What’s in a name? For the Trash Pandas, $4 million in merchandise sales before first game

By Paul Gattis | AL.com


Straight from the Twitter bio of the Rocket City Trash Pandas:


“Yes, this is our real team name.”


It’s bizarre, crazy, weird … and popular.


That the Rocket City Trash Pandas are a minor league baseball team in Madison starting its first season this week is almost a secondary thought. It’s that nickname that grabs your attention and won’t let go.


That nickname is responsible for more than $4 million in merchandise sales since the team rolled it out in 2018. And whether you love it or hate it, it’s captivating.


Consider this conversation Garrett Fahrmann, executive vice president and general manager of the Trash Pandas, had with a friend while on a school field trip with their children. Fahrmann’s friend, who was in the military, had just returned from Huntsville.


And consider that the conversation took place in California.


“He said, ‘Have you heard of that team out in Alabama called the Rocket City Trash Pandas?’” Fahrmann remembered. “And I was like, as a matter of fact, I have.”


Indeed, Fahrmann had already lined up an interview for a position with the new team.


It’s all by design -- this goofy, fun, cringeworthy, LOL of a nickname. That’s exactly the point.


Jason Klein, a founding partner of the San Diego-based branding company Brandiose, explained it like this:


“We’ve found a few patterns to success,” he said. “One of them is a name that cannot be ignored. There are so many team names that we call tastefully dull. People go, ‘Oh, the Bears. I know what a bear is. I don’t need to see the logo.’ And you never have a chance to chase them down … they’ve already moved on.”


No one has moved on from “Trash Pandas.”


It’s simple enough, of course. A trash panda is just a nickname for a raccoon. And raccoons are recognized as being perhaps the most engineering of animals – which fits hand-in-glove with the engineering community of Huntsville and Madison and with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the nation’s second-largest research park less than five miles down the road.


The team’s primary logo is a raccoon blasting off as if a rocket while wearing a garbage can and the lid for a helmet. And given the engineering identity of the Huntsville area, a calculator is on the front of the garbage can.


This will be the team's primary logo. The Trash Panda, a nickname for raccoons, converts his garbage can into a rocket.


The nickname was submitted as part of a community survey by Matthew Higley of Lacey’s Spring – a tiny town just across the Tennessee River from Huntsville – when the team was taking nickname suggestions from the community. On the night the team unveiled the nickname in 2018, Higley acknowledged that the crazier, the better.


“I knew, realistically, looking at other minor league team names that raccoons probably wasn’t going to get it,” he said. “I had to get a little more creative.”


The community embraced the Trash Pandas nickname, overwhelmingly voting it the top choice in two surveys that led to the team choosing it.


That didn’t mean that everyone loved it.


“I can tell you when I heard Trash Panda, I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Madison Mayor Paul Finley said. “And what are you talking about?”


Understand, of course, that the city of Madison was making a sizable investment in the project. The city agreed to build Toyota Field for $46 million and then found out the tenant has “trash” in its nickname. Even trash collection companies typically adopt a more sanitized identity, such as waste collection, rather than promote the word “trash.”


“Oh, heck no, was I ready to be named Trash Pandas,” Finley said.


Of course, $4 million in merchandise sales and sold-out season tickets will allow a taste to be acquired for an outlandish nickname to the point that Finley said, “I don’t think anybody could ever imagine that it wasn’t named that.”


He wasn’t alone, though. Klein was skeptical, too – and his company worked with minor league teams to come up with nicknames such as the Richmond Flying Squirrels, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs and the El Paso Chihuahuas. Klein’s partner at Brandiose, Casey White, was more convinced. Klein also knows something about mascots – having attended the University of Alabama on what he described as a “mascot scholarship.” Yes, he was once Big Al.


Klein told of an early planning session with White along with team executives and Madison city leaders in the back room of a Madison restaurant. In going over the community-submitted nicknames, Klein said White looked at Trash Pandas and said, “This is the name.”


Still, even Ralph Nelson, the former team president and CEO who moved the Mobile BayBears to Madison to become the Trash Pandas, famously had his doubts.


Klein described going with Trash Pandas – with the push from the community vote – as a “leap of faith.”


This is how it’s working out:


“Honestly, every person that I told when I finally said I’m going to the Trash Pandas, they said that is an awesome name and I need a hat,” said Lindsey Knupp, the team’s vice president. “I need shirts.”


The team has sold merchandise in all 50 states as well as overseas, Knupp said. And the first game is still not until Tuesday. The team’s home opener, with full capacity at Toyota Field, will be May 11. The stadium has seating for 7,500. Fans will be required to wear masks.


Klein said the only metric Brandiose uses in assessing its nickname work is in team merchandise sales.


“For you to physically buy merchandise and then walk around in public wearing that, that shows you’re allegiance,” he said. “That shows you’re willing to put your identity on the line to promote a business to all the people around you. If we can get the community to do that and say I want to be a part of that, then the retail sales is absolutely it.”


The asterisk, of course, is that the first season last year was canceled due to the pandemic and it gave the Trash Pandas an extra year to sell merchandise before that first game. Still, the caps and t-shirts are flying off the shelves.


“$4 million before the first game is absolutely unheard of,” Klein said.


Before leaving the team, Nelson in March told this story. He and his wife, Lisa, who oversaw the team’s merchandise sales, had stopped by the Trash Pandas store at Bridge Street Town Centre in Huntsville one night and …


“Lisa is talking to the clerk or something,” Nelson said. “So I just sit by myself in those stadium chairs that are right at the door. We’re going to dinner or something. These two 18ish-year-old girls come in and they’re like, ‘I just love this stuff.’ I’m just watching and they don’t know me from Adam. They go up to the counter and buy like $250 worth of stuff. They’ve got their bags and they’re walking out the door and one girl says to the other girl, ‘I just like this stuff. I don’t even like hockey.’


“So I know we have a nice logo.”


It’s all part of it. Teams want a logo that will be noticed, that describe the community, that kids will love and “will be fun,” Klein said.


Demented as the Trash Pandas nickname may seem, it checks all the boxes.


You can buy a t-shirt at the team’s “Junkyard” retail store at Toyota Field or get some food at the “Dumpster Dive” concession stand. The team on a t-shirt marked the year 2020 – the year of the pandemic – as “Just Trash.”


Yeah, it’s nuts. And, yeah, it works.


“It’s the way it is in minor league baseball,” Knupp said.


And she, and Fahrmann, would know. In their previous experience in minor league baseball, they worked together for the IronPigs. So Trash Pandas isn’t much of a stretch for them.


“I’ve seen some quirky names and that’s what sells t-shirts,” Fahrmann said. “My initial thought was like, ‘OK, that’s what it is and that’s what we are.’”


And with that first home game just over a week away, Klein summed it up.


“It worked out OK for all of us.”


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