Last week I ran that entry about high school football teams using the logo of the NY/NJ Hitmen of the XFL. I wrapped things up by writing, “It would be interesting to know who designed the Hitmen’s logo (I’m assuming one branding firm handled all of the XFL team marks). Whoever it was, they’d probably be surprised to know that the HItmen design has had such a prolonged afterlife.”
That prompted reader Stuart Ratliff to point me toward this page, which includes the following info:
The XFL design team was a joint effort of WWE Entertainment Creative Services and Bruce Burke of Oneworld Communications, former NFL Properties vice president who founded and directed the NFL’s in-house Advertising and Design Group between 1987 and 1999, supporting all of the NFL’s marketing communications. [During] his twelve years of experience at the NFL, Bruce developed several NFL team identities, including the Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Philadelphia Eagles, Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans.
A bit of Googling and a few e-mails later, I found myself talking to Bruce Burke, who graciously chatted with me for about an hour. We talked about the XFL, the NFL, and football uniforms in general. Here’s how it went:
Bruce Burke: You know, before you got in touch with me, I’d never seen your blog before. And as I looked through it, I was sort of surprised by how passionate you guys are about uniforms.
Uni Watch: Like I always say, never underestimate the power of sports geekitude.
BB: I’ll say. With a capital G.
UW: How did you end up working for the NFL, and what did you do before that?
BB: I started with the NFL in 1987. Prior to that I worked for an ad agency in San Francisco. I was brought to New York by the NFL to head up a new group they were setting up in-house to service all the advertising, branding, and design needs for the league. I did that from ’87 to 2000.
UW: So that was NFL Properties.
BB: Yeah. Prior to ’87, the league was basically a game that was played on television on Sunday. The guys who hired me wanted to brand the game and really apply some basic marketing disciplines to the game of football. Make it more than just something people watched on television. Try to attract a broader audience, including women, and make it what it’s become today.
A lot of the teams back then were a little stale, if you will, in terms of their branding. Not just the uniforms and the logos, but even the ways they communicated with their fan base. I had a good run there. It was a lot of fun.
UW: What was your title there?
BB: Creative director. I was responsible for hiring and managing a group of 26 designers, copywriters — it was basically an in-house agency. I did some of the designs, but I had a staff of people who did a lot of that work.
You know, it’s funny, I was reading some of the comments on your blog, where people were complaining about certain designs, saying they didn’t like them. But it’s a relatively small universe of people who do this stuff, and the people who did some of the designs your readers may not care for are the very same people who did some of the ones they probably do like. As a designer, you’ve gotta have thick skin, because not everyone’s gonna love everything you do.
UW: I’m curious about some of the NFL designs you oversaw. Let’s start with the Broncos. That design was pretty revolutionary when it came out in 1997. The common perception, or at least what I remember being told, is that Nike pretty much designed that uniform. In fact, it was the first time a uniform manufacturer designed a uniform for a major-level pro team, instead of just executing someone else’s design. Or at least that’s what I’ve always thought. Is that accurate?
BB: That’s fairly accurate, yeah. Pat Bowlen, who owns the Broncos, was very close with Phil Knight, and he wanted to create a new look for his team. The mark that they had — I’m sure you, being so close to uniform and logo design, you can appreciate how poorly designed that mark was. So they really needed a major upgrade. They didn’t try to hang on to any of the existing assets or equity — it was, as you say, revolutionary.
So Pat Bowlen basically asked Nike to come on board. My job was to get involved from the NFL’s side and sort of help Pat and Nike sort of navigate their way through it. There was a whole group of Nike designers who were involved with that project, and my group had to keep them on track.
UW: Because they were veering into some outlandish directions..?
BB: Oh, some of the stuff they had. Which was great, though. It’s funny — by today’s standards, it’s not so outlandish. But at the time, some of the things they were trying to do went beyond revolutionary. You have to applaud Nike for that, though. I love what they’re doing at the college level these days.
UW: We’ll get to that, but first I want to stick to the Broncos. Is it true that the pant stripe was intentionally designed to resemble a Nike swoosh?
