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During training camp last summer, the ever-energetic Pete Carroll was pacing while watching his Seattle Seahawks practice and noticed the team lacked energy. Carroll eyed the team’s blue pants, and though it wasn’t necessarily hot, he decided to change things up.
“Let’s break out the grays tomorrow,” he told Seahawks equipment manager Erik Kennedy.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll used a switch to gray pants to motivate his team in a key win against Carolina last year.
Photo by:HUNTLEY PATON
“Let’s go blue, gray,” he said.
That Sunday the team stepped onto the field wearing blue tops and gray bottoms. The players liked the look, and the team won 16-12. Instant karma.
The combination set in motion a seasonlong affair of mixing and matching the teams’ jersey and pant combinations. In some games, Carroll wanted the Seahawks in white tops, blue bottoms. In others, it was white tops, white bottoms. At home, it was blue tops, blue bottoms.
It was a process that led through the team’s surprising surge to the playoffs and will likely continue this year.
“He likes to be new and create hype,” Kennedy said. “He likes the positive energy and what that brings when there’s a little bit of change.”
What once was a fairly simple process where teams wore colored uniforms at home and whites on the road, the way NFL teams select what to wear on any given Sunday is now a far more complex process.
Sports is filled with tales of superstition, and a team’s choice of uniform is no exception. Over the years, rumors circulate that owners will pull a jersey after a bad loss, or an owner’s wife will choose the team’s uniform with an eye toward fashion. There’s talk of players wanting to wear all black to get jacked up for big games, and coaches feeling their team plays more physical in their road whites.
The truth is far less whimsical but still unpredictable. Ever since the NFL introduced third jerseys in the early 1990s, teams have had lots of options to choose from each Sunday. All but five teams have three jerseys now, and many have three different pants, which opens the door to an array of combinations and options during the season.
But there are rules: The NFL will allow teams to select the pants they want to wear on a week-by-week basis, but the league requires that teams submit to the league office the jerseys they plan to wear each week for the entire season by July 1. That requirement has led many teams to develop a system for hashing out uniform plans once the league’s schedule is released.
Linebacker Terrell Suggs is one of a handful of Baltimore Ravens who have input into what they wear.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
“They say, ‘You look good, you feel good, you play good,’ and that’s true,” Kennedy said. “You put a camera up above the mirror, you would see guys come and look at themselves before the game. That stuff happens.”
Other teams’ processes involve ownership and business operations. For example, the Rooneys and Krafts determine what the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots wear, respectively. The Buffalo Bills and San Diego Chargers make selections by committee, bringing in representatives from football operations, ticket sales, marketing and the executive office to determine what the team wears. And the Houston Texans and Chicago Bears make their decisions for when they will wear their third uniforms based exclusively on marketing goals and plans for themed game-day promotions.
“If you listen, the fans will tell you what will excite them,” Texans President Jamey Rootes said. “They really unlock the chest of loyalty for you.”
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The idea, which came out of the NFL’s licensing division, was inspired by Major League Baseball, which had allowed teams to wear historic and alternate uniforms since the 1970s. The licensing group took photos from the Pro Football Hall of Fame to the league’s owners and let them choose what uniform they wanted to replicate for a home and an away game that season.
Then, during two weekends that season, every team in the league took the field in an alternative, throwback uniform. Fans loved the look and flocked to stores to buy the throwback uniforms, boosting the league’s jersey sales that year by more than 30 percent, former NFL licensees said.
Licensees and retailers had been conservative with production and supplies of the throwbacks. The strong sales caught them by surprise. It also opened their eyes to the potential of retro and new-look uniforms.
“When it happened and the shock of the visual hit the television, it energized the marketplace,” said Jeff Sofka, the NFL’s consumer products director at the time, who is currently principal at the agency Bendigo Co. “From there on, people were actively pursuing throwback programs.”
The 49ers won the 1994 Super Bowl title sporting a retro look, a superstition that “more than a few players bought into,” according to former team President Carmen Policy (right).
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
Coach George Seifert approached team President Carmen Policy after the game and asked Policy to petition the league to let the 49ers wear the throwback jerseys again.
