ESPN is cutting ties with Uni Watch, the 20-year-old sports fashion column that helped legitimize mainstream news coverage of everything from wholesale franchise rebranding to tweaks in fonts or piping on uniform sleeves.
Uni Watch founder and editor Paul Lukas said the relationship with ESPN, which began in 2004, is set to end in March 2019.
“When I started there, what I was doing was unique,” he said in a phone interview. “And now anyone can write about uniforms. And everyone does. And that’s great."
What is now one of sports media’s foremost authorities on uniform design began as a column in the Village Voice in 1999, where it ran alongside articles about the NHL’s best fights of the week. It moved to online magazine Slate soon after and then to ESPN, where it lived for 15 years. (Lukas started writing for ESPN in 2004, launching a supplemental website two years later for smaller stories.)
At ESPN, Lukas followed the rise of college football’s uniform explosion. He published holiday gift guides and held design contests for rebranding or relocating teams, as well as for expansion teams. For a certain set of fans, his grades for newly released jersey designs stood as an industry standard.
And for television watchers convinced the New York Mets added yet another camouflage hat or the New Orleans Saints ditched the stripe around the collar of their road white tops, Uni Watch became the leading — and for a time, the only — source to check your facts.
“I care about that stuff,” Lukas said. “My career is that I, for better or worse, have a slightly eccentric perspective on things and I tend to notice small details. Not everyone likes or gets my work, but the people who do are really into it. That’s really the case for Uni Watch.
“And what I’ve heard thousands of times with Uni Watch fans is, ‘Thank God I’ve discovered Uni Watch. I thought I was the only one.’ It’s almost like these people get to come out of the closet and be their geeky selves.”
Lukas spent the ’90s writing about consumer and product design, interpreting the subtleties of packaging or promotions and determining their impact on customers and businesses. And as a lifelong sports fan, he saw the potential for a similar kind of writing in athletics.
As he started writing, he said, a new sort of sports jersey age began. When his column premiered in the Village Voice, most college football teams only had one helmet design. Now teams routinely have four or five. Back then, teams wore white tops on the road and their primary colors at home. No one had “blackout” uniforms, let alone special holiday outfits. There were no chrome helmets. No star-spangled military-appreciation get-ups.
And then team executives realized jerseys could sell at retail for a whole lot more than a regular cotton T-shirt, Lukas said. Multiple on-field outfits became a branding mechanism just as effective as wearing the same look for generations at a time.
ESPN now has full-scale coverage of the aesthetics of sports, separate from the Uni Watch brand. “SportsCenter” on Saturday mornings during college football season airs a segment called “Gear Up,” showcasing the best or most exotic uniform combinations of the week. NBA writer Zach Lowe this week published a major article on the development of the Miami Heat’s pink, black and blue “Vice” uniforms.
Bleacher Report launched an entire line of coverage on the shoes NBA players wear each night. Twitter accounts with names like “UNISWAG” and “The Best Gear” fire off uniform takes and photos of new designs. Teams routinely cover their own uniform unveilings with videos and news releases that tout the inspiration of each combination.
“Part of the mainstreaming in the interest in uniforms is because ESPN took a chance on me and legitimized the coverage of this beat,” Lukas said. “If ESPN is doing it, it gives it a certain validity to it.”
Lukas said he isn’t sure what’s next for Uni Watch, but he said the blog, which operates independently of his ESPN content, isn’t going anywhere. ESPN accounted for 76 percent of his income in 2018, he wrote on the blog Tuesday. He’s contemplating trying to find another media partner to replace ESPN, or posting only to his blog, in which case he’d need to ask his audience to help subsidize the operation.
Regardless, he said, his quirky style will live on, even if it isn’t about uniforms. His most recent Uni Watch column, published a week ago, wasn’t about uniforms at all. It was a deep Q&A with members of the New York Giants chain gang.
“Honestly, I don’t learn that much from uniforms anymore,” he said. “There’s not much out there I don’t know or haven’t seen already. But there’s other things I can do that are uni-adjacent. There’s more to write about than there ever has been.”
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