For the 20th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Will Mari spoke with Nick Hirshon about the worst branding campaign in sports history as described in his new book, We Want Fish Sticks: The Bizarre and Infamous Rebranding of the New York Islanders.
A former reporter at the New York Daily News, Hirshon is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at William Paterson University.
This episode is sponsored by the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.
Will Mari: [00:00:10] Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Dr. Will Mari, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
[00:00:23] This episode is sponsored by the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, which offers distinctive undergraduate and master of arts programs in journalism. Full details are at journalism.NYU.edu.
[00:00:35] There was a logo that looked like a frozen seafood symbol, a mascot that got beat up in the stands, and an owner who turned out to be a con artist and ended up in prison. In this episode, media historian Dr. Nick Hirshon brings us the story of the worst sports branding campaign of all time in his new book We Want Fish Sticks: The Bizarre and Infamous Rebranding of the New York Islanders, available now from the University of Nebraska Press.
Will Mari: [00:00:58] Dr. Nick Hirshon, welcome to the program. Thanks for being here this morning. I have a quick question, just kind of getting it started. Why did you decide to research the mid-1990s New York Islanders of all teams and of all times? Why was that your topic for your dissertation and for your book?
Nick Hirshon: [00:01:13] Well, thanks, first of all, Will, for having me on the podcast. I’ve been a narrator and interviewer on these podcasts so it’s really fun to be on the other side of that for once. And why the New York Islanders? Well, because I grew up as a New York Islanders fan in the late 1990s when the Islanders weren’t very good but I kind of fell in love with them and their history. They had a storied history of winning four straight Stanley Cups in the early 1980s right before I was born. And I just loved that tradition.
[00:01:41] I love the atmosphere at Nassau Coliseum, their arena, where it’s a suburban arena but they’re playing against big-city teams like the New York Rangers, the Boston Bruins, the LA Kings, and so on, and so that was just the team that I grew up loving to watch and I was still watching them in the era when I was doing my dissertation in 2013, 2016. So, I figured I wanted to do something that would be a passion project for me, something where I already had a repository of knowledge from going to all these games and hearing about the team’s history. And this particular era in their history, 1995 to 1997, was a low point. I wanted to kind of go in there, it has certainly been understudied, as we say, and that was just seemed like a very colorful, fun story to look at.
Will Mari: [00:02:29] That’s really cool. And I think for your own past and your own present, it’s sort of awesome intersection of kind of where you’re from and also your vocation as an historian. I guess my question, though, for you is you know this topic so well now and you’ve written this awesome book that’s out and you can find anywhere and online or wherever books are sold. But in terms of the “why?” question. This is a pretty longstanding team. They’re not known for making maybe bad marketing decisions. Why did this rebranding happen at all in 1995? What was the motivation for what happened?
Nick Hirshon: [00:03:06] Well, we look at them today as maybe a team with a longstanding tradition of success because of those four straight Stanley Cups in the early 1980s. But in actuality they’ve had many times that were dips in their history, and I lived through most of those. I haven’t been around for too many successes or if there was success it was kind of short lived, one season where they make the playoffs, lose in the first round, and then don’t make the playoffs again for a while.
[00:03:32] So, this particular chapter in their history was interesting because they had that history of success with the Stanley Cups, but then by the mid-1990s they were starting to struggle. In 1994, they make the playoffs and in the first round they faced their geographic rivals, the New York Rangers, and they lose. They get swept in four straight games.
[00:03:55] They get outscored 22 to 3. An Islanders broadcaster at the time calls it the tennis series because the scores are more like tennis scores 6-0, 6-0, 6-1, 5-2, something like that. So, they’re really getting hammered by their chief rival in their market. And then the Rangers go on in 1994 to win their first Stanley Cup in 54 years, and the next year in 1995 the Devils in New Jersey win the Stanley Cup. So, you have the Islanders suddenly being the one team that is losing in this market, in a crowded sports marketplace in New York City where you’re also dealing with the Yankees and the Mets and the Knicks and the Nets and the Jets and the Giants.
[00:04:34] So, they’re already in the fourth major sport after baseball, basketball, football, and now they’re the third team in the market so they need to do something, they felt, to refresh their brand. The ownership at the time thought that fans are starting to associate the original Islanders logo that had the letters “NY” with the “Y” made out to look like a hockey stick and a simple map of Long Island in the background. The ownership thinks that that original logo is starting to be associated more with the very recent failure to the Rangers as opposed to the increasingly distant run of Stanley Cups, which are now more than a decade ago. So they say, “What can we do to make ourselves stand out?” And often in Islanders history they had tried to get a share of the New York City market attention and maybe use some imagery or just try to get the New York City newspapers and TV outlets to kind of pay attention to them, and they think maybe that’s been the wrong direction. We’re on Long Island. Maybe we should start appealing more to these Long Island fans. So, what can we do that will separate ourselves? And that’s when we get into the eventual choice of a logo and a mascot and everything else that is supposed to appeal more to people on Long Island than New York City.
