Bristol Bears: Owner Steve Lansdown prepared for 'dissenters' over name change
Bristol Rugby owner Steve Lansdown says he is prepared for “some dissenters” after deciding to rebrand the club Bristol Bears from next season.
The name was launched with a glitzy ceremony and brochure on Monday but came with criticism from some fans.
Bristol will return to the Premiership as Bristol Bears from 1 June.
Branding experts have questioned the lack of consultation with supporters and warned the club may receive some “ridicule” in the short term.
Lansdown, who also owns Bristol City FC and helped move the rugby club to Ashton Gate in 2015-16, believes the rebrand will “create something new and exciting everyone can buy into”.
“We’re going to look after our existing supporters,” he told BBC Points West. “We’re going to look after them and there’s plans for exciting new things at Ashton Gate.
“But, going forward, we need to attract new supporters and with 27,000 seats to fill, our ambition is to be able to do that on a regular basis.
“We want more and more people recognising Bristol Bears going forward and this is a hotbed of rugby and the rugby club you should support.”
‘Risk and opportunity’
Bristol, whose promotion to the Premiership was secured earlier this month, will not be the only sporting club to adopt the Bears nickname. Warwickshire County Cricket Club and Chicago Bears in the NFL are just two examples.
Supporters and Bristol residents have taken to social media to suggest alternatives more in tune with the city’s heritage and history.
“The level of consultation with fans is the real important aspect,” co-founder of the House brand agency Steve Fuller told BBC Radio Bristol.
“Sport is a grass-roots phenomenon and you should involve fans from the start of any decision like this.
“The idea that we’re all averse to change isn’t true. What we’re really averse to is being given something rather than being involved in the process.”
Following the announcement, reaction from fans on Twitter sprung up numerous memes and GIFs poking fun at the choice of nickname, something Steve believes is part of the process.
“There’s risk and opportunity in a rebrand,” he said. “So far, you’re seeing some of the backlash and concern about the name, so immediately there’s risk and lots of concern about ridicule.
“I really understand the notion of what Bear Spirit is.
“But, my sense is that with the club’s 130 years of history, there’s an authentic, real story in Bristol that will still talk to that sense of spirit, adventure and dynamism.”
Lansdown ‘can do what he wants’
Despite coming as a “complete surprise” to the club’s own historian Mark Hoskins, Steve Lansdown’s decision to rebrand is still understandable in his view.
“It’s not going to stop people watching Bristol and at the end of the day, Steve can do what he pleases as he’s the man who backs the club,” he told BBC Radio Bristol.
“It’s his money that’s going into it and it’s thanks to him we are where we are, moving forward back into the Premiership next season and not just looking to survive this time.
“The sticking point for most supporters is the lack of the city crest on the new shirt and the loss of the coat of arms. I’m also not convinced we’re going to hear much ‘c’mon the Bears’ on the terraces next season.
“People will still chant ‘c’mon Bris’ or ‘Bristol, Bristol’ instead.
“But, if it was left to me, we’d still be playing at the Memorial Ground and in blue and white hoops with letters on the back of the shirts.”
Making it in America
Bristol’s name change comes after Premiership Rugby recently sold its naming rights to United States-based insurance brokers Gallagher, a move that was seen to improve the competition’s footprint across the Atlantic where matches have been hosted in recent years and a television contract with NBC has been signed.
Dr Elisavet Argyro Manoli, a lecturer in sports marketing and communications at Loughborough University, said the name change could be seen as making the club “more American”.
However, she added that taking ‘rugby’ from the club’s name can be seen as robbing fans of a way of relating to it.
“There is nothing that speaks to fans when it is a bear,” Manoli said.
“Rugby is an identifier for rugby fans, a sense of pride. To lose that is why people may be annoyed.”
She also added that when a brand relaunch is done right, “it can work in the club’s favour”.
“Previous examples suggest that merchandise sales go up because people buy into the new brand, logo and new name and they will endorse it and express their interest through likes and with social media shares.”
As for being the butt of internet jokes, Manoli said it can help quickly spread the brand to people who otherwise would not take notice of the club.
However, she quickly points out that things can “go bad”, as it did for Leeds United when they had a new crest mocked earlier this year, which led to the club delaying the introduction of a new design until the 2019-20 season.