Uniforms, team names, logos — all hot topics of discussion lately in Seattle with the pending launch of a yet-to-be-named NHL team and a $119 million batch of new uniforms at the University of Washington.
Who better to weigh in than the Uniwatch man himself, Paul Lukas? Currently writing all things aesthetic for Sports Illustrated, Lukas has been a leading voice in the industry since launching his independent blog more than two decades ago.
The Seattle Times recently gave him a ring to get his opinion ahead of our Great Seattle Uniform Bracket.
Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
So, what makes a good uniform?
It really depends on the sport. If you’re a football team, it all starts with the helmet. With hockey, you have a huge canvas to work on; every part of the player is covered except his face. With basketball, you have a much smaller canvas. You don’t have sleeves — or most of the time, you don’t have sleeves — and you don’t have long pants and the whole thing. Certainly one thing no matter the sport is you need a good color combination. Most Seattle teams have worked in, in some manner or another, green or a variant of green, right, with the whole Emerald City thing going on. As it happens, green is my favorite color. So that doesn’t hurt Seattle, in my estimation.
It’s all pretty subjective, then?
Oh, it’s totally subjective. But there are things where public opinion and private opinion can coalesce around a certain kind of agreement. Like I’m not the only one who thinks the St. Louis Cardinals have a great uniform. I think most people agree the Arizona Diamondbacks right now do not have particularly good uniforms. There may be a few people who disagree, but I think there’s a little bit of a consensus.
Sometimes you just know it when you see it.
Yeah, but then there are things that can be polarizing, and I think the Seahawks can fall into that category. Obviously for many people how you do on the field can really color your perception of a uniform. If a team is winning, that’s a good look for a lot of fans. But a lot of it flows from the team owner and the image he wants to project. That can be interesting, too. A team can be sold and that’s often when we see new uniform designs, when the new owner wants to put his own stamp on the franchise. But sometimes fans have their own ideas. They have an emotional attachment and emotional investment to these uniforms.
How do we see that reflected in the jerseys and other merch that now permeate bars and stadiums?
Nowadays, because sports branding has such a big enterprise and the idea that uniforms should have stories embedded in them, you see all these details in the trim, or the number font — little details that are supposed to reflect the local culture in some way. That’s fine — or sometimes it’s fine, anyway; sometimes it gets a little ridiculous.
When did we begin to see that take hold?
Probably more in the ‘90s into the 2000s. I’m 55, I grew up in the ‘70s, I’m a Mets fan. But I couldn’t buy a Mets jersey even if I wanted one or had the money for it. That market didn’t exist yet; they hadn’t figured out that people will spend hundreds of dollars to dress like the players. In fact, it was the opposite. You wouldn’t let just a regular fan wear a uniform; the uniform was official for players. Once the concern became how do we sell this vs. how does it look on the field or the court or the ice, I think that’s when the idea of more serious branding and storytelling became of concern. Little details, you see these unveilings, a team unveils a new uniform set and they talk about some some slogan on the inner collar, something you’re never even going to see on the field. I do think the retail or merchandising tail wags the on-field dog a lot of the time. You’re not going to see it on TV or in photos. But if you’re looking at the jersey at Modell’s…
Is this obsession over uniforms a new phenomenon, or was it just cloaked in something else before this era?
I don’t know if I can answer that question, but at some point along the line, the market and the marketers met each other, right? I think to a certain degree, fans have always been into it. Now, part of it is certainly the retail aspect, where you get to express yourself and communicate to other fans who you are and who you root for. As I’ve written a lot over the years, the uniform is a really powerful symbol. Rooting for a team is a really powerful form of brand loyalty. Jerry Seinfeld famously called it rooting for laundry. It’s very primal and formative stuff that can connect generations. You can have a parent and a child that don’t agree on politics or music or anything else, but they sure agree about rooting for the Seahawks. That’s powerful stuff.
Finally, your thoughts on…
The Sonics: As I mentioned earlier, green is my favorite color, and I especially like green and yellow or green and gold, so I always loved the SuperSonics when they had that green and gold with the arched lettering on the front and the back. I’m a big fan of that design. I know you guys mourn the loss of the Sonics, and I mourn the loss of that uniform, too.
Seattle’s NHL team: I never saw the Seattle Metropolitans in any incarnation, but from the photos I’ve seen, that striped jersey with the ‘S’ with Metropolitans in it, that looks awesome. How great would it be if they brought that back for the new Seattle hockey franchise? If it can’t be Metropolitans, if they can’t retroact that great old Metropolitans idea — and they should at least do it as a throwback — then I’m kind of rooting for Kraken.
The Seahawks: I always liked the first generation of the Seahawks uniforms, with the silver helmets, the Jim Zorn era. I always thought that looked great. I’m not such a fan of the current version of the Seahawks. I don’t like the scuba suit dark blue over dark blue look. I don’t like the neon green, but I understand it’s popular with fans and been very successful — just not to my taste. I always liked that original Seahawks.
The Mariners: We have them to thank — or I guess (vice president of marketing) Kevin Martinez — for the whole futuristic turn ahead the clock phenomenon. They’re sort of interesting because they were born in ‘77, and that was during that period where many teams were going to the pullover jersey and the elastic waistband pants, and they were right in that wheelhouse. They looked like a ‘70s, kind of plastic team, for lack of a better term, not a traditional-looking team. But really over the years, they’ve morphed into a very traditional look. If you were to divide Major League Baseball into the old-school look and the new-school look, the Mariners are clearly an old-school looking team, even though they’re a young franchise comparatively, and they were born with that new-school look. But somewhere along the line, management decided they wanted a very traditional chest lettering look, very traditional logo on the hat instead of the cartoonish trident. It’s interesting how a team can change their look that way. Teams usually have a sort of DNA, like the Yankees obviously are the most traditional of all. I often like to think of these things like Coke vs. Pepsi. Coke is like the very traditional thing, they never change their script. Their slogan is just ‘Enjoy Coca Cola’ or ‘Coke is it.’ Really simple. Pepsi constantly changes their logo, and their slogans are very youth-oriented, like ‘Generation Next’ or ‘The choice of a new generation’ — literally generational themed slogans. So the Yankees are the ultimate Coke team, and something like the University of Oregon would be the ultimate Pepsi team, always changing, always trying to have that youth appeal. It’s like the Mariners started out a Pepsi team and somewhere down the line decided to be Coke. That’s interesting to me.
Now, go vote in our Seattle uniform bracket!