Will Mari: [00:05:45] So, that first step then in that process, was that just the management realizing they need to do this and it was a one person perhaps whose brainchild this logo was, or was it a whole team of people who decided this was a good idea?
Nick Hirshon: [00:05:59] It seems like, with a lot of bad decisions, it was sort of a camel by committee sort of decision, where essentially the Islanders were run at this time by a man named John Pickett, who had been their owner during the dynasty years in the early 1980s. But he had moved away to Florida and he had given day-to-day control of the team to this group known as the Gang of Four. It was four minority stakeholders who were businessmen on Long Island, who had been moderately successful but didn’t have a ton of wealth and certainly not a ton of hockey knowledge the way John Pickett did. And they are the ones who decide, we need some quick infusion of cash into the franchise. We can’t afford to build a brand-new arena that will attract fans or buy elite players that will attract fans, so maybe one way to get some money into the franchise is we’ll unveil a new logo, we’ll sell a bunch of jerseys, and then we can turn around and use that money, if there’s anything extra, to pump into the team. But they don’t have much of an appreciation for the original Islanders logo. And to your specific question of, was there one person who seemed to be the benefactor of this fisherman logo that the Islanders end up going with?
[00:07:09] It’s kind of unclear. At one point, there are reports that Stephen Walsh, who was one of that Gang of Four membership group, that he takes the fisherman logo after it’s designed by this marketing firm named SME, Sean Michael Edwards, he takes the fisherman logo home and he shows it to his young children and they say, ‘Yeah, Daddy, we like this logo, we think it’s cool and cartoonish.’ And then he comes into a meeting at Nassau Coliseum and says, ‘Hey, everybody, you think this is a cool logo? My kids love it. I love it.’ And everybody is reluctant to contradict the owner who is paying their salaries and deciding whether they get promotions. So they say, ‘Yeah, boss, that looks great.’ And then they go ahead with this fisherman logo. So, if anyone’s to blame, it seems that Stephen Walsh might be the most. But there is plenty of blame to go around here with different Islanders executives who were in that boardroom. And even some of the people I interviewed for my book: Tim Beach, who was one of the executives in charge of day-to-day sort of Islanders game events, promotions they were running, and Pat Calabria, who was their vice president of communication, a former reporter for Newsday, the main newspaper out on Long Island. So, all of these folks bear some responsibility and they’ve admitted it themselves that they played a role in it.
Will Mari: [00:08:25] Well, I guess that’s enough time to have passed to kind of dissect that internally. But I’m sure that at the moment the initial reception probably was as you describe in your book it was something else for Nyiles. Am I saying that right, the mascot?
Nick Hirshon: [00:08:42] Yes. The first step of this rebranding process in 1995 was unveiling a mascot named Nyiles and it’s supposed to be a play on NY Isles, the Islanders nickname. And he was basically unpredictable, no one really knew exactly what he was supposed to be. He was kind of like this big, bulbous guy wearing an Islanders jersey and hockey pants and had a big helmet on his head with a light on top that was supposed to flash whenever the Islanders scored a goal. It was charged by a motorcycle battery that he wore in a fanny pack around his waist. And no one really understood his purpose. And he was unveiled before the fisherman logo, so people didn’t know that, “OK, he has a long beard, I guess he’s supposed to be similar to the guy in the logo.” They didn’t even know that that logo was coming yet. So, he comes out in January of ’95, and a lot of fans are kind of confused. He’s of no discernible species. A lot of mascots in sports are — now the Islanders have a dragon as their mascot or you have dinosaurs or ducks or things that are kind of easy to understand and kids go up and want to get their photo taken with them. He was just sort of like, OK, there’s this guy who is a beach bum, I guess, or a fisherman, I don’t know. And fans did not take well to him.
[00:09:59] Fans start whacking him between the legs at a hockey clinic, for example, and just pushing him, poking him. There’s different times where someone knocks him over the seats and the Islanders are getting so concerned about the safety of the man who played the mascot, a guy named Rob Di Fiore, who I interviewed for my book, and they get so concerned about his safety that they tell him if the Islanders are losing going into the third period, the third and final period of a game, don’t come out, just stay inside the locker room because the fans are gonna be in a nasty mood and we don’t want to see what they’re gonna do to you. So, the first stage of this rebrand was already an indication that it wasn’t gonna be a success.
Will Mari: [00:10:39] And I’m thinking back to when I was living in Philadelphia as a kid and just the intensity of the fandom there. It’s probably even more marked up there in New York City but that’s just typical of the passion the fans have for every aspect of their team. I just wonder what is this role up compared to let’s say the Philadelphia Phillies, the mascot, a similar kind of strange. Is it this isn’t a uniquely disastrous rollout for a mascot for an NHL team in the history of the modern NHL, I wonder?
