The Montreal Impact has been a staple in the Montreal sports community for the last 30 years or so. Many younger Montreal sports fans will recall the unveiling of the team as the nineteenth club to join Major League Soccer (MLS) in 2010. However, the club’s roots in Montreal go a little further back than that. The first iteration of the Impact was born in 1992 and competed in the American Professional Soccer League. The pre-MLS days of the Montreal Impact were anything but stable as the club experienced years of financial instability coupled with the ever-changing landscape of the early days of North American professional soccer. The Impact even paused operations for the 1999 season after a dispute between the team owner and the league, although they did compete in professional indoor soccer that season. But beyond the financial issues, what characterizes the Montreal Impact since its inception has been the inability to win major trophies.
Unfortunately, the lack of a winning culture has stuck with the Impact since joining the MLS, and has, in all likelihood, contributed to the club’s desire to rebrand as Club De Foot Montréal. For many sports teams, a name change represents a fresh start. Often, expansion franchises that struggle to attract supporters and build a brand will rebrand after a several years. This can tempt fans to forget previous failures and give the team a second chance and can also draw in new fans that were previously uninterested. The Charlotte Hornets are a perfect example of this, having changed their name from the Charlotte Bobcats in 2014. Charlotte basketball had previous ties to the Hornets name, so the new name selection was a perfect fit. They essentially shed the ten-year nightmare of the Bobcats franchise overnight by rebranding.
The Montreal Impact attempted something similar and like the Bobcats, Montreal shed the memory of almost ten years filled with losing seasons and early playoff exits while in MLS by becoming Club De Foot Montréal. The only problem is that the Impact’s place in Montreal sports goes back a lot farther than ten years. For many former players, team personnel, and longtime supporters that remained loyal to the Impact during the toughest times, the rebrand constituted the club running away from its past. The MLS club had always maintained that all Montreal Impact history was their own, and now, to many, that history was being erased. Some have even speculated that the Club’s ownership felt that the Impact still carried the reputation of being a minor league club despite playing in the continent’s top division for the last decade.
Now, the idea of a rebrand isn’t totally ludicrous. For one, there is something to be said about changing the identity of the club. Plenty of other sports franchises have tweaked logos and colour schemes to both modernize their brand and give the impression of a fresh start—the LA Clippers are a notable example of this. Montreal has every right to modernize the club’s image and try to grow the city’s interest in soccer that way. There is also the very Montreal-specific challenge of language. Perhaps francophone fans felt disenfranchised by the very Anglo-sounding Montreal Impact (or even Impact de Montréal in French), and the club thought that Club de Foot Montréal—or CF Montréal for short—did a better job of walking the line.
However, in retiring the Impact name, many feel that the club ventured too far toward the other extreme. Many supporters, understanding the language dynamics of the club and city, have suggested names like CF Impact de Montréal, Club de Football Impact, and other names with varying degrees of language synthesis that still retain the Impact name. The club has also been criticized for going with Club de Foot instead of Club de Football for their French version of Football Club or FC, a universal and historic suffix for many soccer team names worldwide. Those critics point to the similarities between the team’s new Gallicized name and the medical condition clubfoot. The most cynical critics—and perhaps for good reason—suggest that the club’s failure to attract younger fans has more to do with perpetual losing than any issue of language representation. In any case, it seems as though the club has missed the mark in terms of its rebrand.
Navigating Montreal’s unique relationship with language was never going to be easy for the club. I completely understand their desire to engage more young francophones with a more French-sounding name. I also understand the backlash they received—from both francophones and anglophones with ties to the club—for retiring the Impact name. I even understand the desire of many supporters to throw the whole rebrand campaign out the window and just focus on fielding a competitive team. That being said, not engaging with past players, coaches, trainers, fans, and other members of the club as part of the rebranding process was a serious oversight. Surely then the club would have realized how hurtful this change is to so many members of their community. Watching the club you gave your heart and soul to essentially erase you from the history books must be heartbreaking. Perhaps then they would have realized that a hybrid name (CF Impact de Montréal would be my personal pick) would have been the best path forward for the club.