks

Major League Rugby's New England Free Jacks Logo

Photo Credit: New England Free Jacks

New England has always been known for sporting nicknames that coincide with its colonial heritage. This nickname fits right in with all the other regional teams as it references the freedom earned by American patriots from the UK's Union Jack. (Arnold, The Runner Sports) Unlike other Boston team names though, the Free Jacks phrase is made up. However, this made up name actually makes sense compared to another rugby expansion team mentioned above.

The nickname is also unique because it ties in with rugby's arrival to the United States. Long has it been mentioned by the world rugby community how the U.S. is a sleeping giant for the game to explode. The Free Jack is symbolic of how the professional team will be a way for domestic players to freely chase their dreams in playing at the highest rugby levels. With this dual symbolism paired with American Revolution themes, the Free Jack name is even more unique than other nicknames.

With patriotic ties to the Boston area, the Free Jacks is the best unique name in Major League Rugby. The name has been embraced by fans  and the community alike as the team was on pace to sell out their home opener and other matches before they even played a professional match. 

Runner Ups: Seattle Seawolves, San Diego Legion

National Lacrosse League - Colorado Mammoth

Colorado Mammoth National Lacrosse League Team Logo

Photo Credit: Colorado Mammoth

Like buffalo in New York, you may be asking, when were mammoths in Colorado? Back in 2010, NPR published an article on how fossilized mammoths and other Ice Age era creatures were popping up quickly in western Colorado. The remains were found on top of a mountain and dated back between 12,000-16,000 years old. Other mammoth fossils were also found in 2002 when developers of a Denver suburb unearthed the remains while building new roads. These findings showed that Colorado once held these massive creatures.

Along with my fetish for natural disaster nicknames, I also think prehistoric creature nicknames are very unique and powerful. When you think of other professional teams named after prehistoric animals, the group is terrifying: Toronto Raptors, Nashville Predators, and Houston Sabercats. All of these names feel like your heart is going to get ripped out any second. While mammoths are not as bloodthirsty as these other animals, the nickname is still fierce due to the creature's sheer size and tusks. Think about it: a mammoth can first spear and then flatten you. Mammoths are a great name to show power and might for a team.

Colorado's prehistoric history is proudly shown through its professional lacrosse team's nickname. The Mammoth's not only have a unique name, but fans have been showing up to support the team boasting average attendances between 11,000 - 16,000 per game. (PointStreak) Even with lacrosse not being as popular compared to other sports, Mammoth attendance is closer than expected to averages with bottom-tiered NBA franchises. Mammoths is the best unique nickname in lacrosse.

Runner Ups: San Diego Seals, New York Riptide

WNBA - Las Vegas Aces

Las Vegas Aces WNBA Team Logo

Photo Credit: Las Vegas Aces

Las Vegas is becoming the next big sports city; the Aces have been a big part of that. Being the city's second major professional team, the Aces' unique name showcases what Vegas is all about: playing cards and winning money. Gambling is a huge part/draw for tourists. While other names may have been tacky (the Casinos, the Cards, the Slots, the Tokens, etc.) Aces is sleek and ties in perfectly with the city's gambling industry.

While the local connections are obvious, the nickname is really brought out by the logo. For unique names, if the logo is not up to par, then fans can be disenchanted with the name. In the logo above, the diamond shaped frame and red shape above the city name look very much like red diamonds you would see on a playing cards. On top of that, I also love how the city initials are in the bottom half of the diamond frame. These elements further complement the Aces' connection to Vegas gambling.

The Las Vegas Aces have the best unique WNBA nickname since being an expansion team. While actual attendance is slowly growing according to the Assistant GM, the Aces, have been embraced more by fans on social media. In less than three season of existence, the team has the third highest Instagram followers in the league. As more fans continue to accept the team, the Aces will grow into being another sports powerhouse to represent Vegas well.

Runner Ups: Phoenix Mercury, New York Liberty

National Women's Soccer League - Portland Thorns

Portland Thorns NWSL Team Logo - Best Unique Nickname in the League

Photo Credit: NWSL Portland Thorns

For only having nine teams in the league, the NWSL's Portland Thorns is a very unique nickname. While other professional teams have been named after plants/greenery (Toronto Maple Leafs, Portland Timbers, and Minnesota Wild) the Thorns have the best one. Thorns are sharp and prickly, something you don't want to mess around with. I think this makes the team more menacing and wild.

The Thorns also tie in very well with the local area. Through Portland's urban planning, the city has over 250 parks and recreational sites with a 5,000 acre green space in Forest Park. These areas and climate make for perfect rose breeding grounds. In fact, "Portland's International Rose Test Garden is the oldest official continuously operated public rose test garden in the US." (Travel Portland) These factors give the city its nickname, "The City of Roses" which ties in with the soccer team's name. Thorns protect roses, like how the Portland Thorns defend the city from opposing teams.

The Portland Thorns have the best unique name in the NWSL. The City of Roses tie-in and the name's wild nature make it great for fans to embrace. Fans love the name, as the Thorns lead the NWSL in average attendance with two times more spectators than the next best team.

Runner Ups: North Carolina Courage, Houston Dash


While the LA Giltinis have a long road ahead of them to win fans over, other teams have found success with their unique nicknames. From having tie-ins with local market history to staying away from common names, these teams have the best unique nicknames in their respective leagues. While other teams may have better branding or playing success, these teams' nicknames are different, fun, entertaining, fierce, and fan-backed.

NBA - Oklahoma City Thunder

NFL - Buffalo Bills

MLB - San Diego Padres

NHL - Colorado Avalanche

MLS - San Jose Earthquakes

MLR - New England Free Jacks

NLL - Colorado Mammoth

WNBA - Las Vegas Aces

NWSL - Portland Thorns




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