Nick Hirshon: [00:11:14] I would say I don’t conclusively know because I haven’t looked at every mascot that was rolled out in the NHL. I did try to figure out was he received with such more negativity than the average mascot is, and I think that’s undeniably true just the way that fans were physically abusing him in the stands. And also the news media was criticizing his appearance and I have quotes in the book from outlets like The Hockey News and Newsday saying he looks like a cross between a fire hydrant and Grizzly Adams, the mountain man with a long beard and all these other sorts of mocking comments that they made it at his expense. And as you mentioned the mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers, who was just unveiled this season, Gritty, and he kind of looks like a big Muppet, like a big orange — kind of like Animal from The Muppets on steroids with these crazed-looking eyes. And when he was unveiled a lot of people asked me, ‘Oh, do you think that that’s similar to the Islanders mascot?’ And I guess in certain ways. Certainly the initial reception was negative, although it’s totally different now in an age of social media which didn’t exist in 1995 when the Islanders unveiled theirs.
[00:12:22] So, people are reacting instantly on Twitter and Facebook and everything else and saying, ‘I think he looks silly,’ and then they’re at the games taking photographs of him and when he’s falling on the ice that’s instantly being disseminated to untold numbers of people. But I think that with Gritty, the Flyers kind of expected that he would get a little bit of that reaction. And if they didn’t expect it, they very quickly use it to their benefit and got him on TV. He’s on Stephen Colbert’s show, he’s on John Oliver and all this kind of stuff. So they’re kind of in on the joke. I think the Islanders were never really in on that joke, they just kind of were the joke in that era and that was part of the problem.
Will Mari: [00:13:01] Yeah, pre-Internet, pre-social media, I guess, pre-avant garde marketing campaigns, more conventional time. But I was wondering why as I was reading more about your book and thinking about this interview were fishermen local at all? And I don’t know of Staten Island as being this mecca of fishing per say, why a fishing person.
Nick Hirshon: [00:13:22] Well, this is long Island, not Staten Island.
Will Mari: [00:13:24] It happened to you before, I messed up your islands, it’s my fault.
Nick Hirshon: [00:13:30] It happens a lot. I think that what you actually mentioned is part of the problem with the fishermen logo. The Islanders were trying to think, what is Long Island? When people from other parts of the country think Long Island, what do they think of? And a lot of people may not even think anything. Some people just associate it with traffic jams and shopping malls and suburban life. But that’s kind of hard to show in a mascot or a logo, you know? And they’d go through all these other sorts of potential mascots. At one point they entertain the argument that dinosaurs are native to Long Island. But the problem is they’re native to every place so that doesn’t really work.
[00:14:14] And they look at kind of seafaring things, maritime stuff like seagulls and ducks. They’re not going to go for a duck because the Anaheim Mighty Ducks team is also in the NHL, so there would be brand confusion there. Why is our mascot something that is the main logo for another team? So, they end up thinking about, well, Long Island’s favorite son is Billy Joel the singer, who’s best known for “Piano Man” and “Just the Way You Are,” songs like that. So, why don’t we pick up on maybe his fame and hopefully if we do something to pay homage to him, maybe he’ll come to games the way Jack Nicholson is known for going to Lakers games or Spike Lee goes to New York Knicks games. And Billy Joel had come out with a song in the late 1980s called “Downeaster Alexa,” which was about struggling fisherman on the east end of Long Island, and the music video for the song shows a bunch of gruff, older, bearded fishermen as they’re discussing the end of their way of life, essentially.
[00:15:14] They can’t make it anymore. The song ends with a lyric, “There ain’t no island left for Islanders like me,” and that is the kind of image that the Islanders apparently tell their designers, “We want to pick up on this.” The fisherman evokes Long Island identity, and it hits on this Billy Joel song and he’s so popular. So, maybe if we have a fisherman, and also they’re looking for a cartoon image that would do well with kids. They’re hoping that rappers will wear this on MTV in music videos. They want to have some sort of a cool fashion statement the way that the Anaheim Mighty Ducks jersey or the San Jose Sharks, two teams in hot-climate states who had done very well with jerseys that were cartoonish. The San Jose Sharks have a cartoon shark biting through a hockey stick, and the Mighty Ducks have an image of a goalie’s mask made to fit a duck’s bill, which was from the Disney kid’s movie in 1993. So, that’s why they’re saying maybe this fisherman will go well.
Will Mari: [00:16:17] Yeah, I guess it makes historic sense kind of looking at the heritage of Long Island in the past and in that song, it’s one of his one of his hits from that era. And it’s pretty sad. I mean, the character talks about losing his house and selling it, you know, to keep his boat going and so on. So it’s a lot of nostalgia and evocative history being mentioned in that particular piece of music. So that makes sense that they would really try to get that in their logo. But I guess while they made the logo happen, the marketing team, I guess, they didn’t notice that the Gorton’s fisherman looks very similar. I mean why didn’t they find that similarity? I guess it’s before the internet but even so, it’s in every supermarket?
