College football uniforms are getting more outrageous, thanks to Nike, Under Armour

September 14, 2011

At the chaotic intersection of college football, social networking and billion-dollar commerce, there arrived late Wednesday afternoon a moment unlike any in the history of the University of Maryland football team: Randy Edsall, the Terrapins’ head coach, took to his Twitter account to announce which uniform combination, out of 32 possibilities, the team will wear Saturday at noon in its game against West Virginia.

For the record: “Captains decided we’ll be wearing ALL black Saturday against WVU,” Edsall tweeted, attaching a link to a photograph of the uniform.

Such a thing would have been absurd just a few years ago, when most teams had two uniforms — home and away — and all anyone needed was a pocket schedule to know which would be worn on a given Saturday in the fall, if they cared at all.

But that was before the major sports apparel companies, led by Nike, began to see outfitting college football teams as a huge marketing opportunity. That was before Maryland, in September 2008, signed a reported five-year, $17.5 million deal with Maryland-based Under Armour to outfit its athletic teams.

And that was before the Terrapins burst onto the field at Byrd Stadium in College Park on the night of Sept. 5 in some of the most outlandish uniforms — featuring aspects of the Maryland state flag on the helmet, shoulder pads, cleats and arm-warmers — ever witnessed in college football.

It wasn’t the Terrapins’ 32-24 win over Miami that was the talk of the sports world the next day. It was their uniforms. And these days, it takes something extraordinary to get the attention of the sports fashion police.

If you have turned on the television in the first half of September to immerse yourself in the familiar rituals of college football, you may have been in for a visual shock. Some of the most prominent teams in the country have undergone radical redesigns of their uniforms — some permanently, others for one selected game this season.

On Sept. 3, the Georgia Bulldogs wore futuristic uniforms featuring two-tone face masks. Last weekend, Notre Dame and Michigan played each other in “throwback” uniforms — although alumni of the latter grumbled that the Wolverines’ uniforms resembled nothing the team had ever worn in the past. On Tuesday, Navy and Army revealed the futuristic, but tasteful, duds they will be wearing in their annual matchup on Dec. 10 at FedEx Field.

The special Georgia, Navy and Army uniforms are part of Nike’s Pro Combat “fully integrated uniform system.” (Pro Combat” is something of a double oxymoron, since college football players are, by definition, not pro, and combat references by the media are, by tradition, considered unseemly in describing sports, particularly when it comes to the service academies.)

For Under Armour, as for Nike, the investment more than pays for itself — not just in jersey and merchandise sales but in the exposure the company gets from the team’s visibility, particularly when the story goes national as it did with the Terrapins.

Some of the imagery associated with the Nike gear is predictably over-the-top:

“Echoing the cry of King Leonidas,” goes Nike’s marketing pitch for the Michigan State Spartans’ Pro Combat unis, “the back of the collar is inscribed with the words, ‘Molon Labe,’ the Spartans’ defiant challenge to the competition to ‘come and get them!’. . . Gloves complete the traditional Spartan headdress look. Armed with intensity and determination, MSU will fight on the battlefield until the last team is standing.”

What in the name of Bear Bryant is going on here?

‘Attention is good’

“In college football, schools have decided, first of all, they can have a better chance of attracting recruits with snazzy uniforms,” said ESPN.com’s Paul Lukas, who writes an influential sports-fashion blog called Uni Watch. “Recruits of college athletics are 17 years old, and 17-year-olds like shiny objects. Secondly, 17-year-olds like video games and comic books, and that’s what these uniform designs are based on.

“There’s the potential to alienate some boosters and alums who write the checks, sure. But it’s a calculated risk they feel good taking. They think the attention, even if it’s negative, is good.”

On the night of the Maryland-Miami game, the Terps hosted several high school recruits on official visits. One of them, junior offensive tackle Na’Ty Rodgers of McDonough High in Pomfret, emerged blown away by both the atmosphere and, yes, the unis.

“The uniforms were tight,” Rodgers told Baltimore’s Press Box magazine. “I loved the flag on the shoulders, the colors on the helmet and especially those black-and-yellow sleeves they were wearing. I’d love to wear something like that.”

Like most sports, college football is a game of imitation. Once something new works for one team, it is quickly appropriated by everyone else. And the model for the modern uniform makeover is undoubtedly the University of Oregon team — for much of its history a middling football program that gradually turned into a powerhouse after Nike, whose co-founder, Phil Knight, is an Oregon alumnus, began designing the team’s uniforms with increasingly shocking flair in the late 1990s. After years of attracting a better class of athletes to the image it constructed through its uniforms, by 2010 the Ducks were playing in the national title game.

The Maryland makeover has unmistakable parallels to the one in Oregon, beginning with the fact Under Armour’s founder, Kevin Plank, is a Maryland alum (though unlike Knight, Plank was also a football player). For a company that has aggressively battled Nike for control of the lucrative sports apparel market, it was a logical move.

“What Kevin Plank pulled off with Maryland wouldn’t have been possible at just any school,” said John Rowady, president of Chicago-based rEvolution, a sports marketing firm. “Under Armour really needed a close partner in Maryland to pull that off. I don’t think without that alum status, he would have been able to do something so bold.”

‘Brilliantly ugly’

The reaction to the Terps’ Sept. 5 unveiling was immediate, intense and often negative. By the end of the night, “Maryland” and “Terrapins” (as well as “Under Armour”) were trending nationally on Twitter. (Among those who weighed in: basketball star LeBron James, who tweeted, “OH GOSH! Maryland uniforms #Ewwwwww!”)

And by the next morning, the Terrapins’ uniforms were the dominant story in the teeming sports-media sphere, with stories on NBC’s “The Today Show,” ABC’s “Good Morning America” and ESPN’s magazine-style “Outside the Lines.”

“Brilliantly ugly,” ESPN’s Michael Wilbon called the uniforms — reflecting the prevailing sentiment that the Terps’ Sept. 5 look, which the school called its “Maryland Pride collection,” was a stroke of marketing genius but an aesthetic train wreck.

“I know what these schools are trying to do, but I think it all has gone too far,” said ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso, who was an assistant coach at Maryland in the 1960s. “Maybe I’m conservative by nature, but it looks like everyone’s trying to push the envelope, trying to one-up each other. I don’t think it does anything for the sport or the schools.”

But what Corso and the rest of football’s old guard may not understand is that pushing the envelope — and one-upping each other, and possibly even going too far — is the whole point.

“What we care about is what 17- [and] 18-year old kids are thinking about where they want to play football in the next couple years,” Plank told ESPN Radio three days after the Miami game. “I think that’s what Coach Edsall is most concerned about, and I think that with that demographic we’re [doing] pretty good.”

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.
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