BB: No, it’s not true at all. I remember hearing that back when it happened. Nike was trying to bring some new engineering into the uniforms. As designers back then, we were always being stifled by the manufacturers telling us, “You can’t do that.” We had some great designs on paper, and the word would come back, “We can’t manufacturer that, it’s not feasible.” With that stripe, Nike was trying to show the rest of the world that it is possible to do new and exciting things. They were basically waving that stripe in front of the Russells and the Champions of the world and saying, “Who says you can’t do a different kind of stripe pattern?” It wasn’t about the swoosh at all. But if people perceived it that way, so be it.
UW: It’s now been nearly 15 years since that design came out, and there’s still nothing else like it in the NFL. There is at the college level, of course, but not in the NFL. Are you surprised more NFL teams haven’t gone to more modern design templates?
BB: Not really. I think the NFL recognizes, more than any other league or sport, the equity that it owns, and they see it as kind of sacred. In time, though, as ideas that used to be considered extreme start becoming more acceptable, I think you’ll see more of that being integrated into the league.
UW: Now let’s talk about the Buccaneers. How did they come to be wearing that pewter tone?
BB: We wanted to create a new neutral. Silvers, blacks, and whites had always been the neutral tones, and we wanted to come up with something new. And frankly, pewter was appropriate for a team with a pirate theme. All of the colors we used for them — the red, the pewter, and the black — had to do with the research we’d done about pirate lore. That’s still one of my favorite uniforms in the NFL today.
You know, the league and I were actually sued by Al Davis over that uniform — one of many lawsuits he filed against the league.
UW: You were named as a defendant in the lawsuit?
BB: Yeah. He basically said, “Bruce Burke and his design team stole my trademark.” I had to go through several depositions. I can laugh at it today, but at the time I was very angry, because of all the time and effort that we’d made to create that Buccaneers design. He just didn’t like anything with a pirate or crossbones or crossed swords. He was offended by that.
UW: Was that suit dismissed?
BB: Oh yeah. It was one of those things that never went very far. Internally, at the NFL offices, there was a lot of eye-rolling over it. “There he goes again.”
Later on, we developed an identity for the Baltimore Ravens, and we were sued by this guy who claimed that I’d stolen his logo design, which he’d supposedly faxed in to the Baltimore Stadium Authority. He said I’d ended up with this fax and given it to my design team and that we’d ripped him off.
And it was the furthest thing from the truth — I didn’t even know there was a Baltimore Stadium Authority. We had files and files of stuff we’d been working on for the Ravens. We brought a bunch of New York lawyers down to Baltimore for a trial in front of a Baltimore jury. The NFL spent a ton of money trying to defend that case. And after months of depositions and going through the whole process, this Baltimore-loyal jury voted against us, because they just wanted to stick it to the NFL. And as a guy who was intimately involved in the design process, it spoke volumes to me about today’s legal system. It was a sad lesson.
UW: Why did you end up leaving the NFL?
BB: I’d been there 12 years. I was commuting from Connecticut and traveling a lot, so I never saw my kids. So I opened an agency where I lived, and it was tremendously successful. I ran that for four years before founding a more entrepreneurial gig, and now I’m running a beverage company. But it’s still branding and marketing.
UW: How did you end up working with the XFL?
BB: The month I left the NFL, Vince McMahon got wind of the fact that the NFL’s creative director had left the league and was working on his own in Connecticut — Vince’s back yard. So he called me up and said, “I need eight new uniforms and logos. Can you help me?” It was an incredible opportunity, but he needed them in only two months. So I really had to tap into all my relationships that I’d built up over the years. I put together a team of designers, and we cranked that work out.
You know, I hadn’t looked at the XFL work in quite some time until you got in touch with me, so I just went back and looked in the files. There was some great work in there.
UW: Were your old friends at the NFL upset with you for working with a rival league?
BB: I don’t think they are now. But at the time, Vince was pretty outspoken with his comments about the NFL. I tried to keep a distance from all of that — I didn’t want to burn any bridges. But you know, I was trying to make a living. I was asked to do this work, so I did it. And frankly, the fact that the XFL didn’t work out, if anything, gave me more egg on my face than it pissed anyone off at the NFL.
UW: Aside from the compressed time frame you just mentioned, what was the creative process like for the XFL designs? And specifically, what was it like to create designs for an entire league all at once, instead of for individual teams?