“He said, ‘I don’t want you to think I’m crazy or have bad night habits, but I want to wear these uniforms the rest of the season,’” Policy said, recalling the conversation last week. “I said, ‘So your superstition is kicking in?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Let me call [owner] Eddie [DeBartolo].’ I get him on the phone and he goes, ‘I was thinking the same thing.’”
The team went 10-1 the rest of the season and won the Super Bowl wearing the throwback jersey. Its only loss was in the final regular-season game when it rested some of its star players. As Sofka put it, “There was good karma around it.”
“In a sense, the league loved that we endorsed the throwback because it was this program they wanted to unleash going forward,” Policy said. “But it all rested on the superstition of the coach and owner, and more than a few players bought into it.”
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The combination of the fans’ positive reaction to the throwbacks and the sales success of the jerseys led several teams to bring them back for the 1995 season. The throwback jerseys soon became an option across the NFL and teams began to wear them on special occasions.
In 2002, the league began regulating when teams could wear their third uniforms, which some teams made throwbacks and others made an entirely new jersey with alternate colors. The initial rules said that they could wear the third jerseys only twice a year, but those rules have become more prescriptive over time.
The league wants national TV audiences to see teams in their primary uniforms, so teams are allowed to wear third uniforms only in regular-season games on Sunday afternoons before the start of the league’s flex schedule. The NFL will grant exceptions on some occasions when teams make a formal request. The Ravens, for example, often push to wear their all-black alternate uniform — in which they have a 9-2 record and Harbaugh is 6-0 — in high-profile, prime-time games, but the team and league declined to explain why those exemptions have been granted.
Teams that want to launch a third jersey have to commit to developing it 18 months in advance of its debut, and they have to keep it
The Giants, who shelved their alternate red jersey (top) in 2008 after only going 1-3 in it, have pointed to their “classic” white pants (above) this season to mix things up a bit.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES (2)
“We were on the practice field at mini-camp,” said Joe Skiba, the Giants’ equipment manager. “I said, ‘What do you think about the red jersey this year?’ He said, ‘Let’s put it on ice for a little while.’ The funny thing is the players loved the red jersey. It’s a splash color. But 1-3 doesn’t exactly support the fact that the players loved it.”
The league doesn’t regulate pants, though, and that gives the teams some flexibility in what they add to their uniform each year. For example, the Giants are adding white pants to their uniform combinations this year. The color was chosen by Mara at the end of last season. The team wore white in the 1980s and early ’90s, when they won two Super Bowl titles, and he wanted to bring it back for a few games to give the team a “modern throwback look,” Skiba said.
The Giants’ graphics staff developed the pant color scheme, which will feature blue, gray and red piping down the leg. Giants coach Tom Coughlin chose when the team would wear the white pants in two home games, selecting one AFC opponent (Oakland) and one NFC opponent (Dallas).
“It gives fans a little different look,” Skiba said. “We’re getting away from the gray.”
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While the league is a stickler about the rules, some fashion choices are tied to superstition and history, which is part of the fun.
The 1994 Niners and 2008 Giants aren’t the only teams to make uniform decisions based on superstition.
The Dallas Cowboys wear white at home every game, which means they wear white almost the entire season. It’s a tradition rooted in history. A rule required the team, which wore white at home, to wear blue in the 1971 Super Bowl against the Baltimore Colts. Dallas, which was the home team but couldn’t wear its home jersey, lost the game … and the “Curse of the Blue Jersey” was born.
The Cowboys often look lost in blue, which Carolina made them wear in a 2004 playoff game.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
Last year, the Cowboys wore blue once, after the Panthers chose to wear white at home. The Panthers made a similar decision in a 2004 NFC playoff game, passing out white towels to the fans with the words “Keep Pounding” on them to amplify the team’s choice to wear white.
“Dallas doesn’t play good in blue,” said former Panthers safety and current Campbell University football coach Mike Minter, recalling the game, which the Panthers won 29-10. “Their record in blue wasn’t as good as white, and once we decided that’s what we were going to do, we were going to white-out the stadium, do the ‘Keep Pounding’ towels. The stadium was electric that night. I do remember that.”
