The Kannapolis Cannon Ballers have burst on to the scene.
The Class A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox was previously known as the Intimidators. The fuse was lit for a franchise overhaul in February, when the long-running South Atlantic League franchise announced it would change its name in advance of moving into a new ballpark in 2020. During an unveiling event Wednesday night at Kannapolis' historic Gem Theater, the Cannon Ballers moniker was shot out into the world.
Kannapolis' yet-to-be-named downtown ballpark replaces Intimidators Stadium, which opened in 1995 as Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium. The Intimidators name was adopted prior to the 2001 season, when Kannapolis native Dale "The Intimidator" Earnhardt bought a share in the franchise. Earnhardt never got to see the Intimidators take the field, as he died in February 2001 after crashing on the last lap of the Daytona 500. The decision to move on from the Intimidators name was met with criticism from Kannapolis fans and the racing community at large, prompting the team to write an open letter that explained, in part, that "[W]e do not own and therefore cannot confidently build around the Intimidator name."
The Cannon Ballers will play at a new downtown ballpark in 2020. (City of Kannapolis)
"Cannon Ballers" represents both the history of Kannapolis and the carnival-like atmosphere the team plans to provide at its new ballpark, while the logo set offers subtle nods to Earnhardt and his outsized legacy. First and foremost, the moniker references the industrial age entrepreneurship that, quite literally, put Kannapolis on the map. The small North Carolina city, located approximately 25 miles northeast of Charlotte, is inextricably linked with James William Cannon and the textile company he founded, the Cannon Mills Company. (The city's name is a derivation of earlier, unofficial variants such as "Cannon-opolis.") The Cannon Mills Company was founded in 1888 and ceased operations in 2003. At its peak, it was the world's largest textile producer.
"The Cannon family founded Kannapolis, so having a Cannon connection in our name is huge," said Cannon Ballers general manager Matt Millward. "Cannons was the No. 1 suggestion we received [from the fans]. We really liked the name, but you can't do much with it. So we took it to the next level."
Suit up like a Cannon Baller »
The Cannon Ballers identity was created in conjunction with Studio Simon, headed by Louisville-based designer Dan Simon. He said it was a challenge to reconcile Kannapolis' past with the present, while also being cognizant of the esteem in which many fans held the Intimidators name. The sprawling North Carolina Research Campus, a public-private partnership, is located where the mill once stood. The new ballpark -- referred to by city planners as an SEV (sports and entertainment venue) -- is an anchor of a much larger downtown revitalization project. In short, Kannapolis is in the midst of a total reinvention.
"When I went to Kannapolis, I met with civic leaders, business leaders, season ticket holders, families, people who grew up there and transplants. All kinds of people," said Simon. "I was hoping to come back having determined what the consensus is. Are people looking to move on from the mills, or is this mill history so important that we can't not have the identity reflect that? But instead of coming back with a consensus, I found that it was split down the middle. ... So I'm sitting there thinking, we've got to go one direction or another. Otherwise half the people are going to think that their voices weren't heard. You're not always going to hit on something that accommodates both. It was a tough nut to crack."
Beyond that, Simon advised against the name "Cannons" due to copyright concerns as well as its function as a weapon of war. But brainstorming related to Cannons ultimately led to Cannon Ballers.
"At first I was thinking of [the movie] 'Cannonball Run,' as well as kids jumping into a pool and yelling 'Cannon ball!'" he said. "And then it hit me -- Cannon Ballers."
"The minute we saw it, we said 'This is it!'" added Millward. "It just screams the core values of Minor League Baseball and allows us to be creative with everything from marketing down to food and beverage. It can be integrated in so many ways, and it's all-American -- red, white and blue with a touch of other colors.
"And there's just the entertainment aspect that the name brings to it. The Human Cannonball, we'll look to have him out to the ballpark. It just calls to mind a circus, carnival, festival-type world. Our staff, we've been studying carnivals. We went to a county fair and came back with tons of good ideas, just trying to think of how many creative tie-ins we can do with a carnival, circus-like theme to it."
While the Intimidators wore caps featuring an angry, anthropomorphic letter K, the Cannon Ballers' lids feature the initials CB. Simon points out that also can represent Cabarrus County, in which Kannapolis partially resides (another portion of the city is in Rowan County). The No. 3 is subtly embedded within the CB, a nod to Earnhardt's car number. The legendary NASCAR driver is also referenced, however obliquely, via the titular Cannon Ballers' jumpsuit and bushy mustache, key aspects of the primary logo. Simon said the Cannon Baller, like Earnhardt and all NASCAR racers, "lays it on the line every time he goes out there."
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Millward, meanwhile, was enthused about the potential of a "Ballers" alternate design.
"We're doing some [Ballers] merch, and it will be interesting to see how it resonates. We think young kids will relate to Ballers," he said. "And one checkmark against the [Cannon Ballers] name is that it's long, so Ballers ties in to that as well. Picture a newspaper headline: 'Ballers win in ninth.' We can use it to shorten down a lot of references."
Simon believes that Cannon Ballers checks all the boxes, saying ultimately it's about "the city moving forward, the city's favorite son and the game-going experience."
"We believe that the entire town can rally around this," added Millward. "The name, logo and design really connect with the Kannapolis community. It's a new image for ourselves. We're taking the team to new heights."