WTF is a RailHawk?

Genesis of the RailHawks Name


One of the more common questions RailHawks’ fans get, especially from opposing supporters looking to mock our team, is WTF is a RailHawk?

Most TSF members know that current club president Jarrett Campbell had a hand in naming the team, but many do not know the full story around the process by which our favorite club came to be represented by a fictitious bird of prey with the speed and strength of a locomotive, and the fierceness and tenacity of a hawk.

Here’s the full background, as posted by Campbell on the back in 2006, shortly after the name was unveiled.

As the name of the new USL-1 franchise in Cary was unveiled Wednesday night, I’m sure quite a few fans were left scratching their heads and wondering “What the [expletive deleted] is a RailHawk?”

So I thought I’d take a minute to explain the genesis of the name itself and what stood out about the name that I thought would make it a good moniker for our local soccer club.

To clear things up immediately though, let me assure you that a Railhawk is not a real animal, nor even a real word as far as we know. But then again, there is no rule that says a brand image (which, let’s admit it, is all a sports team name is) must be a word taken from the Oxford English Dictionary. (Think Philadelphia 76’ers).

So when the name the team contest was announced back in late January, my buddy Jonathan Hart and I, who, at least in our own minds, are the biggest soccer fans in the Triangle, knew that it was imperative that we pool our cognitive resources. Certainly, between his encyclopedic knowledge of all things soccer (all sports for that matter) and my background as a marketing manager, surely we could come up with a name that would get selected to be the new team name.

Between early February and late May, Jonathan and I spent a lot of time in my living room, with the big-screen TV tuned in to Setanta, GolTV, or FSC, bouncing name possibilities off of each other hoping they would stick. For a few months, it seemed like a futile effort but at least we were starting to make some progress agreeing on some of the characteristics the name had to possess.

1. Local

Soccer, more than perhaps any other sport, is about locality. If you’re from a small town in England, you support your local side in League 2, not the glitzy Premiership team from the next town over. To this end, we both felt that the team should have the Cary name incorporated into it. Our ideas ranged from simple and traditional, like Cary Towne FC, to more Americanized versions like Cary Cardinals. But the more we thought about it, the more we realized that there was no avoiding the use of a regional name. Cary would be exclusive of other towns around the Triangle and there was no way to avoid a name like Carolina or Triangle in the moniker.

2. Traditional

More than anything we wanted the name to be traditional, in a footballing sense. But recently MLS has been beating this idea to death. The first instance, DC United, has worked pretty well, but since then they’ve gone from okay (FC Dallas) to strange (Real Salt Lake) to down right farcical (Houston 1836). With the European tradition being to include the town name, we found this difficult based on the obstacles we identified in requirement 1. We were left with names like Carolina FC or Raleigh-Durham United and there just wasn’t anything in the list that struck our fancy. We tried going through a list of every team name in all four professional divisions in England but nothing that we liked also met requirement number 3.

3. Relevant

The team name had to in some way connect the team, the region, and the fans. While we loved traditional sounding names, e.g., Carolina Rovers, there just wasn’t a connection between the names and the local area. We then tried attacking from another angle — identify characteristics of the region and turn that into a name. This has worked for other USL-1 teams like the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, Virginia Beach Mariners, and the Puerto Rico Islanders, but we ran into a huge roadblock when we came to the realization the Triangle area is completely non-descript. Sure, North Carolina has beaches, mountains, Cape Fear, tons of military bases, even a rich Scottish heritage…but none of that describes the Raleigh-Durham area. The single characteristic that stood out for us was the Neuse River, but even that doesn’t really draw a strong association with the Triangle. Considering that USL had already seen franchises in the Riverhawks and Riverhounds, we decided to move on.

Finally we stumbled upon a theme that truly interested us —the Railroad. The genesis of this idea was really my 5 year old son Max. When he was younger, he was deathly afraid of loud noises. When we would go to the Raleigh Elite matches at SAS Soccer Park, he would get terrified everytime a train barreling down the CSX line across from the ground would hit one of the many whistle posts along East Chatham Steet. Eventually he grew out of his phobia, but to this day, he still notes it to me whenever a train passes, which, as anyone that has spent anytime out at SAS Soccer Park can tell you, is a fairly routine basis.

Once we started to explore the railroad idea, we discovered the fact that Cary grew up from a settlement called Bradford’s Ordinary which truly started to blossom in the 1850s when the New Bern – Hillsborough rail line placed the sleepy little town that would eventually become Cary on a major transportation route. The railroad played a major role in connecting towns in North Carolina and Amtrak still stops 6 times a day in downtown Cary.

4. Animal, not Vegetable or Mineral

We felt like we were on the right track (pun intended) with the Railroad idea. Now to find a name that was evocative of trains. One obvious idea was to re-adopt the old Capital Express name that Raleigh used in the A-League. Another idea was to steal the traditional nickname of Crewe Alexandra — The Railwaymen. Finally, the Carolina Hobos didn’t seem like it had much marketing punch (I’m joking about this one). When we couldn’t agree on any obvious name, Jonathan espoused the idea that the team name should incorporate an animal of some sort because every kid loves to hug an anthropomorphic mascot. As we begun our quest to tie an animal to the railroad somehow, I hit upon the name of a minor league baseball team in Gary, Indiana called the SouthShore Railcats. Jonathan, who has close familial ties to the Cincinnati area and is a Miami RedHawks fan, combined the idea of abundance of hawks in the Carolinas with our railroad idea and spit out the name — RailHawks!

5. Marketable

We kind of laughed about the silly, made up name at the time and dismissed it. It wasn’t until a bit later when we started thinking about the marketability of the name that we realized we’d stumbled upon a gem. As crude as it may sound, at the end of the day, the franchise must be able to market the entertainment that they are selling to the public. To that end, they need a name that is not only unique in a crowded sports entertainment marketplace, but also one that is evocative of characteristics of the team that they want to promote as well as full of imagery that can provide tie-in opportunities for merchandising.

Certainly an allusion to trains brings the ideas of power and speed. The hawk is aggressive and fierce. All of these are qualities that I want to see in my soccer club. Plus the imagery of the railroad opens up all kinds of merchandising options (Railhawks train whistles, conductor caps, etc.) and sound effect ideas (which honestly, I’d wish they’d cut back on, but I know I’m fighting a losing battle there). The icing on the cake for us was when I searched Google for Railhawks and turned up exactly ZERO hits. As someone who has been through several tedious and frustrating product naming exercises in my job, I knew we had truly found a unique identity that the team could brand into their own.

That’s Our Story, and We’re Sticking To It

So after about 4 months of deliberation, Jonathan and I settled on Carolina RailHawks as our candidate for the new team’s name. Knowing that the management committee which decided the final name might have a similar WTF?-reaction to the name, I made sure I communicated the basis behind our idea — the ties to the local region, the uniqueness, and the marketability — as part of my submission into the contest to insure that any subtlety in our brilliance wouldn’t be missed!

Hopefully that helps folks perplexed by the new name understand the thought process which generated what I believe everyone will agree — whether you like it or not — is a unique name. Now the RailHawks need to move to the part that really matters — putting a coach and team together that can embody the power, speed, aggressiveness, and fierceness that the RailHawks name is meant to portray. What happens on the field is what really matters. I mean, I would support the Carolina Cockroaches, if they played a beautiful game and won the league championship every year!

So the next time an opposing supporter asks you WTF is a RailHawk?, you can tell them the story of the genesis of the name, or you can simply tell them…