Many teams make their decisions with an eye toward helping their players on the field. The Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins often opt to wear white at home early in the season to help their squads beat the heat. The Kansas City Chiefs always wear red at home, but team owner Clark Hunt, who makes jersey selections with the team’s head coach, remembers choosing an all-white uniform for the Chiefs in a Sept. 10, 2006, game against the Cincinnati Bengals just to force the Bengals to wear black. It was a move designed to give the Chiefs an edge, but they still lost 23-10.
The Houston Texans go with the “Battle Red” look to fire up the team and fans.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
Between the sponsorship and red-related merchandise sales, Texans President Rootes estimates the game gives the team a high-six-figure to low-seven-figure bump to its bottom line. But the team’s front office, which proposes what date the red uniform should be worn and gets approval from ownership and football operations, views “Battle Red Day” less as a business opportunity and more as a way to energize the fan base.
“A number of [‘Battle Red Day’ games] have been against the Jacksonville Jaguars,” Rootes said. “That’s when we want to wear red because we’ve done incredibly well against them. That’s been some of the most thrilling games, and fans remember that.”
The Bears have built a successful campaign around their “Monsters of the Midway” uniforms.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
The club branded the look its “Monsters of the Midway” uniform and used the concept in marketing and in the locker room.
Former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli talked to the team about what the name meant and the hard-hitting style of play it represented. Partners like MillerCoors put the “Monsters of the Midway” logo that the team developed on cans. And the marketing department developed a brand campaign with the tag line “Believe in Monsters.”
“It was much more than a third jersey,” said Chris Hibbs, the Bears’ vice president of sales and marketing, who points out that the team is 3-0 in the plain navy, “Monsters of the Midway” jersey. “It was a platform. It’s been wildly successful.”
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In early June, Kennedy, the Seattle equipment manager, sat down in his office at the Seahawks’ waterfront training facility just west of Seattle. He looked at the team’s upcoming schedule and sketched out a jersey plan for the season. Then he called in a series of players to look at it.
Safety Earl Thomas, cornerback Richard Sherman and defensive end Red Bryant all thought it looked good, but quarterback Russell Wilson made one request. He wanted the Seahawks to wear white jerseys and pants in Indianapolis because he thought it would help him identify players indoors at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Carroll came in to review the list before Kennedy submitted it to the league and immediately liked what he saw. “That’s good,” he said, noting the plan for the Panthers.
Kennedy was relieved, albeit temporarily. He knew Carroll might change the plan sometime this season.
“I don’t know where it comes from,” Kennedy said. “He doesn’t want to get too hung up on it and have guys thinking that it matters. But then again, if we don’t play well, he’ll probably say, ‘I want to mix that up.’”
In his third start of the 2012 season, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett took the mound against the Washington Nationals. He allowed just two runs and six hits in eight innings, and struck out 10 batters.
It was his best game so far that season, and because it was a Tuesday when the team is scheduled to wear its alternate jersey, he pitched in black. It’s a color he asked to wear again and again last year.
Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett chose to wear black in 2012 after a good outing.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
The Pirates don’t typically allow pitchers to choose what the team wears, but DePaoli said Burnett was on such a roll that it changed its policy. The team wore black in all but two out of 18 games Burnett pitched between June and September, and he went 14-4 on the mound.
“We sold a lot of black Burnett 44 jerseys that season,” DePaoli said.
The episode highlights just how different Major League Baseball and its teams choose what they wear. Compared to the NBA and NFL, which have strict guidelines for when teams can wear alternate uniforms, MLB is a lawless territory.
The league has no cap on the number of uniforms teams can have. Teams don’t have to submit what they plan to wear to the league office. The only real rule is that they have to wear each uniform a minimum of six times each season, and they have to wear white or cream pants at home and gray pants on the road. Teams are supposed to tell opponents what they plan to wear before a game.
“There is dialogue,” said Anne Occi, MLB’s vice president of design. “You can’t come out of the locker room with whatever you want.”
But that’s about it.
As a result, teams have a variety of ways that the uniform is chosen. Many allow the starting pitcher to choose what the team wears. Several teams let their equipment manager choose. Some teams have a schedule, developed by the business side, that dictates what colors it wears each day.
