I haven’t had anything to say yet about the American Needle v. NFL case, which was argued yesterday at the Supreme Court. If you’re not familiar with the case, there’s good background here and here, and a good summary of yesterday’s arguments here, but the short version is this: The NFL is claiming that it is one business entity, rather than 32 separate franchise entities, and that this exempts the league from the Sherman Antitrust Act.
Strictly speaking, the case is about merchandising, although many analysts have noted that it has huge implications for the league’s labor negotiations with the players’ union. Naturally, I prefer to look at it from a uni-centric perspective.
The way I see it, one reason NFL design is at such a low ebb these days is that the league already acts like a single entity, at least in terms of its properties division, which oversees all the uniforms. Toss in the fact that there’s only one league-wide uni manufacturer, Reebok, and you end up with the corporate-ized blandness we see throughout so much of the league. Do you think fun logos like Pat Patriot, Sir Saint, or sunburst dolphin would ever have seen the light of day if today’s centralized properties division had been running the show back when those marks were designed? No way.
All the major sports leagues have this same problem — the designs flow out of a central office, so there isn’t enough diversity of style and form — but the NFL exhibits a particularly annoying type of corporate arrogance. Stefan Fatsis’s SI.com report on yesterday’s Supreme Court arguments included this remarkable passage:
Levy [the NFL lawyer arguing the case] countered that the NFL teams need to band together in business because they can’t produce the product — the games — on their own, so the [individual team] trademarks have no value on their own, either.
Think about that. According to the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys’ brand identity is literally worthless without the NFL’s sanction. Ditto for the Steelers’ brand identity, and for all the other teams. Okay, maybe it’s true for the Lions, but you get my point.
That argument reminded me of something I wrote back in the fall of 2003, when Uni Watch had just moved to Slate.com. I wrote a column about league logos appearing on uniforms. I concluded the piece with the following paragraph:
[M]ost fans don’t really care about the NBA per se, or about any of the other sports leagues. They care about the Celtics, the Mets, the Canadiens, the 49ers, or whichever other teams they root for. The fan/team dynamic is what drives pro sports, which is why team logos are the only insignia that belong on a uniform. Somehow the league bigwigs have gotten the notion that the league validates the team. Uni Watch hates to break it to them, but it’s the other way around.
Six-plus years later, I stand by those words. Now, if the Supreme Court rules against the NFL, will uniform design suddenly become more decentralized and playful? Almost certainly not. But the case is a glaring symptom of what’s gone wrong in the uniform world.
Meanwhile: New ESPN column today, and I don’t mind saying that it’s a doozy — look here.
Uni Watch News Ticker: Good article about the Cavs’ equipment manager here (thanks, Vince). … Dying to own one of those orange-striped AFL throwback officiating jerseys? You can bid on one here (with thanks to Eric Stangel). … Very cool guerilla art project in Colorado, as someone has planted some phony Gatorade bottles with Tiger Woods commentary into Denver stores (big thanks to James T. Huening). … Two excellent items reprinted from yesterday’s comments: a game-used Oakland Invaders helmet, and check out the texture on these sleeve patches. … Yesterday I ran a Ticker item about the Yuma Union High School Criminals. Now Jeremy Zeiders reports that Yuma’s basketball and wrestling teams wore prison stripes, at least back in the 1990s. … Gumball helmet king Bill Jones has been busy on a number of fronts, creating several new sets of helmets (NCAA FBS, FCS, and D2; Federal League baseball; Asian Baseball League) and adding scans of lots of cool old ads to his Flickr feed. It’s pretty amazing stuff — check it out here. … College hoops query from Tim Groves, who writes: “I was watching the Clemson vs. Duke basketball game on ESPN tonight and noticed a skull-like image inside the half-court D logo on Duke’s court. Unfortunately I have no pictures because I own no DVR. Do you know anything about this or do you know anyone who would?” Anyone..? … Michigan State has added an “E.P.M.” patch. “It’s for Tom Izzo’s wife’s dad, Efrain Portillo Marinez, who passed recently,” says Jon Beckmann. “The numbers on the warm-up sleeve I have no idea on. I did some really quick research and came up empty-handed.” Anyone know about that? … New frilly table tennis dress for Naomi Yotsumoto. “Yes, those are roses in her hair,” says Jeremy Brahm. … Always good to add another Sox in shorts photo to the visual record. Hadn’t seen that one until Dave Soline sent it along. … Several readers noted that Texas Tech is going TNOB. Turns out they’ve been doing it all season but none of us had noticed until now (screen shot courtesy of Chris Mycoskie). … Pure gold now available on YouTube: the entire 1962 AFL Championship Game, an all-Texas affair between the Oilers and the Texans. Good luck getting anything done today, Ricko! (Major find by Bill Killick.) … Tired of the Big Ten’s helmet designs? A bunch of proposed makeovers are shown here (with thanks to Dan Wagner).