Thoughts On College Uniform Madness…

There was a time in the 1970’s when the Oakland A’s and the Pittsburgh Pirates sent that conservative baseball world spinning with a series out outlandish uniforms. The A’s would wear white Sunday and then switch between green and gold on various days, while the Pirates went back and forth between yellow, black and white. Then there were Bill Veeck’s Chicago White Sox, who donned light blue, dark blue, a little hot red and shorts from time to time. The uniforms made the splash they wanted, set the teams apart, and helped really set the stage for uniform variations, and strict marketing rules, that all professional sports put in going forward. Of course the A’s and Pirates also were winning at the time, so that also helped give them both steak and sizzle.

So now we get to 2011 college football, a time where schools are fighting for attention, switching conferences, growing their social media footprint and trying to find every area that can squeeze revenue and with that, attention.

The college football landscape of the past has been relatively conservative in terms of uniform look. Tradition would never let Alabama vary from their red numbered helmets, or Penn State from their white and blue or Navy from their all gold helmets. Occasionally you would see Notre Dame wake up the echoes with a green jersey, or Oregon trot out a Nike inspired new look. Very rarely would schools mess with tradition and the dollars inspired with the consistency of a University look, logo and theme.

However now, especially with new companies like a more brash Under Armour both in the mix and looking to create an identity, more and more schools are varying their look to gain some buzz and exposure where there may not have been as much before. Boise State unveiled almost all white uniforms in their opener against Georgia, the Academies unveiled new looks with Nike to be trotted out later this year, Notre Dame added shamrocks on their gold helmets against Michigan and then there was Maryland, who for two weeks have had “inspired” uniforms of various shapes, colors and schemes to “connect them to the state.

While the professional leagues have taken great care in keeping brands consistent, it seems like colleges are going the other way to grab attention and some additional licensing sales that have not been realized in the past. Why? The appeal for recruiting and connecting with a wider fan base in a geographic area has probably led some programs to try things they wouldn’t normally have tried to get attention they may have missed in the past. Maryland, rebuilding under Randy Edsall and trying to battle the talent-rich ACC schools, needs to pout more casual fans in the seats and draw more recruits, so the connection to state with some new uni looks would make sense for the short term, especially with the home grown marketing machine of Under Armour behind them. Boise is still growing its national footprint, so to trot out “snowflake” uni’s on their best national television spot sets them apart.

Will they sell thousands more jerseys at retail, like an NBA or NFL team may with a uniform change? Probably not. In all likelihood the jersey change will be a one off, or in Maryland’s case, several one offs, which will die off in interest as the season progresses and the wins or loses pile up. Part of the reason for the uniform shifts is a need to be different for the sake of being different. Traditional is less powerful in some places than it used to be. Part is the need to send the message of being progressive with programs that need to stand out above. Part is an attempt to grow the licensing pool. Part is a push by those who make the uniforms to help grow their brand as well.

All of it makes for an interesting mix to again see what best practices work, what fail, and what will be adopted by the masses. The ten jerseys in ten game mix for some university probably isn’t that far away.