That was the case in San Diego where former Padres President Tom Garfinkel designed a system where the team wears camouflage uniforms on Sunday, its alternate blue jersey one game per road trip and its home and away jerseys every other game.
The system was developed in response to a period in 2010 when the starting pitcher was allowed to choose what the Padres wore. The team started winning in its alternate jersey, and every pitcher picked it for road games. Garfinkel didn’t like the fact that the main road jersey fell out of rotation.
“The alternate jersey should be an alternate jersey, not something worn every day because the pitcher decides to wear it,” Garfinkel said. “The fans should know what we wear.”
The Atlanta Braves’ approach is emblematic of how many teams choose what they wear. The executive team asks the team to wear its red alternate jersey at home on Fridays, which it markets as “Fireworks Friday,” and it asks the team to wear cream uniforms at home on Saturdays and Sundays. But it lets the starting pitcher determine whether he wants to wear gray or blue jerseys for road games.
“It’s just personal preference,” said Mike Plant, the Braves’ executive vice president of business operations. “Some guys feel better in a certain color than another.”
Just because pitchers have the option of choosing doesn’t mean they spend a lot of time thinking about it. Braves pitcher Tim Hudson says he always chooses the gray jersey on the road because he’s a traditionalist. Occasionally, if he’s lost a game or two in gray, he’ll switch to blue, but it’s not something he thinks about a lot.
“Our game is hard enough as it is,” Hudson said. “If a guy thinks too much about what they’re going to wear, then they’re probably in the wrong business.”
In the NBA, marketing drives everything from ticket prices to the songs that play in an arena. It even determines what jerseys players wear.
The league allows teams to have a white home uniform, a dark road uniform, as many as three alternate uniforms, a cultural uniform and an event uniform, which is developed by the league.
Every year in mid-August, teams are required to submit what they plan to wear for each game. That allows the league’s apparel, sporting goods and basketball partnerships, a unit run by Christopher Arena, to review it, see if a team wants to wear an alternate dark or colored cultural uniform at home, and tell the opposing team to wear white for that game.
The Heat's alternate red look became synonymous with the team's 27-game winning streak last season.
Photo by:ISSAC BALDIZON / NBAE VIA GETTY IMAGES
The dates the jerseys are worn are determined by the marketing division, which vets its schedule with President Pat Riley. Next season the Heat will wear a “Red Zone” uniform during a string of games between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Fans will be encouraged to come to games dressed in red, and the team will run special promotions tied to its recent NBA championship.
The idea is to commemorate fan support of the team’s recent playoff runs when fans wear white, said Michael McCullough, the Heat’s chief marketer.
“We look at the schedule strategically and look for a group of games where we can have an impact at home,” McCullough said. “We put marketing resources behind it. We create a separate player introduction video featuring the players in that uniform. We change our color scheme for our graphics and video package. We tell a complete story around the uniform so that everyone understands what we’re doing and why. We’ve found it to be a great brand builder.”
The team typically sticks to its preseason uniform schedule, but last year Miami’s 27-game winning streak began when it was wearing a red uniform at home. The players wanted to keep wearing it after they won a few games, and the team sought permission from the NBA, making the red jersey the uniform of the streak, McCullough said.
But that doesn’t happen often in the NBA. The league primarily views alternate jerseys as a licensing and merchandise play. The NBA monitors teams’ jersey sales and recommends when they should launch an alternate jersey. As a result, when the Detroit Pistons, which only had two jerseys, began looking at creating an alternate, Arena’s group supported the idea, paving the way to a navy jersey the Pistons will unveil this year with “Motor City” written across the chest.
“In the NBA, they don’t miss a marketing beat,” said Pistons President Dennis Mannion. “A lot of it is demand driven, and if you have moved enough primary product, then it’s time to create a secondary.”
Not every team determines what it wears based on that approach. Chicago Bulls President Steve Schanwald said that the team’s equipment manager randomly picks 10 or 12 games during the season for the Bulls to wear their black alternate jersey on the road.
