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Look good, feel good, play good
Superstition, sales, strategy all play a role in the uniforms NFL teams choose to wear
Published August 19, 2013, Page 1
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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).
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.’”