Design Review: Pro Sports Branding
Teams are remixing their brand identities more than ever in order to juice revenue and stay relevant.
Up until the 1990s, logos, jerseys, and uniforms for professional sports teams in the U.S. were a relatively static affair. An occasional throwback jersey here, a patch honoring past greats there. Teams would go 10 years (or 90) without a major design change.
The marketing of merchandise used to center around a unified team identity. Fans wear an Oakland A’s hat in classic green and gold because they identify with the personalities on the team, the city the team is based in, the history, and the perceived values of the franchise (gritty determination, showtime, loveable losers).
For a long time this was a static, one-way relationship. Teams produced a set number of merchandise options designed under a strict set of rules about how they look. Sizing, color, typeface, logo size, these elements didn’t change a whole lot. Then, you bought it (for too much money), wore it (for way too long), and accepted it (even though it maybe wasn’t your vibe).
That’s gone. Now, the team identity must bend more around the personality of the consumers, who want way more of a two-way street when repping the team. The inversion is such an interesting snapshot of consumer culture. You chose a team, and now your values, attitudes, and (of course) social media presence contribute to that team’s brand equation.
Redesigns mean revenue
By 2033 licensed sports merchandise is projected to hit 56 billion dollars in global revenue. There are more professional leagues, teams, and athletes than ever before. Naturally, all these variations and new looks present opportunities to make money. Pro teams often cast rebrands as a way to engage fans, reinforce city ties, and freshen up the brand. But redesigns mean revenue.
Why sell somebody a team shirt with branding that won’t change for years when you can bake in planned obsolescence for your entire range of merchandise? When you update the brand every year or two, fans are incentivized to buy new merch to stay current.
This presents a unique challenge for brand managers in various leagues. How do you keep your identity when fans increasingly want it their way, and they’re willing to pay more for the privilege? When I say challenge, I really mean opportunity — what was once an afterthought to TV rights and ticket sales is now front and center — jersey sales make up two-thirds of the NFL’s revenue.
Most interesting use of brand redesigns
Case in point: Major League Soccer unveiled 13 new primary or secondary kits for the 2023 season! 13 out of 29 “companies” in MLS are changing their logo and branding, and we’ll probably see a similar number next year. What started as a way to kickstart ticket sales and get into a news cycle is now a reliable moneymaker that can show exponential growth.
The designs themselves are good, but skew towards an Americanized version of Premier League kit. Part of the English soccer brand is simply how old the teams are, how rooted they are in their respective communities. A flashy new logo for, say, Chelsea, would look ridiculous. It makes sense that MLS would emulate that design style in order to look legit and port over existing Premier League fans to new U.S. teams.
Of the new designs, a few break through the pack, like the subway-tiled background of New York City FC, or Seattle’s tribute to Bruce Lee and the 50th anniversary of “Enter The Dragon.” That would be a tougher sell in Tottenham, but it’s a nice way to evolve MLS using some West Coast history and flourish.
I’m also partial to Portland’s tartaned-up green jersey and Austin’s playful Slytherin-hued stripe fest. Both jerseys represent how quickly you can create something bold (but still aesthetically pleasing) by pushing traditional elements of design just a bit.
Most intriguing new logos and uniforms
Legacy sports brands often lean on more conservative (read: macho) design principles. Thick type, sharp angles, dark sci-fi colors, bold contrasts, assorted animals baring teeth. Or, they embrace the “tradition” motif with pinstripes, Major League Baseball-style lettering, patriotic hues, or old-timey iconography.
Founded in 2012, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) doesn’t have that problem. The league’s teams aren’t trying to copy past brand hits. The logos and uniforms feel fresher and more colorful, and they absolutely aim for a younger, more diverse fanbase (without looking like they’re trying too hard).
Take Angel City FC’s sublime, pink-on-black deco crest, San Diego Wave FC’s fuchsia shield, or Racing Louisville FC’s lily-festooned home and mint julep-inspired away kits. NWSL’s palette is just brighter and way more fun. Even when a team goes more traditional, like the Kansas City Current’s bold “KC” sitting atop stripes and stars and swooshes, it still feels fresh.
Both the NWSL and the MSL acknowledge something deeper than change for sales’ sake. Fans are accustomed to, and expectant of, change on a molecular level. New content, new looks, and constant updates are part of the current consumer cycle, especially in fashion.
Most interesting in-arena merchandising
Sports merchandise in arena and stadium stores has, by and large, been in a time bubble, siloed off from the brand crossover trends influencing fashion. Fashion-forward streetwear designs incorporating NFL or NBA logos were farmed out to retail licensees.
And so, that meant shirts and merch available at a store in Dodger Stadium looks an awful lot like it did 10 years ago. XL tees, replica jerseys, collegiate sweatshirts, and dad polos in every aisle.
The Isles Lab at USB Arena, however, is a swag fever dream. Every time you walk in the store, you see something new: customizable jersey designs from the past and present, a hundred or more patches, candles, different jacket designs, new hat designs, and on and on.
The Lab features designer collabs that incorporate team brands into streetwear or luxury designs. And it’s partnered with independent vendors who’ve come up with their own small-run takes on clothes and accessories. All this variation has helped Islanders merchandise sales go through the roof.
This idea of making on-site stores more “boutique” will be copied. As venue ticket prices rise, and game day experiences cost more overall, the clientele is changing too, and they’ll want more options regardless of price. Is this item unique or customizable? Does it reflect my personal taste? Is there something available here that’s different from what I can buy online for half the price?
Best use of nostalgia
NBA attendance is at a record pace, and the overall brand is incredibly strong. But teams are hyper-conscious of the difference between loyalty to a player and loyalty to a team, a widening gulf in the player empowerment era.
The NBA puts a lot of thought into the “City Edition” Uniforms (started in 2017), and it shows. The City designs lean heavily on both franchise and regional history as well as splashy collabs with brands KITH.
They’re all about authenticity: you wear this jersey so you understand the place’s history. Is this a naked marketing ploy? Sure. But there’s a depth of design thinking here that should be acknowledged, something that goes beyond splashy rearrangements of type and color for a quick buck.
For instance, the Detroit Pistons paid tribute to legendary local gym St. Cecilia’s with a throwback green, and Phoenix brought in a ton of elements paying tribute to the indigenous tribes in Arizona.
The Washington Wizards went all-in on a pink cherry blossom arrangement (in conjunction with baseball’s Washington Nationals) that offered a rare burst of color from a part of the spectrum pro teams typically steer clear from.
Most impressive numbers from jersey sponsorship
An astonishing tide of sponsorship money is flooding into pretty much every sport. Even the grande dame of uniform purity, Major League Baseball, finally relented, allowing teams a single sponsor patch on the arm (for now).
It is an absolute arms race, so to speak … a big-money game show with each team trying to figure out the highest dollar value they can get for new embroidery. Motorola is spending $10 million a year to put their batwing logo on a San Diego Padres jersey, and the Boston Red Sox signed a 10-year, $170 million deal with MassMutual.
Most of these sponsor deals are a net positive for the teams, though some are curious. Occidental Petroleum sponsoring the Houston Astros is certainly predictable, and a feel-good partnership for big oil, but may shine a brighter light than expected on climate issues.
All of it nets out to about 14 minutes of TV exposure per game, a lot compared to other leagues. And the visual integration of logos into the uniform isn’t as jarring as it could be, helped by size and placement restrictions. While NASCAR-style logo soup is unlikely, it’s only a matter of time until other placement options come into play. We’re talking about free money here (and new jersey sales to fans).