The team is selective about when it wears its annual St. Patrick’s Day, green cultural uniform, which it wears as close to the holiday as possible.
“The only year I didn’t like it as much was the year we played the Celtics,” Schanwald said. “We ended up looking more like the Celtics than the Celtics did.”
The NHL has had alternate jerseys since 1991, but a third of the league chooses to outfit its teams in only two uniforms.
Eleven teams do not have a third jersey, more than any other league in pro sports. The reason teams ranging from Chicago to Philadelphia and Florida to Nashville choose not to have a third jersey varies.
For Chicago and Philadelphia, it’s about emphasizing tradition and preferring to have two uniforms that reflect a historic logo. For Florida and Nashville, it was because the team’s new owners changed their primary colors to red and gold, respectively, in 2011 and didn’t want the emphasis on the new color diluted by a third uniform.
“We wanted to start a tradition, and for us, introducing a third jersey would hurt those efforts,” said Predators President Sean Henry.
Since a third of the league doesn’t have an alternate jersey, they follow league protocol and wear their colored uniform at home and white on the road. The teams that do have a third uniform must wear it a minimum of 12 games a season for at least three years.
Among the teams that do have an alternate jersey, the way they determine when they wear it varies. Many franchises like the Boston Bruins choose to wear their alternate, throwback jerseys for a Friday night game branded as “Black Friday.” Other than that, President Cam Neely looks at the schedule and makes a recommendation for wearing it nine more times at home. He runs those suggestions past the marketing, ticket sales and retail departments. Then they finalize the selections for the season, and when the black “B” logo jersey is worn, the mascot, game-day handouts and video-board content feature it.
The Pittsburgh Penguins take a similarly casual approach for when they wear their powder blue alternate jersey.
The decision is made by the marketing department and approved by general manager Ray Shero. Co-owner Mario Lemieux has never gotten involved.
“There’s not necessarily any rhyme or reason to when we wear it,” Penguins spokesman Tom McMillan said. “Marketing comes up with suggestions and takes it to Ray Shero for approval.”
■ Arizona Cardinals: Ownership
■ Atlanta Falcons: President Rich McKay, coach Mike Smith, GM Thomas Dimitroff
■ Baltimore Ravens: Coach John Harbaugh with players
■ Buffalo Bills: Committee with representatives from ticketing, marketing and football operations
■ Carolina Panthers: Equipment manager Jackie Miles with the coach, GM and president
■ Chicago Bears: Ownership, football operations and marketing
■ Cincinnati Bengals: Coach Marvin Lewis
■ Cleveland Browns: CEO Joe Banner
■ Dallas Cowboys: Ownership
■ Denver Broncos: EVP of football operations John Elway and President Joe Ellis
■ Detroit Lions: Ownership, president, coach and football operations
■ Green Bay Packers: Football operations
■ Houston Texans: Executive office
■ Indianapolis Colts: Owner Jim Irsay and coach Chuck Pagano
■ Jacksonville Jaguars: GM David Caldwell
■ Kansas City Chiefs: Owner Clark Hunt and coach Andy Reid
■ Miami Dolphins: Owner Stephen Ross and coach Joe Philbin
■ New England Patriots: Ownership (Robert and Jonathan Kraft)
■ Minnesota Vikings: Tradition*
■ New Orleans Saints: GM Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton
■ New York Giants: Coach Tom Coughlin and co-owner John Mara
■ New York Jets: Not available
■ Oakland Raiders: Tradition*
■ Philadelphia Eagles: Not available
■ Pittsburgh Steelers: Owners Art and Dan Rooney
■ San Diego Chargers: Business executives and football operations
■ San Francisco 49ers: Coach Jim Harbaugh
■ Seattle Seahawks: Coach Pete Carroll, GM John Schneider and equipment manager Erik Kennedy
■ St. Louis Rams: GM Les Snead, coach Jeff Fisher and EVP Kevin Demoff
■ Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Marketing and executive offices
■ Tennessee Titans: GM Ruston Webster and coach Mike Munchak
■ Washington Redskins: Football operations
* Teams don’t have a third jersey and always wear dark jerseys at home, white on the road.
Compiled by Tripp Mickle, SportsBusiness Journal