BB: That’s a great question. It was extremely refreshing to be starting with a clean slate and not dealing with some of the parameters that the NFL would sometimes impose on our work. Here you had one guy — Vince — who was the one guy who made the decisions. You weren’t talking to all these layers of people at the league, or at the teams — you were just talking to Vince. And he was a really quick study. He had immediate likes and dislikes, and it was a testament to Vince that we were able to do it all so quickly, because he was able to make decisions quickly.
Remember, the whole concept of the XFL was what Vince called “smash-mouth football.” Left on his own, Vince would’ve sent guys out there with leather helmets. Or no helmets. I’m dead serious! And frankly, if he had done that, the XFL would still be around. But what happened was, NBC had lost the TV rights to the NFL. Dick Ebersol really wanted something to replace the NFL, and he had a lot of influence on Vince in terms of the ultimate product that ended up on television. So here you had Vince, who wanted to do a throwback to the days of Bronco Nagurski, when guys just played tough football, and then you had Ebersol, who basically wanted a new NFL.
So we ended up with pretty much the same palette that I’d worked with at at the NFL, as opposed to something really novel and different. And I think that’s why the XFL failed. It wasn’t this new, exciting product — it was just a really inferior NFL.
Still, it was a great opportunity to do some interesting work. And I know some of the marks we created get laughed at today, in large part, I think, because of what happened on the field…
UW: Sort of a guilt by association?
BB: Right. But people get used to things over time. And if the XFL had endured, I think people would have come around to embracing these marks, and they would have stood the test of time.
UW: Looking back, can you name one of the XFL designs that you particularly like, and also one that you feel wasn’t as successful?
BB: One that I didn’t much care for — although Vince really loved it — was the one with the fist, the Chicago Enforcers. I didn’t get that, to be honest with you. That was a direction that Vince wanted. He felt putting a fist in a logo was what his fan base wanted. But it never did much for me.
The Las Vegas Outlaws, that one probably looked more like an NFL mark than the others. I liked that one. But the one I liked the most was the San Francisco Demons. That was an excellent mark. The person who was responsible for that was a girl named Rhonda Kim, who had worked for me at the NFL. Actually, most of these were done by NFL designers.
I think they were good marks. They were a little out there — I don’t think you’d see a design like the Memphis Maniax in the NFL, and I know some people in Orlando didn’t like the Rage mark. But if the league had survived, I guarantee you’d be seeing people all over the place wearing that logo.
Now the Hitmen logo, which is being used by all these high schools, I love that logo. I think it’s definitely one that would endure over time and get stronger, as more people saw it.
UW: Until I got in touch with you, were you aware than the Hitmen logo was being used by so many high schools around America?
BB: I’d seen it once, and I laughed. I didn’t realize it was so widespread, though.
UW: Why did you laugh?
BB: Because I wondered where they’d gotten it.
UW: What do you think of the current state of football uniform design?
BB: I especially like what Nike’s doing at the collegiate level. TCU, Oregon — they’re absolutely hittin’ it out of the ballpark in terms of pushing the envelope. I like the muted or matte helmets, too. Very cool. I don’t like what’s going on with Maryland, though.
UW: Well, that’s Under Armour, not Nike.
BB: Is that Under Armour? I think they’re pushing it too far, and it doesn’t work. They’re trying too hard. But my son, who’s a freshman in high school, liked it.
UW: I think he was more of the target market than you or I.
BB: Yeah. But to me, it doesn’t hold together.
UW: Back when you were with the NFL, college football uniforms and pro football uniforms weren’t all that different, but now the college designs are much more out there, much more youth-oriented. What do you think of that, and what impact, if any, do you think will come from Nike taking over the NFL’s uniform contract next year? Do you think the NFL will move in that direction as well?
BB: Yeah, I do. I think it’s just a matter of time, as manufacturers are able to do more with their products. And if one team does something extreme, everyone else is going to want to be like that a few years down the road. It’s just part of the process.
UW: But how does that jibe with what you said earlier about the NFL staying true to its core equities?