Nick Hirshon: [00:16:56] Yeah, I think even pre Internet, that’s not an excuse for them with the Gorton’s fisherman similarity. So, part of the strange, almost impossibly weird part of this rebranding process, is that the Islanders do no real research. They don’t have focus groups. They don’t do interviews with fans or media. They don’t really do much of anything. So, about the extent of their research process that I could figure out was one of their executives, Tim Beach, who I mentioned before, who was their director of game events. He basically went to a high school on Long Island and he went to his alma mater, which was Quinnipiac University, and he held up the jersey in front of a class and said, ‘Hey guys, what do you think of this?’ And he said it was about 50-50 maybe of some people saying, ‘Yeah, it looks cool. No, it doesn’t.’ And that was the extent of the research project. It was essentially the Islanders owner coming out as if he really wanted to go in this direction. His kids liked it, so no one was going to contradict him, and they didn’t do a focus group that would have turned up, oh, it looks a lot like the guy on the fish sticks box in my frozen seafood aisle. And that ended up being a disastrous choice for them because the media gets a leaked copy of the logo, the New York Daily News, which is my former employer when I used to be a reporter. They get a leaked copy of the logo and they immediately make that comparison to Gorton’s fish sticks and they call it the fish sticks logo, the logo is “gone fishing,” all of these sorts of puns. And then Rangers fans once the Islanders are playing at Madison Square Garden, where the Rangers play, the Islanders-Rangers games are filled with chants of ‘We want fish sticks,’ which inspired the title of my book because that became the main thing that the logo was associated with. So it’s kind of unbelievable that they missed that. But yes, they weren’t on the Internet, they weren’t asking people, so that’s the way it happened.
Will Mari: [00:18:52] Yeah. You mentioned earlier to how the local news media, especially the sportswriters, were pretty skeptical, I guess, that’s the word that I’ll use, of the logo. I mean was there anyone who actually liked the logo and any local media figures who were like, ‘This is fine actually, we should give this thing a chance.’
Nick Hirshon: [00:19:10] Yes. So, the first coverage of the logo was in April 1995 when the Daily News gets a leaked copy and they mock it and run a photo illustration that shows the Islanders captain from their Stanley Cup years in the early 1980s, Denis Potvin, and they do a photo illustration where they take the original Islanders logo off of his chest and put the fisherman on it, which is basically sacrilegious for any Islanders fan. It would be like, as one of the designers said, putting Babe Ruth in pink or having the players wear tutus or whatever. It looked so absurd. So, that’s the initial reaction, and then a lot of it is kind of lukewarm, kind of like, ‘OK, this is their new fashion,’ and not really taking a stance on it. There are a few early reporters, and I know there was one columnist for Newsday who makes a few comments about, ‘Oh, I actually like the new motif of the Atlantic green.’ And teal was a hot color at that time for the Charlotte Hornets. And so he’s kind of saying, ‘Oh, this kind of looks good and the other logo looked outdated,’ some of the designers were certainly feeling that way. The original Islanders logo from 1972 had a very 70s look and it was created on only three days’ notice. So, it was really rushed and it was just like, OK, this became our logo. So, there were some media outlets who were kind of a little bit positive about it but honestly most of the reaction from fans and the media that I found was almost instantly negative and remained negative throughout its run.
Will Mari: [00:20:36] Then you write about in your book how John Spano, the Texas billionaire who you write about, how he was on the verge of buying the Islanders and I want you maybe to unpack maybe what impact this had at the national level with that ownership question and that next year with the sale and what happened with that, with the aftereffect of this disastrous marketing campaign?
Nick Hirshon: [00:20:57] So, just to put this in context, in 1995 the owners have a shortened season because there was a lockout in the NHL, so they only play a few months and so from like January to April is when they unveil their mascot. Then in the summer of 1995, they unveil a new coach named Mike Milbury, who is this controversial former hockey player who is probably best known for in 1979 going into the stands at Madison Square Garden and fighting with the fans, at one point actually taking the shoe off one of the Rangers fans and hitting him with his own shoe, which became — now it’s a viral moment on YouTube. It led to one of the longest suspensions in hockey history. But Mike Milbury becomes their coach and eventually their general manager. And then in the 95-96 season, they unveil the fisherman logo. And then towards the start of the 96-97 season, there are these reports, as you mention, that a Texas billionaire named John Spano is gonna to take over the team and fans are greeting him as the savior. He’s the guy who’s finally going to be able to pump money into this team, get us good players, renovate our arena, which is in desperate need. It is dark and deteriorating and all of this. And he is painted as this messiah. Fans actually chant, ‘Save us, Spano.’ They bring signs to the arena, ‘Spano for President.’ And so he is greeted as this guy who is going to finally turn the tide on Long Island. And then he ends up closing on his deal with John Pickett, the Islanders owner who I had mentioned before. So, he is actually in charge of the team. He is talking about trades. He’s showing up in the owner’s box. The media is kind of viewing him as the guy in charge. And then there starts to be some weird things that come out about him. He’s late on a lot of his payments to John Pickett. There’s times when he’s supposed to make a payment, for example, for $5 million dollars but he sends a wire transfer of only $5,000 and makes up all these excuses about why he’s paying late and why the amount was wrong and all of this but none of it seems to make a lot of sense. And as it turns out John Spano really doesn’t have the money to pay for the Islanders that everyone thought he did. He was using fraudulent documents to make it look like banks and lawyers were vouching for him and saying that he had money but he really didn’t. The National Hockey League did a very token kind of investigation into his finances that apparently turned up nothing amiss, kind of incredibly. And Islanders just trust the NHL, and the commissioner of the NHL had to introduce them to John Spano, and everyone kind of saw John Spano hanging out with high rollers because he had a moderately successful business in Texas that allowed him access to country clubs and these kinds of exclusive events that made it look like, Oh, he’s hanging out with all these people, he must have money. But it was just a mirage. It was just an illusion of wealth. So, it turns out that he ends up having to forfeit the team. He ends up in jail for his involvement in this and the fraud that he had committed.
