Saving EMU football: What’s in a name?
“EMU” can commonly refer to one of three things: a large flightless bird native to Australia, a Christian liberal arts college in Harrisonburg, Virginia, or a public university in Ypsilanti, Michigan. When referring to the bird, it’s proper to use lower-case letters. Eastern Mennonite University has an enrollment of about 1,600 students, does not field a football team, and competes athletically in NCAA Division III. Eastern Michigan University has an enrollment of about 23,000 students, and competes athletically in NCAA Division I, with the football team in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the highest collegiate tier.
My point is that the term “EMU” will refer to Eastern Michigan University better than 99% of the time. The school should embrace the acronym, and in athletics, it should be preferred over spelling out “Eastern Michigan” or other abbreviations such as “E. Mich.”
Why is “Eastern Michigan” a problem?
First, it’s ”Michigan” with a modifier, which reinforces the image of them as “little brother” to the University of Michigan. While this creates a problem also for Central Michigan and Western Michigan, the problem is reduced in those cases due to their distances from U-M (or indeed from any other Division I program). Eastern Michigan is right in U-M’s back yard, just 7 miles away. That proximity creates enough problems for EMU without the similar branding.
Second, it allows for little differentiation between Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, and Western Michigan, which in addition to having similar names, all play in the West Division of the Mid-American Conference. This has led to the derisive ”Directional Michigan” moniker, which has, at times, seen frequent use in ESPN.com’s Bottom 10. Thankfully, Northern Michigan competes in the GLIAC in Division II; if they were also in the MAC West this headache would become a true nightmare. This lack of differentiation is only exacerbated by the use of the ultra-generic “Eagle” mascot, but that’s another topic for another day.
Third, it’s too long for sports tickers and the like, and there are only a few ways to shorten it. Either “E. Michigan” or “E. Mich.” would retain the previously mentioned problems, but “EMU” is not currently recognizable enough outside MAC/Big (11) Ten country.
One solution would be to follow the lead of schools like Southwest Missouri State University, University of Missouri–Rolla, Southwest Texas State University, and the University of Southwestern Louisiana, and change the name of the school. (Here’s an interesting article on the topic of school name changes.) There are a number of problems with this option. First, it’s expensive to rebrand an entire university, and money is tight right now. Second, there is a significant risk in losing alumni support, similar to the fallout from the nickname change to “Eagles”. Perhaps most problematic is the question of what name Eastern Michigan might end up with. “University of Michigan” and “Michigan State University” are already claimed. In some states they could become “UM-Ypsilanti” or “MSU-Ypsilanti”, but those seem pretty unlikely here, and I’m not sure that either one would really be an improvement. Probably the best result from a name change would be to take a cue from Ohio’s public universities and become ”Ypsilanti State University”; that would help give the school its own brand, but could be perceived as a step backward from using the name of the state — even directionally — to using the name of a city.
The only option left then is rebranding within the athletic department, and “EMU” seems to be the best choice. If they do this, the department will need to go 100%, in a similar fashion to UCF. In fact, take a look at UCF, to examine how scrupulously the program avoids referring to itself as “Central Florida”.
- The athletic logo uses “UCF”.
- The basketball arena is “UCF Arena“.
- Other athletic facilities are “UCF Track and Soccer Complex” and “UCF Intramural Fields”.
- The athletics website refers to the team as the “UCF Knights”; the word “Central” is nowhere present on the front page.
With this kind of scrupulous attention to branding, UCF has been able to avoid the stigma of being a “directional” school and distinguished itself from the other major college athletics programs using the name of the state such as Florida International, Florida Atlantic, Florida State, South Florida, and of course Florida. I’m confident that a similar branding effort would serve Eastern Michigan EMU athletics well.
As an aside on names, I need a name for this blog. Please share any suggestions you can think of — no matter how silly — in the comments on this post. If I get a bunch of good ones, maybe we’ll vote. I don’t make any money on this, so I can’t pay you, but I promise that if I end up using your suggestion I will 1. post a permanent attribution indicating that the name was your idea (using your name, nickname, screen name, or whatever you’d like) and linking to your blog/website (if you like) and 2. if this ever turns a profit, I will donate the entire profit of the first profitable month to the EMU department, athletic team, fund, or non-political student organization of your choice (in your name, or anonymously if you prefer). That and my sincere thanks is all I can offer. Suggest away!