“Wait—you write about uniforms? Like, for a living?”
I've been writing my "Uni Watch" column, along with its assorted offshoots and side projects, for over 20 years now, but I still get that incredulous response from people when they hear what my job is. Or at least from some people—the uni-verse, as I like to call it, has gained greater legitimacy in people's minds over the years, and a growing comm-uni-ty has sprung up around it, so people aren't quite as surprised by my vocation as they used to be. But there are still some folks out there who find it hard to wrap their head around the idea of a full-time uniform writer.
And hey, you may be one of them! So in this, my first piece as a newly minted Sports Illustrated staff writer (I've previously written a handful of freelance pieces), let's take a few minutes to discuss why I do what I do.
For starters, uniforms are fun. Fans like geeking out about team colors, logos, and fonts. And lots of us have fond memories of how our first Little League or Pop Warner uniforms felt so official, and made us feel official. Uniforms also help to bridge the gaps between eras and generations, cementing the bond between fan and team.
The uni-verse also has its own trivia and arcana, just like the rest of the sports world. Stats nerds may know who holds the records for the most three-pointers in an NBA game, the most triples in an MLB season, or the most receiving yards in an NFL career, but uni nerds know which pro sports team was the first to put the players' names on the back of the jerseys, which NFL quarterback wore at least 11 different facemask designs during his career, and which NHL player was the last to play without a helmet. (That would be, respectively, the 1960 Chicago White Sox, Archie Manning, and Craig MacTavish, of course.) Or to put it another way, uniform history is sports history, or at least an important part of it.
Moreover, in an era when everyone is obsessed with branding, sports uniforms are the key to the most powerful form of brand loyalty you're ever likely to find. To show what I mean by that—and bear with me here, because it's going to take a few paragraphs—let's hypothetically say that I really like Cheerios (which, in fact, I do). So over the years I've developed certain positive associations with the yellow box, the typeface on the package, the look of the cereal, and so on. When I see that yellow box on the supermarket shelf, a little button inside my brain gets pushed and a few endorphins probably get released. This, we've been taught by marketers, is brand loyalty.
But when you think a little more about it, brand loyalty is actually product loyalty, because what I like most about Cheerios is the way they taste. If the product formulation changed—if it suddenly tasted different, or if it wasn't as crunchy or whatever—then I'd probably stop buying it, despite all those positive brand associations. Simply having my internal button pushed by the familiar yellow box wouldn't be enough to sustain the relationship. As the Coca-Cola folks learned with the New Coke debacle back in the 1980s, brand loyalty only goes so far, and it's largely dependent upon the consistency of the product.
Now let's compare that to the sports world, where the product consists of the players. Thanks to trades, free agency, college graduations, injuries, retirements, and so on, the content of that product is constantly in flux. And as most of us have experienced all too frustratingly, the quality of that product is usually in flux as well. A team can be really good one year and really bad the next—there's no consistency whatsoever. Based on our Cheerios example, that means our sports loyalties should be in flux too, right? Why would we remain devoted to a brand with such an inconsistent product?
But of course that's not how it works. We remain loyal to our favorite teams no matter how good (or bad) they are. We keep rooting for those colors, that logo, and, especially, that uniform, regardless of who's wearing it. It's like sticking with the yellow box of Cheerios even after they've changed the ingredients.
That's an unusually powerful and intense form of brand loyalty, and there's nothing else like it on the consumer landscape. That, my friends, is the power of a uniform.
To put this in some perspective, here's another hypothetical: Let's say I love the Mets and hate the Yankees (which, again, happens to be true). Now let's further say that those two teams pull off an unusual trade in which they swap their entire rosters for each other—25 guys for 25 guys, straight up. If that were to happen tonight, who would I root for tomorrow? Duh, I'd root for the 25 guys wearing Mets uniforms, even if I happened to hate all of them the day before.
That makes exactly zero sense. But again, that's the power of a uniform, because that Mets uni activates another internal button in my brain—a much more powerful one, it turns out, than the Cheerios button.
Jerry Seinfeld has famously referred to this phenomenon as "rooting for laundry." But he meant that in a trivializing, almost demeaning way, whereas I see it as something worth celebrating.