[00:24:04] So, it’s another embarrassment where I still think that if John Spano had come in and actually been who Islanders fans thought he was gonna be and gave some money to the team and they experience a little bit of a renaissance, then people still may have not loved the fisherman logo but they would have said, ‘Well, but we’re winning now. We got a bunch of good players. The arena is in good shape. We’ve got an owner we can trust.’ So, it would have been all right. But unfortunately John Spano became another figure like Mike Milbury, that terrible coach, and like the mascot Nyiles, who is being beat up in the stands. He just becomes another part of that rebrand that is mocked and it leads to this humiliation of Islanders fans.
Will Mari: [00:24:43] It really does seem like it was a nadir for the team, and a really bad season, more broadly speaking. And I just wonder what eventually happened in the wake of all this to the logo and what was its eventual end? what happened to it?
Nick Hirshon: [00:24:57] So, the Islanders end up wearing the logos for two seasons in 1995-96, they wear it for every single game. They make a complete departure from the original Islanders logo, they say, ‘We’re not going to use that ever again. This is our new logo.’ And they start to see very quickly in October of 1995 that reaction to the logo is so bad they think about whether they should make a request to the NHL to go back to the original logo for the next season, but they’re not sure. They want to give it a little bit more time. So, they miss the deadline to make that change for the 96-97 season. Then, in the spring of ’96, things are so bad that they say, ‘Look, NHL, we really want to change back to our original logo. Can we please do this? We know we missed the deadline, but can you make an exception?’ And the NHL says, ‘Well, we can’t make an exception because we already have sporting good retailers who are our partners who have fisherman logo jerseys in their stores and we want to make sure that they can sell them. So, we can’t let you go back, but we will let you for a shortened number of games.’ I think it’s like fifteen games, they’re allowed to wear a modified jersey that has the original Islanders logo on it and then for the 97-98 season they completely do away with the fisherman jersey. They take it off of any imagery, not only on their uniforms but anywhere at Nassau Coliseum. They don’t sell it anymore. They just return to their original logo. And for many years that’s what it was when I was growing up as a fan. 1999 was my first season going to games and even when I was doing my dissertation again 2013-14, there was no talk about the fisherman logo. The team wasn’t wearing it. They weren’t selling it. And then there started to be this — a little bit of warmth towards it. And in 2014 I have a photograph in my book where they start selling some fisherman logo things, including hoodies, I think, was the first thing they started selling, a hoodie that I now own that had the fisherman logo on it. And then in 2015 they decide for one game they’re gonna bring it back. As part of a one-night promotion, they’re going to wear it only in warmups, not in the game, and then they’ll auction off those jerseys for charity.
[00:27:07] And they’ll start selling more things. And now they still haven’t worn it in a game to this day since 1997 but they’ve been bringing it back for sure in some images related to the team. They’re giving it away as a season-ticket holder perk. If you buy a season ticket plan, you’ll get a mesh jersey with the original fisherman logo. So, it’s starting to float around, it’s being embraced a little bit more than it was, and I think that maybe they will eventually bring it back and wear it in some games ’cause the fans seem to be warming up to it, especially fans who were not alive in 1995, ’97, when the fisherman logo came out. So for them it’s new and they don’t understand its association with all the losing.
[00:27:47] And Mike Milbury and John Spano.
Will Mari: [00:27:50] Yeah, I wonder if it takes about twenty years for nostalgia to kick in and maybe the sons and daughters of the original fans take it up and the parents are like, ‘Oh my gosh, this was pretty bad, guys,’ but maybe it takes about a generation for nostalgia to be powerful enough to embrace even more embarrassing silly things like a disastrous logo perhaps.
