Toward the end of 1998, I got an idea.
I had spent the previous five years writing about detail-obsessive aspects of consumer culture, marketing, advertising, branding, and design, and I had spent most of my life maintaining a detail-obsessive interest in sports uniforms. At some point it began occurring to me that I could — that I should — combine the two.
The idea took shape in stages. At first I thought I’d write a short piece about baseball stirrup styles. (I think I actually pitched this idea to The New York Times Magazine, where it was quickly declined.) Then I thought, “No, that’s too limited” and decided to write a long, feature-length piece on baseball uniforms. I spent a few weeks tinkering with that.
Then I thought, “Why do just one article? Why not create a column devoted to uniform and logo design?” True, nothing like that had ever been done before, but that made the idea all the more intriguing. It fit squarely into the realm of what I called “inconspicuous consumption” — the small details that infiltrate our brains and shape our lives, often without our even being aware of them. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that a column about uniforms was the ideal project for me. On Jan. 1, 1999, I made the first (and still only) New Year’s resolution of my life: “I will create and place a column devoted to sports uniforms.”
I had plenty of contacts at design magazines and could have pitched the idea to them. But I didn’t want to create a design column that focused on sports; I wanted to create a sports column that focused on design. I wanted to make the world of uniforms and logos into a legitimate sports beat.
So I began cold-calling sports editors. Some of them dismissed the idea out of hand. A few were interested in the concept, but only as a one-off novelty or as comic relief, which wasn’t what I had in mind. Weeks turned into months, and by the spring of 1999 I was getting a bit frustrated. I still believed in the idea, but I was having trouble finding a sports editor who was willing to take it seriously.
I had been focusing primarily on big, high-profile sports media outlets — Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, The Sporting News, The New York Times, and so on. Since those weren’t working out, I reluctantly decided to set my sights a bit lower, which meant it was time to contact Miles Seligman, the sports editor of The Village Voice. The bad news was that the Voice was a local alternative weekly with a teeny sports section that was buried amidst the phone sex ads in the back of the paper; the good news was that its sports section was unusually creative and intelligent. They had a column devoted to hockey fights (that may not sound like a big deal now, in the blog/YouTube era, but in 1999 it was a brilliantly demented idea), they had some of the smartest baseball writers I’d ever read, and they routinely called bullshit as bullshit.
As it turned out, Miles was familiar with my work and loved the idea of a uniform column. He had only one concern.
“We can do this once every four weeks,” he said. “But are you sure there’s actually enough uniform-related material out there to support that?”
“I think so,” I said, trying to sound confident. In fact, I had no idea.
The column needed a name. I don’t remember the specifics of my discussions with Miles, but I do recall that I suggested “Uni Watch” sort of as a fallback — something we’d use only if we couldn’t come up with something better. I know we kicked around a few other possibilities (one of them was some sort of riff on “The Emperor’s New Clothes”), but none of them seemed better than Uni Watch, so that’s what we used. I remember feeling a bit disappointed by that at the time because I thought it was a rather boring, cop-out name. (I’ve since come to like the name just fine.)
So that’s how Uni Watch was born. The first installment was published on May 26, 1999 — 15 years ago today. It was essentially the first iteration of my annual MLB season-”preview” column, even though it was published nearly two months after the season had already begun (click to enlarge):
Thanks to assorted developments in the media world, Uni Watch eventually moved from the Voice to Slate.com (in 2003) and then to ESPN.com (2004), and along the way it spun off this blog (2006). While I’ve always believed in Uni Watch, I never imagined it would turn out to be such a durable project, or that its frequency would increase to bi-weekly, and then weekly, and then daily. (With each jump in frequency, there was a editor who said, “Are you sure there’s enough material out there to support that?” And each time I responded, “I think so,” trying to sound confident, when in fact I had no idea.)
After doing this for 15 years, have I achieved my goal of turning the uni-verse into a legitimate sports beat? Yes and no. On the plus side, uniforms get much more attention — from fans, from broadcasters, from the rest of the media — than they did 15 years ago. Unveilings are big events, teams routinely tweet photos of the jerseys they’ll be wearing for upcoming games, and so on. And of course the mere fact that I still have this gig (and that the gig has kept growing) indicates that the project has achieved a certain legitimacy.
On the other hand, much of the uniform coverage out there from the “regular” sports media still carries an undertone of condescension or even apology — like, “Okay, we’re going to talk about this now because apparently somebody cares about it, but we’re not going to take it seriously.” And when I tell people what I do for a living, they often do a double take and then need a minute to sort of process it. I guess that makes sense, because I’m still the only full-time big-media uniform journalist. There’s no counterpart to me at SI, or at Yahoo Sports, or any of the other major sports media outlets, a state of affairs I find both surprising (you’d think someone else would have come along by now) and disappointing (additional voices would create some healthy competition and would help to further legitimize the beat).
Compare that situation to the role of sports media critics — the guys who critique the broadcasters. A generation ago, the notion of paying someone to watch games on TV seemed absurd. Nowadays, just about every major newspaper has a guy who does that. That beat has been accepted as legitimate sports journalism. But the uniform/logo beat hasn’t yet achieved that status. So while Uni Watch has come a long way, I’d say it still has a way to go.
But anniversaries are for celebrations, not ruminations. Uni Watch may not have achieved everything I was hoping for, but it has nonetheless been a tremendously successful and satisfying project — much more so than I had any reason to expect when I launched it.
A lot of that success, of course, is due to the amazing contributions of Uni Watch readers, who’ve served as my auxiliary eyes and ears almost from the start. So that 15th-anniversary logo you see at the top of this entry isn’t just for me — it’s for all of us, including you (yes, even the trolls). I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. Hope you are too.
I’ll have a bit more anniversary-related news tomorrow — stay tuned.
(Doubleplusthanks to Scott M.X. Turner for designing the anniversary logo.)
Today is also Memorial Day. If you’re mourning a fallen military member, please accept my condolences on his or her loss. If you’re working, thanks for keeping the world spinning while the rest of us have the day off. If you fall into neither of those categories, count yourself fortunate and enjoy the day. — Paul