Welcome to A Trifling Place, a podcast dedicated to exploring the ins-and-outs of Charlotte.
When I first moved here from New York, I wondered, “Why are all these cat names here?” Think about it. If you walk west on Trade Street from Caldwell, you’ll pass Time Warner Arena, home of the Charlotte Bobcats (although soon to be extinct).
On your left is the CATS bus station.
Walk another block, and a LYNX light rail train may rush overhead.
From here, you’re just a short hike from Bank of America stadium, where (on a good day) Cam Newton is throwing a touchdown to Steve Smith for the Carolina Panthers.
So, what’s it all about? Does North Carolina have a particularly large number of wild cats?
“No, nothing special about North Carolina,” says state zoologist Harry LeGrand, shooting down that idea.
“At least we were smart enough to call our sports teams something that’s native,” LeGrand says. “Panther, rather than lions and tigers.”
Panthers used to roam the eastern U.S. but are now extinct. LeGrand says bobcats still live throughout the state. Their cousins, the lynx, on the other hand, are Canadian.
Wildlife aside, branding consultant Brannon Cashion says Charlotte’s felines have become a theme.
“The CATS, a LYNX, the idea of the Bobcats, the Panthers, you’ve got all of these kind of cat names, which, when one thinks about it, really do connect or unify the city with a lot of the things that have been branded or named,” says Cashion.
And, looking through the history, a common theme emerges about how we ended up with all these names.
“It was not something that we said day one let’s do it that way but it was nice area we stepped into when we started thinking about potential name candidates,” says Cashion.
Cashion’s talking specifically about picking “LYNX” for the city’s new light rail. The Charlotte Area Transit System–CATS–hired Cashion to help with the search. He says most important was finding something short that brought a sense of connectivity. LYNX = links. Get it? The fact that it fit in with the bus system’s CATS theme added to the attractiveness.
Of course, that theme didn’t exist before 2000. The buses said Ctransit on the side, but then-CEO Ron Tober wanted a new name for the Charlotte Transit System.
“We wanted to create a new brand for the transit system and break with the old image that the transit system had, at that point in time, as not being really available to most people,” says Tober.
So, they added the word “Area” between Charlotte and Transit, and a new logo and acronym was born—CATS.
“There was obviously a thought given to the fact that the football team’s name had a ‘cat flavor’ to it,” says Tober.
Three years after Ctransit became CATS, the new NBA team held a fan vote. It came down to three finalists: the Dragons, the Flight, and the Bobcats. Original owner Bob Johnson chose the Bobcats, crediting the animal’s local presence and the Panthers name. But fans still commonly believe it refers to Johnson himself (Bob’s cats, see?). The team of course has had its share of woe, finishing with the worst record in NBA history two seasons ago.
And, it will now do away with the name itself. Owner Michael Jordan announced in May he’d bring back the original NBA team name: the Charlotte Hornets.
“The community’s saying they’d love to have that name back, being that it’s available. Great, let’s make that happen,” Jordan said at the announcement.
As for the Panthers, owner Jerry Richardson hasn’t really talked about how he picked Panthers. We do know that he was driving around with the license plate, “PNTHERS,” several years before the NFL awarded him a team in 1993.
But, the Panthers aren’t the first Charlotte cat team. A short-lived ABA basketball team in the mid-seventies played in Charlotte under the name the Cougars.