Nick Hirshon: [00:28:09] Well, that’s why they say usually for people writing history like you and me that you wait at least twenty years before you do any investigation of it, any examination, because we don’t know how it’s going to play out. And when I was doing the research on my dissertation, it was 2015, ’16. So, it was just hitting the twenty-year mark from when the Islanders introduced the logo. But if I were to be doing it today, honestly, it’s changed already. There’s things that I don’t have in my book about the way fans are starting to embrace it more. The main Islanders bar in New York City is called Offside Tavern, and they now use the fisherman logo as their main logo. And fans all over are wearing it at games, using it in banners. So yeah. So, it’s certainly been changing, and I think that as the fan base gets younger or just changes, you know, and even some of those old feelings – so the fans who do remember the dynasty era and do remember how far the Islanders fell in the mid-90s, OK, like you say, it’s been twenty years, so you’re like, well, the Islanders are in a good place right now. The people who are associated with that fisherman rebrand, all the players and management and coaches, they’re all long gone. So why hold this grudge? Let’s move on. And eh, it’s kind of an OK logo. When some people look at it they say aesthetically, ‘Yeah, it looks like the Gorton’s fisherman a little bit too much,’ but it’s just the only other logo this team has known besides their main crest that they wear today. So a lot of teams have third jerseys and five, six different kinds of logos that they wear as shoulder patches or main crests on certain special games and stuff like that. So, the Islanders are allowed to maybe have the fisherman in their history as well.
Will Mari: [00:29:51] That makes a lot of sense and I think you would know the best of any historian because you’ve lived through that yourself and have felt that yourself as a as a kid, and now as an academic person. I guess kind of toward that end, though, you mentioned interviews and some articles. What else did you do to research your book and what kind of sources were you relying on for something like this? It’s still fairly recent. Maybe hasn’t quite settled yet in the long past. It’s more in the immediate past. What did you do to explore this topic as a researcher?
Nick Hirshon: [00:30:32] Well, that was part of the problem about researching something from 1995 when you’re living in 2015, 2016, because it’s not like so much time has passed that things have fallen into traditional archives. So I couldn’t just go to the Library of Congress or some historical society on Long Island even and say, ‘Do you have anything relating to this era?’ Because it’s not viewed as old enough. So, a lot of the people who were involved in the rebranding, pretty much, they’re all still alive and they probably have these things in their own homes, their attics and their basements. They haven’t made their way out to any sort of an archive yet. So, that was a real challenge for me. What am I going to do in terms of research? And when I went to the Hockey Hall of Fame, for example, which you would think, Oh, they might have a great archive, they didn’t have anything on this. When I went to Hofstra University on Long Island and other institutions on Long Island, they didn’t have anything. So, I realized I was going to have to do this in a non-traditional way. So part of it was doing oral history interviews. The advantage of doing something in recent history is that most of the people are alive. Why not track them down and ask them questions about it? And enough time had passed that I felt emotions aren’t as raw as they might have been. If I was trying to interview the designer of the fisherman logo in 1996 when fans were chanting, ‘We want fish sticks’ in the stands and the media is saying, ‘This is a disgrace,’ then maybe he wouldn’t want to talk to me and I could understand that. But after twenty years have passed, maybe he has perspective too. And so I was able to interview Ed O’Hara, who was one of the founders of SME, the Sean Michael Edwards design firm that created the fisherman logo. And I was able to interview the gentleman who created the mascot, Pat McDarby, who unfortunately passed away after I interviewed him. But I was able to get in touch with all of the players. I interviewed more than two dozen former players for the Islanders during this period in ’95 to 1997. I interviewed two guys who played the mascot, the attorney who filed the trademark request for the fisherman logo, all of these different people who were involved in management of the Islanders, including a lot of executives who were in that boardroom, guys like Tim Beach and Pat Calabria, who were in on the decision-making. So, the interviews helped a lot. And then asking the people who I interviewed, ‘Do you have anything?’ And that didn’t actually turn up a lot but I was hoping that people might have saved photographs, journals, whatever.
[00:32:40] What was a little more effective was, I went on Twitter and kind of crowdsourced this project, just asking fans, ‘Hey, do you have game programs from that era? Do you have any sort of memorabilia from that time?’ And to my luck and great gratitude, I was able to find two gentlemen who had pretty much every program from that period. They went to all of the games. And those were terrific resources because I was living in Athens, Ohio, at Ohio University, where I was doing my dissertation, my doctoral studies. And these guys who lived on Long Island were sending me big boxes of game programs. And I was able to go through all of them, scan them all in and get just great stuff about, in real time in 1995, how were the Islanders trying to sell fans on this rebrand? If people were going into the game, what was the magazine they were picking up as they were going through the turnstiles? What was it saying? And so that was terrific. I also went to eBay for some things, some programs and other sorts of items, like I found the only mass-produced figurine ever made of an Islanders player in a fisherman jersey was a player named Kirk Muller, who actually was very unpopular as an Islander, but I was able to purchase that and just kind of see what was out there.