BB: Well, when you talk about equity, you’re really talking about the colors and the trademarks. Those are the things the fans really respond to. The things we’re talking about, that’s not the brand so much as just the subtle aesthetics — how it’s interpreted within the canvas. I mean, I don’t think you’re gonna see the New York Giants wear black. And the Packers will forever be green and gold. So I don’t think you’ll see changes to those elements.
You may see it at the college level, though. I was watching a college game last weekend, with Michigan State — I didn’t even recognize ’em. I loved what they looked like, but it didn’t look like Michigan State. It surprises me that some of the colleges are doing that. They probably shouldn’t be so open to changing the integrity of their original branding equities. You won’t see that in the NFL.
Interesting, right? And here’s the best part: Bruce says he has all sorts of developmental designs in his archives — ideas that never came to fruition, alternate logos that were rejected, early sketches, etc. It’s all in storage, but he’s promised to dig some of it up and share it with us. Can’t wait.
Wondering what that “Catch of the Day” thingie in the right sidebar is? In case you missed it yesterday, there’s a full description here.
Uni Watch News Ticker: New 50th-anniversary logo for Dodger Stadium (click on it for more info). Personally, I like it. Not sure yet if it’s going to be worn as a patch. … Yesterday I Ticker-linked to a photo of the purple circles on Christian Ponder’s helmet. “Those are to cover the air valves,” says Chris Willis of Athletic Decals. “We didn’t do those, but we do them for a some of the NFL guys. Most of the guys who use them just use clear ovals and have the valve caps painted at the factory. I think the only colored ones we do are for the Jags.” … Whoa, check out this amazing-looking set of Maple Leafs records. … MLB is currently conducting an all-star tour of Taiwan, with some really ugly uni patches. Additional photos here (big thanks to Morris Levin). … Also, Eric Stangel notes that the Yankees on that tour have block numerals on their batting helmet brims, instead of the Yankes’ usual rounded numerals. … I’ve been waiting my entire life for a meat vending machine and didn’t even know it (carnivorous thanks to Tris Wykes). … I’m not sure which is more interesting: that Steven Jackson was wearing a Rawlings helmet on Sunday (is he the first NFLer to go with Rawlings’ revived helmet line?) or that Rawlings got away with having their wordmark so prominently displayed on Jackson’s neck bumper. That’s still a no-no until Riddell’s current contract expires, no? (Big thanks to Bill Kellick.) … Remember those Theo Epstein Cubs jerseys? Well now forget ’em (from Matt Lindner). … This is pretty funny: If you go to the eighth photo of this gallery, you’ll see Niklas Kronwall of the Red Wings wearing a Tigers undershirt beneath his jersey (from Robbie Biederman). … Man, talk about a tale of two lower-leg styles. … I won this groovy flannel jersey yesterday (I told the seller not to bother shipping the pants). More photos once it arrives in the mail. … Pretty cool assortment of Chevy speedometer designs (thanks, Kirsten). … Susan Freeman has made a key adjustment to the Bayou Bucket logo. … Matt Eggen notes that Toledo has some pretty cool merit decal placement. … New Wisconsin-based baseball team in the Northwoods League: the Lakeshore Chinooks (from Kevin McMahon). … Minnesota hoops freshman Andre Hollins of the Minnesota hoops team is going with an NOB of “Dre Hollins” to distinguish himself from sophomore Austin Hollins (no relation), who’s using “Hollins” (big thanks to Jon Beckmann and Chris Hodge. … Saw Rum Diary yesterday, and holy shit was it bad. Like, really. Embarrassingly bad. So bad that I actually walked out, which is something I almost never do. Avoid at all costs. … Reprinted from last night’s comments: a high school baseball game with all the players wearing Halloween costumes. … Lendsey Thompson found some sensational early-1980s ads for Wilson unis, Sand-Knit unis, and New Era caps. Look at that New Era logo! … Here’s the full BFBS uni that Ohio will be wearing tonight. “Just looking at it makes me nauseous,” says Barry Quinn. … “Tuesday night’s episode of The Biggest Loser saw contestant Jessica eliminated and sent home to Pittsburgh,” says Kevin Wang. “The follow-up segment showed her continuing her weight loss with a training session with Larry Foote and Ike Taylor of the Steelers. She was wearing some Steelers-themed socks during the workout. You can also see the socks in this video segment.”