Which Minor League Has The Best Team Names In America?

The United Soccer League, NBA G League and Triple-A baseball all have some interesting team nicknames, but which has the best?

We’ve got Mad Ants, Baby Cakes and Lights. There are Isotopes, Rowdies and Skyforce. And of course Steel, Go-Go and IronPigs. 

When you’re not the best at something, you’ve got to come up with unique ways to promote yourself. I know this first hand from trying to find a romantic partner. 

Minor league sports teams also know this well. It’s why lower-division clubs often have unique nicknames you just don’t find anywhere else.

So which of America’s top three lower divisions — in soccer, baseball and basketball — have the best team nicknames? 

When it comes to minor leagues in the U.S., Triple-A baseball is by far the most well established, having been around for more than 60 years. The NBA G League (formerly known as the D-League) has been around in various formats since 2001. The United Soccer League is even newer, playing its first season in 2011. (American football and hockey? Who cares?)

All three aforementioned leagues bring it when it comes to team names.

Well, for the most part. Many of these teams are so closely affiliated with their top-tier counterparts that they share the same nickname — Atlanta United 2, Westchester Knicks and Pawtucket Red Sox, for instance. 

But we’re going to focus on the unique nicknames and ignore those clubs with less creativity than a beige Toyota Camry. 

Let’s start with the NBA G League because it has the weirdest league name. Why is it called the “G League” when it used to be the “D League” for development? Well, like most things in life, it comes down to money. Gatorade threw enough money at the NBA that they changed the name of the whole league to the G League. Personally, we’re looking forward to NBA changing its name to the NNBA when Nike asks for increased visibility.

Here are the top 10 NBA G League nicknames, in no particular order:

  • Fort Wayne Mad Ants (because regular ants are too boring)
  • Capital City Go-Go (Power Rangers?)
  • Greensboro Swarm (affiliated with the Hornets, get it?)
  • Memphis Hustle (because real fans appreciate hustle)
  • Sioux Falls Skyforce (sounds more official than the Space Force because they play in the Sanford Pentagon)
  • Rio Grande Valley Vipers (alliteration and snakes — double win)
  • Texas Legends (only included because they play in Dr. Pepper Arena)
  • Raptors 905 (area-code nomenclature is still cool, right?)
  • Maine Red Claws (beat out Beacons, Crushers, Destroyers, Swarm and Traps in a naming contest)
  • Grand Rapids Drive (because you want to drive away from Grand Rapids whenever possible)

Now for Triple-A baseball, which has some of the oldest teams on this list, although most of these have been around for less than 30 years. Triple-A is the rung below MLB and above Double-A and Class A (why  it’s not Single-A confuses us, too).

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Here are the top 10 Triple-A nicknames, in no particular order:

  • Salt Lake Bees (I really hate bees, but I just pretend they’re named after Samantha Bee, whose stings are much funnier)
  • New Orleans Baby Cakes (are these cakes made out of babies, cakes for babies or just cakes that are small and cute like babies?)
  • Round Rock Express (named after Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan because why not?)
  • Sacramento River Cats (I like cats; rivers are cool too, I guess)
  • San Antonio Missions (located near the Alamo, so the name makes sense; also the oldest club on this list, founded in 1888)
  • Gwinnett Stripers (oh, we thought it said Strippers)
  • Louisville Bats (sometimes simple and obvious works)
  • Lehigh Valley IronPigs (deep in steel country, regular pigs just don’t cut it)
  • Albuquerque Isotopes (a reference to The Simpsons? Yes please)
  • El Paso Chihuahuas (so cute!)

The United Soccer League is young but growing quickly. In 2019, the league will feature 36 USL teams and, despite losing Cincinnati FC to MLS, should have another great year of attendance

Here are the top 10 USL teams by nickname, in no particular order:

  • Charleston Battery (we like to think it’s referring to phone batteries)
  • Indy Eleven (while it makes no sense to spell out 11, we appreciate the literalness of naming a team after the number of players on it)
  • Memphis 901 (like the Raptors but with a cooler logo)
  • Swope Park Rangers (a nice twist on stealing a European club’s nomenclature given they used to play at Swope Soccer Village)
  • Tampa Bay Rowdies (let’s get rowdy, folks)
  • Bethlehem Steel (it just sounds badass)
  • Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC (we assume based on the 1997 film of the same name)
  • El Paso Locomotive FC (they share a field with the aforementioned Chihuahuas)
  • Las Vegas Lights (everything they do is cool)
  • Pittsburgh Riverhounds (would they beat the River Cats in a fight?)

Three leagues, three groups of pretty good names. But which has the best names?

To figure that out, let’s start by ranking the top 10 team names out of the group of 30 we mentioned above. Unlike the other lists, these will be ranked in ascending order (albeit ranked completely arbitrarily). 

10. Lehigh Valley IronPigs (Triple-A)
9. Indy Eleven (USL)
8. Tampa Bay Rowdies (USL)
7. Swope Park Rangers (USL)
6. Capital City Go-Go (G League)
5. Sioux Falls Skyforce (G League)
4. Bethlehem Steel (USL)
3. Fort Wayne Mad Ants (G League)
2. Albuquerque Isotopes (Triple-A)
1. New Orleans Baby Cakes (Triple-A)

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If you assigned each ranking a number (No. 1 gets 10 points; No. 10 gets 1 point), the ranking would finish as:

1. Triple-A: 20
2. G League: 19
3. USL: 16

By this ranking, Triple-A has the best team names based on the strength of its top two teams (it’s hard to beat Baby Cakes and “The Simpsons”). Even though USL has the most teams in the top 10, overall those team names are weaker. Triple-A, then G League and finally USL is probably how we’d rank the three leagues overall. 

So what’s the takeaway on the best team nicknames in U.S. minor league sports?

For starters, Triple-A, with its decade’s head start in finding innovative ways to get people to give any shits about a lower-tier league, has the most experience in coming up with unique nicknames. On the whole, Triple-A clubs are the most interesting — and often have history, like with the Durham Bulls. 

The NBA G League, meanwhile, has fully embraced absurd nicknames and doesn’t shy away from being silly. Outside of teams named after NBA affiliates, G League nicknames are, team for team, the best of the three in our opinion.

The USL teams, on the other hand, are held back by the continued insistence of borrowing from European naming norms. About half of the league doesn’t even have an actual nickname in its name, opting for the boring FCs, SCs, Uniteds and Cities. 

So if the United Soccer League really wants to stand out as a second-tier sports league in the U.S., it needs to up its name game.

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