[00:33:56] So, going to the fans for that and I went to the Madison Square Garden Network, which eventually gobbled up the Islanders television network at the time was called SportsChannel. It doesn’t exist anymore. It’s now under the MSG umbrella. And so I was able to go to their headquarters and watch some of the old footage. Some of that has made its way onto YouTube so I could watch portions of old games. A lot of it, unfortunately, hasn’t been saved, but thanks to the internet age, there’s a lot that you can find using Twitter or YouTube, and I encourage a lot of historians to do that. If you’re doing recent history, why not make use of that? You’d be surprised: If you tweet this stuff out, if you know who to ask on Twitter, and if they start spreading the word as fans and Islanders media outlets were kind enough to do for me, then you turn up stuff that made it so much more colorful. I was able to just include so many more quotes and images that I would have never been able to find if it weren’t for fans helping me out.
Will Mari: [00:34:56] That’s really awesome and a really innovative use of crowdsourcing and I think the end result really does show kind of that love for the team and kind of what lessons can come out of this sort of thing. I guess one final question – one penultimate question, we’ll do another one after that – what lessons can you learn from all this? I mean, as a sports branding industry person maybe looking at your book or maybe reading your book, what could you learn from this logo disaster looking back? And when you have a lot of really cool real-time stuff and makes it particularly helpful potentially for somebody who’s sort of hoping to avoid a similar scenario, but what could you learn from all this?
Nick Hirshon: [00:35:33] Right. There’s a lot of lessons, I think, here for teams today and I think they’ve learned them. One of the interesting things about the fisherman logo is that I call it the worst sports branding failure of all time, but it also really shifted the industry because then they learned what not to do. So, OK. If you’re rebranding a team right now, what not to do? First off, rebrand when the team is on the verge of winning. The Islanders rebranded when they had no reasonable expectation to win at any time, and they didn’t. They were in last place the two seasons they wore the fisherman logo. So, the immediate association with this new logo was, ‘Oh, that’s what the Islanders wear when they lose.’ And we associate the former logo that they departed from with when they were winning four straight Stanley Cups in the ’80s, so of course fans are going to want that back. It becomes just a superstitious thing too, right? ‘Well, we’re losing when we’re wearing this.
[00:36:23] We were winning when we were wearing that.’ So, that is part of it. If you have a reasonable expectation of winning, if you’re gonna trade for a superstar player like the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 trade for Wayne Gretzky, the greatest player in hockey history, and at that moment they decide to unveil Gretzky in a new jersey for the Kings. They go to silver and black. Fans across the world are buying these jerseys not even because they’re ever going to go to an LA Kings game. Maybe they’re not even living in the United States. But they want to be associated with this greatness, the greatest hockey player ever. So, rebrand when you’re winning is one. Be wise when you’re picking good standard-bearers for the brand. Think about who do you want to roll out as the new face of the franchise. The rebranding process is more than just a logo that you wear. It is the players wearing the jerseys, it is the coach, it is the owner. And the people who I saw who are being promoted the most in ads during this period were Mike Milbury, the coach and general manager who turned out to be terrible, hated by his players, had all of these very strange motivational techniques, would bench players when he heard that their parents were gonna be in town, would shove and spit at players, all these sorts of weird things. So, he was one of the guys they were marketing as the face of the brand.
[00:37:40] Another one was John Spano the owner, who we just said turned out to be a con artist and ended up in prison. And a third guy, the only real player they were marketing at any length of time, was Brett Lindros, who was a player the Islanders had drafted right around that time and he was the brother of Eric Lindros, who went on to become a great hockey player for the Philadelphia Flyers and other teams. And the Islanders were selling Brett as the better Lindros. ‘He’s gonna be even better than Eric. You wait and see. He’s gonna be a Hockey Hall of Famer.’ And they’re doing all of this before he’s even played in a single game. And it turns out that Brett Lindros comes onto Long Island. He only plays a handful of games before he has concussions that end his career. And so he’s not even there to really see this fisherman rebrand through. So, pick a good standard-bearer. There are popular players the Islanders could have gone with in this time, guys like Ziggy Palffy, who ends up scoring forty goals for them. Even as bad as they are, he has terrific seasons.
[00:38:39] And of course as we discussed earlier, do focus group testing. Ask the fans. They would have turned up the similarity of the Gorton’s fisherman really early on. They might have said, ‘You know, I really associate this Islanders logo still with winning. Yeah, we’ve had a few lean years, granted, in the last few years but we still have been making the playoffs and those Stanley Cups aren’t so far gone. It’s not like it’s a hundred years ago where we don’t remember them. It was only a decade ago.’ So there’s a lot of people who still have that strong passion. Don’t underestimate the affinity that fans will have for their sports team’s logo because they associate with — when I was going with my dad to games, this is what we were wearing, and this is what I saw them wearing during all these moments of greatness. So, there’s a lot of lessons there about how to holistically look at a rebrand. It’s not just the logo. It’s a mascot. It’s the players. It’s the coach. It’s everything. It’s the arena that was deteriorating at this time. So, if you’re going to rebrand, do it during a time you expect to be kind of on an uptick.