But that's not to say all uniforms are equally celebration-worthy. There are definitely some stinkers out (looking at you, D-backs, Bucs, and Hawks!). In addition, the sports world's transparently cynical attempts to squeeze every last merchandising dollar out of alternate jerseys and caps have resulted in some embarrassing designs, like those brutal solid-black and solid-white Players' Weekend uniforms that MLB teams will be wearing later this month. There's also the looming threat of advertising patches, which have already infected NBA uniforms and may be coming to MLB by 2022.
In other words, no universe is perfect, including the uni-verse. Generally speaking, though, there's more good stuff out there to obsess over than bad stuff—not just good uniform designs, but also historical rabbit holes, interesting quirks and oddities, fun coincidences, and more.
So in the weeks and months to come, we'll be exploring the nooks and crannies of athletics aesthetics. With the football, hockey, and basketball seasons approaching, we'll run down all of the new uniform designs for those sports (expect the first of those season previews, for college football, around Aug. 28). When teams or leagues unveil major uniform redesigns, we'll assess them. For teams that are overdue for a makeover, we'll hold team-redesign challenges to see how their uniforms could be improved. We'll also dissect small visual elements and minutiae in excruciatingly close detail. And whenever possible, we'll look at the people behind the scenes—the designers, equipment managers, and other unsung heroes who make the uni-verse run.
Those are the basics. As a bonus, here's a quick FAQ-style rundown to give you some additional sense of where your friendly uniform columnist is coming from:
If you were the commissioner of each major pro sports league, what uniform-related changes would you make?
MLB: I'd mandate that players cuff their pants no lower than at mid-calf. I'd also designate one day per season as Tequila Sunrise Day—a day when all teams would wear some variation of the Astros' iconic 1970s rainbow-striped uniforms. And I'd consider changing Jackie Robinson Day so that only one player per team would wear No. 42, instead of every player, which is starting to feel like overkill.
NFL: I'd scrap the one-shell rule and then turn all Thursday-night games into Throwback Thursdays, so we could see more of those old-school uni designs that fans love.
NBA: I'd put the kibosh on those miserable advertising patches (because what's the point of being the commish if you can't invoke the kibosh?). I'd also consider changing the league's Jerry West-inspired logo, which seems badly out of date.
NHL: I'd go back to having the home team wear white, so home fans would see a greater variety of color matchups. I'd also give the Flyers some sort of inducement to bring back Cooperalls a few times per season, just because it would be fun to revive that weird chapter of hockey history.
What are some current uniforms that you particularly like and dislike?
From a uni standpoint, I'm a big fan of the Packers, Warriors, Cubs, and Canadiens. Not so fond of the Broncos, Clippers, Marlins, or Coyotes. MLB Cardinals good, NFL Cardinals bad.
Sounds like you're a traditionalist.
Oh, come on—I'm the guy who just proposed Tequila Sunrise Day and changing the NBA logo!
I'm actually a classicist, not a traditionalist. A traditionalist says, "You should never change anything, because change is always bad." A classicist says, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," but is open to creative ideas. Big difference.
How big are your jersey and cap collections?
They're non-existent. People are often surprised to hear that I don't wear team merchandise, but it's just not my thing. I care a lot about what the players wear, but I'm not looking to dress up like them myself. I realize that lots of fans—maybe including you!—have big merch collections, and that's fine. For the most part, though, I try to focus on what the players wear, not the stuff that's for sale.
How can I read more about uniforms while I'm waiting for your next SI article? And how can I make sure I don't miss any of your SI pieces?
Glad you asked! I have a daily Uni Watch blog, which you can read here, along with a very active Twitter feed. All of my SI pieces will be linked from the blog and from Twitter, and they'll also be announced via my mailing list, which you can sign up for here.
Do you really like Cheerios?
Yup. Started eating them for breakfast every day as a kid and never stopped. Kind of similar to my attachment to the Mets, actually, although I'm pretty sure Cheerios are better for me (or at least less stressful).
Okay, that's enough for now. If you have any questions, tips, story ideas, or feedback, feel free to be in touch.