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Name Game
June 30, 2010
By Wendell Barnhouse | Correspondent

If William Shakespeare was around today and doing consulting work, he might offer the following advice to college conferences that have shuffled their membership numbers:

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

Shakespeare could probably slap together a farcical three-act based on the names and numbers of three major conferences.

After the departures of Colorado and Nebraska, the Big 12 has 10 members. The Pacific-10 now has 12 members, as does the Big Ten … which has had 11 members since Penn State joined in 1990.

For the Big 12, losing two members will cause considerable adjustment over the next few months. To rename or not to rename is one of the questions. As of now, there is no way of knowing how that issue will be resolved.

"I don't want to give my indication now of what I think and then have my members say 'what the heck are you thinking about?'" Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe said. "It is something we have to fully consider as we move forward."

With the Big 12 at 10 and the Big Ten at 12, a name swap would at least answer the numerical problem both conferences face. However, imagine the confusion if the Big Ten became the Big 12 and the Big 12 became the Big Ten (or Big 10).

When someone asks for a Kleenex, Kimberly Clark doesn't mind that the person really wants a tissue. When an office worker says he's going to Xerox something, it's really just a photocopy. MacIntosh still sells millions of electronic devices even if consumers trek to an Apple store to make the purchase. RadioShack sells more than radios.

The Atlantic 10 Conference has been numerically challenged since 1991-92. That was its first season with 12 members. Since then, its membership has fluctuated to 11 to 9 to 12 and to its current 14.

The issue facing the three conferences is the value of their current brand names. Even with 10 teams, is the Big 12 better off sticking with its 14-year-old name? And the Big Ten has been in existence since it was founded in 1896. Is it worth it to undo over a century of name recognition to become the Big Dozen?

"There's such a history and tradition behind it that they're going to stick with," Pat Pickett, a public relations and marketing manager for Synergy Marketing Group in Indianapolis, told the Lincoln Journal Star. "I don't see any of the college conferences changing their names regardless of how many they have."

William Carner is an adjunct marketing professor at Missouri. He doesn't believe new names are worth it.

"Every time you change a brand name, you have to rebuild a brand," Carner told the Kansas City Star. "That takes time and money."

Conferences with geographical names - the Big East, the Atlantic Coast, the Southeastern - haven't had to worry about name changes as their memberships have changed. The Pacific 8 became the Pacific 10 when Arizona and Arizona State joined in 1978, so there's precedent in a name change there.

But when the Pac-8 became the Pac-10, branding and marketing weren't as important for athletic programs. Does the Pac-12 make sense? (And never mind that Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado have as much in common with "Pacific" as the Mojave Desert has with sailing.)

"I think it really has nothing to do with how many teams are literally part of it," Chuck Piper, a former marketing executive who know teaches at Nebraska, told the Lincoln Journal-Star. "You can't be changing the brand every time you add or subtract. The Big Ten brings to mind a certain kind of entity, and that entity remains intact even though the players might change from time to time.

"Anybody can get away with changing names. The thing is you kind of start over from ground zero. I'm not sure the Big 12 wants to do that anymore than the Big Ten does."

To paraphrase The Bard: "Some are born named, others achieve names and some have names thrust upon them." We'll see if the future has any name calling.
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