Will Mari: [00:39:39] No, those are all really good lessons and hard-won lessons and lessons that only a historian can probably have perspective on because you have that long view of what went down again both personally but also professionally as a historian. This leads me to my final question for you, and you can answer this however you want, but why does journalism history matter? I mean why does doing this kind of history matter right now? We talked about some of the lessons learned but from the more meta-perspective, what does it mean to do this kind of history?
Nick Hirshon: [00:40:07] Well, I think is interesting to me because I’m a former journalist myself. I was a reporter for the Daily News for six years, and I viewed myself as writing the first draft of history. I know that’s a cliché that we say a lot about journalists, but for me that was one of the things that drew me to it. I’m on the front lines when things are happening in New York City, and I was there for many accidents and plane crashes and community board meetings, from the mundane to the bizarre, and I was writing that first draft of it. I was getting quotes on the scene. How do people feel at the moment? And then when you look at it from a historian’s perspective, you’re going back to those kinds of reports. And I’m sure someday hopefully someone will be looking at what I did as a reporter and saying, ‘Oh, this is how people were feeling in 2006 and 2007 about whatever was going down. Thank God Nick Hirshon captured that when he was with the Daily News.’
[00:40:57] So, I’m trying to go back to that kind of coverage, and especially when I look at more broadly, not just journalism history, but media history, because that’s a lot of what I was doing with my dissertation and my book. There were aspects of news media, and there was a lot of journalism, like looking at the Daily News getting a leaked copy of the logo, and just the way that it was covered on TV and by the press. But I was looking more broadly at the logo as a form of mass communication and that’s a form of media history and just kind of understanding the concepts of how does framing work? When the news media comes out against this logo so strongly, how does that affect the brand’s perception before they’ve even seen it unveiled by the Islanders, seen it worn at a game, they’re hearing, ‘Oh, it’s gone fishin’,’ ‘it’s sea sick,’ it’s all these terrible things. So, kind of understanding those phenomena that are taking place around us all the time. How does that influence us when we’re being sold products and businesses and all of that? So, yes. I think I also kind of view a lot of this as kind of paying homage or putting context into situations. Paying homage in the sense of there were a lot of reporters at the time who were doing a lot of hard work.
[00:42:05] Let’s not have that forgotten. Let’s kind of go back and be citing them and showing all the work they were doing and the players who were wearing this logo. I took that very seriously as they were kind of caught up in the midst of stuff. It wasn’t their fault that they just maybe didn’t have the talent on the roster to perform. It certainly wasn’t their fault that they were wearing the Gorton’s fisherman on their jerseys. For them it was just a thrill to be playing in the NHL. They had reached the highest pinnacle of hockey. And now they’re being mocked and people are chanting, ‘We want fish sticks’ at them and all these other sorts of things that were kind of embarrassing or difficult to deal with. And, again, giving context like what was happening at that time? Why did the Islanders do this? It wasn’t like they just took out a box of Crayons, as one of the executives said to me, and they just decided one morning, ‘Hey, want to create a new fisherman jersey?’ They went to one of the best-known firms in sports. It didn’t work out, but there were a lot of men involved in this process who really were trying to do things the right way. And, OK, it flopped. But let’s describe what happened there and tell that full story.
[00:43:12] So I think that’s why, to me, history itself is so fun to do and to be involved in that process and to try to really turn every single stone and say, again, as I was telling you before, I went to YouTube, I went to eBay, I went to all these fans on Twitter, I got all the programs, I interviewed everybody down to like the attorney who filed the trademark form for the logo. I’m really gonna tell you the full story so don’t just mock this jersey, just say, ‘The Islanders are a joke and they did this stupid thing.’ Let’s remember what was happening in sports branding in the 1990s and all of those things I think are really crucial to trying to be a good, responsible media historian, which I took seriously during this process and why I love all the sorts of not just doing research on the Islanders’ fisherman logo but everything else that I’ve done that relates to media history.
Will Mari: [00:44:03] Awesome. Really well said. Everything we covered today really is fascinating even if you’re not a sports fan. Thank you so much again, Nick, for your time. Thank you for making the time for us this morning.
Nick Hirshon: [00:44:14] Of course, well, thank you so much it’s a pleasure to talk about this. As you know when you spend so much time doing a dissertation and then working on a book proposal and promotion, everything, you want to talk about it. You want to get the word out there. So thank you for helping me get to the listeners of the podcast.
Will Mari: [00:44:29] Thanks for tuning in, and additional thanks to our sponsor, the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and to Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal Journalism History. Until next time, I’m your host, Will Mari, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: Good night, and good luck.