The Name Game

A contest puts the Crush on local football fans.

Although he's been retired for years, former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway has certainly scored his share of headlines lately. But two of the stories behind them have hit him like a blitzing linebacker.

On June 4, Big John was clotheslined by a Denver Post article (penned by gossip columnist Bill Husted) in which his wife, Janet Elway, confirmed that she and Number 7 had separated. Several days later, Post media writer Joanne Ostrow wrote a column defending Husted's offering in the face of readers unconvinced that the split was newsworthy; it was, obviously, since the Elways are certainly the state's most recognizable couple and have actively encouraged journalists to present an idealized view of their marriage. Other observers argued that writing about the private lives of John and Janet was out of bounds -- a viewpoint that would be more viable were we not in an age when updates about celebrity relationships are commonplace in the mainstream press, not just the supermarket tabloids. Or hadn't you heard that Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid are no longer sharing the same set of sheets?

Since then, Colorado's king and queen haven't officially put down roots in Splitsville. The two made a slew of public appearances together following Husted's report in an apparent attempt to convince distraught romantics that they're patching up their differences. Ain't love strange?

So, too, was the contest to name the new Arena Football League team fronted and partly owned by Elway. As divulged by reporter Steve Caulk in the July 9 Rocky Mountain News, team representatives had trademarked a particular tag, "the Colorado Crush," long before staging the competition, in which a majority of fans reportedly chose to call the squad (surprise, surprise) the Colorado Crush.

Mike Maciszewski, director of football operations/communications for the newly dubbed team, which will take the field next year, acknowledges that "Crush" was in the can prior to the survey. But he insists that the election wasn't rigged.

"This process was going well before I got here. People have been looking into an expansion team here for probably over a year," he says. "Now, the league gave us one trademark for free, and when it asked the team for a calculated option of what the name might be, the first one that came up was 'Stampede.' That was perfect, because when you think about it, a stampede is really an avalanche of broncos. But there were trademark issues with that name and another one of our ideas, 'Thunder,' which also wasn't clean from a trademark perspective. Fortunately, 'Crush' was clean, and it was really good, because of the connections with the 'Orange Crush' Broncos teams and because players really 'crush' against the walls in arena football."

In the end, Maciszewski adds, the team took "a calculated guess" and trademarked "Crush" -- and to cover its bases, it also registered four Internet domain names: ColoradoCrush.com, ColoradoStampede.com, ColoradoExtreme.com and RockyMountainThunder.com. The July 9 News article pointed out a contradiction between Elway's admission that one name had been trademarked and a statement attributed to Maciszewski about four trademarks, three of which don't exist. But Maciszewski explains this away by suggesting that News reporter Caulk misunderstood the distinction between the one trademarked handle and the four registered Web addresses.

"We were trying to navigate around trademark problems as best we could," he says. "But none of that has anything to do with the contest. The bottom line is, 'Crush' won fair and square."

Not according to an "insider" who phoned KHOW talk-show host Peter Boyles the morning Caulk's story appeared. As Boyles related to listeners, the caller swore that the contest ended with "Crush" finishing behind a more eyebrow-raising selection proposed in these pages by Westword cartoonist Kenny Be: the Colorado Wildfire.

When told of this claim, Maciszewski laughs -- but then promptly concedes that Boyles's tip wasn't entirely without foundation. "'Wildfire' and probably every other variation of 'Wildfire' you could think of were popular early on, and we just felt that would be inappropriate and insensitive," he says. "There's a fine line between taking an opportunity and being opportunistic. So we decided we just weren't going to go there."

Does that mean votes for "Wildfire" were disallowed? "We dealt with the situation early on," Maciszewski says, without elaborating.

Questions remain as to whether the team publicly committed to using the top vote-getter -- no matter what. Articles published both before and after the naming certainly imply that was the case. A June 20 Post effort attributed to Patrick Saunders states that the team "will be named by a vote of the fans," with the final four words of this clause serving as a link to an online ballot put in place by the Denver Newspaper Agency, which sponsored the contest. Just as straightforward was the headline on an Associated Press brief dated July 6: "'Crush' Gets Top Vote for Arena Team."

That seems pretty clear -- but Jim Nolan, spokesman for the DNA, which oversees business operations for the Post and the News, muddies the water. "Our intention was to assist the Elway group in picking a name," he says. "It was never our intention that the name with the most votes would automatically be chosen."

Nolan's comments make sense. After all, the team would have been unable to use a previously trademarked name and wouldn't have wanted to be locked in if an organized campaign succeeded in pushing a nasty one like, say, the Denver Neo-Nazis over the top.

In some ways, then, the contest was a bit hinky -- but that's almost always the case with such promotions. A prime example took place in 1999, when radio station KDJM, at 92.5 FM, instituted a new music format known nationally as "jammin' oldies." From the beginning, KDJM referred to itself using the "Jammin'" descriptor -- but it also held a $25,000 contest in which listeners were invited to name the outlet. After a month or two, the winner was announced: a woman who said "Jammin'" sounded so good that KDJM should keep using it. Talk about easy money.

Former Grand Junction resident Tyler Rutt wasn't paid nearly as handsomely for his victory in a naming contest. Back in 1976, when Rutt was twelve, a National Hockey League franchise relocated to Denver, and Channel 9 asked viewers to send along their ideas for a moniker. He submitted "the Colorado Rockies," in part because "there weren't a lot of other names you could come up with for a team in Colorado that weren't derogatory."

Rutt wasn't the only person to have this specific brainstorm, but he was chosen as the winner because, he was told, his letter had the earliest postmark. His bounty included some collectibles so fabulous that he no longer remembers what they were, plus just two tickets to the first Rockies game; his parents had to negotiate to get enough passes for the whole family. As a bonus, the Rutt clan was allowed to watch a Channel 9 newscast, after which "they dragged me out on stage with Ed Sardella and Carl Akers and Stormy Rottman and Bob Kurtz. That gave me the bug to go into the television job I have today: making fun of the news."

He's not kidding. The New York-based Rutt works in a promotional capacity for The Daily Show on Comedy Central.

Ultimately, the Colorado Rockies of the NHL went the way of all flesh, freeing up the name for Denver's baseball team -- Rutt's secret legacy. The Colorado Crush may not last, either: A previous local arena lineup, the Denver Dynamite, croaked over a decade ago, and the new league is pinning a lot of its hopes on a TV contract with NBC -- a deal similar to one the network had with the XFL, which lasted all of one season.

But Maciszewski is so optimistic that even the Rocky article doesn't bother him. "NBC did some studies, and they discovered that 30 percent of America is aware of the Arena Football League," he says. "I'd hope some of this news has bumped it over 30 percent."

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