Our Brands, Ourselves

Thanks to R.Walker, I came across the following post by Paul Lukas, who’s excellent ‘zine, Beer Frame, I discovered in my first year of college. Paul puts together some compelling arguments for keeping logos off team sports uniforms and in doing so, brings up some other interesting ideas about commercialism and our culture. His latest project, Uni-Watch, “deconstructs the finer points of sports uniforms in obsessive and excruciating detail” – the internet is an amazing place isn’t it? – Steve Lambert

Corporate Flag.jpg

Two Sundays ago, Bryan posted this photo and complained about all the ACC logos visible therein. This led to a lengthy back-and-forth in the comments section about logo creep — mostly about swooshes and other maker’s marks, not about conference logos. The discussion, which I did not take part in (I was at a bar watching football and caught up on the comments later), featured several arguments and analogies that I hear again and again regarding logo creep — arguments that are, frankly, way off-base. Some similar arguments came up yesterday regarding Michael Jordan’s taped-over Adidas logo.

As you all know, I hate logo creep and see it as a symptom of a much bigger problem (i.e., the encroachment of advertising into public space). I know some of you feel differently, and I also know that to a certain extent this is generational: I grew up in an era when there were no manufacturer’s logos on uniforms; many of you have grown up in an era when such logos are ubiquitous. But even if we disagree on whether logo creep is a problem, we can at least try to keep the debate on a logical plane and not make straw man arguments or apples/oranges comparisons.

With that in mind, I’m going to try to address many of the arguments that came up two Sundays ago, along with some other arguments I frequently hear. I know some of you are tired of this topic, but you’ll have to deal with it for one more day — I wanted to get all my thoughts on the matter in one place, and that place is here.

Let’s start with a simple premise that I think everyone here can agree with: Uniforms are special. They serve as the primary bond between fan and team. Players come and go, yet we keep rooting for (or against) that uniform, no matter who wears it. Jerry Seinfeld described this as “rooting for laundry”; I go further and say it’s a unique form of brand loyalty. Elsewhere on the consumer landscape, your loyalty to a brand is at least somewhat dependant on the content and quality of that brand — it has to taste good, or function well, or whatever. If the content changes, your loyalty will probably change too (that’s what the Coke execs learned with the New Coke debacle). But with sports, the content of a team, and the quality of that content, is changing all the time, yet we remain loyal to that logo, those colors, that uniform.

Just to make the point in a more specific way: Everyone here knows that I love the Mets and hate the Yankees. But if those two rosters were traded for each other today — straight up, 25 guys for 25 guys — who would I root for tomorrow? It’s a no-brainer: I’d root for the guys wearing the Mets uniforms, even if I hated them the day before. That, my friends, is a very special and unique bond. And that’s ultimately why most of us are here at this site to begin with.

Personally, I feel that cluttering up the fan/team bond with advertising logos — whether it’s a Nike swoosh, a McDonald’s patch, or a big soccer sponsorship insignia — cheapens and sullies that bond. It diminishes the team and, by extension, all of us. You may disagree. Let’s discuss…


Look, of course companies are gonna put their logos on the uniforms they make. Duh, it’s called marketing.
Yes, we all know it’s called marketing. The question isn’t about why they do it; the question is whether there are some places — like, say, on a uniform — where marketing is inappropriate.

But it is appropriate on a uniform. It makes sense for a company to put its logo on the clothing it makes. They’d be stupid not to do it.
Take a look at your feet right now. Unless you’re wearing sneakers, I’m willing to bet that there are no logos on your footwear. There are probably no visible logos on your shirt or sweater, either. If you’re wearing a tie, there’s almost certainly no visible logo on that. Are the manufacturers of those products stupid?

More to the point, look at any pre-1990 major-level sports photo. You won’t see any manufacturers’ logos there, either. Were Spalding, Wilson, and Rawlings all stupid for decades, and then they suddenly wised up in the 1990s? Or did the sportswear industry decide to push the boundaries to see how much advertising they could push into the public eye?

While we’re at it, let’s look at some non-sports uniforms, like the ones being worn by UPS deliverymen, cops, airline pilots, or Burger King employees. See any manufacturers’ logos on any of those?

Look, a sports uniform is a logo, and it already stands for a brand — the brand of the team that wears it. The uni manufacturer is simply a vendor providing a product to a client. The client (i.e., the team) is what’s important, not the vendor.

Here’s another way to look at it: Some company made the buttons on the uniform, and another company made the zippers, and some mill made the fabric, and another mill made the thread, and some sewing shop stitched all the components together. But you don’t see all their logos on the uniform, right? Of course not — what matters is the end-product brand, not all the little sub-contracted components. And in the case of a uniform, the end-product brand is the team.

Saying that the Reebok logo shouldn’t appear on, say, the Cowboys’ football uniform is like saying a car company shouldn’t put its logo on a car that it makes.
No, that’s a poor analogy. Let’s take, for example, the Ford Focus. The brand that it stands for is, y’know, the Ford Focus, so of course Ford is gonna put their name on it. But the Cowboys uniform stands for the Dallas Cowboys — it has nothing to do with Reebok. (In fact, the Cowboys’ uniform has been largely unchanged for decades, so what exactly is the difference between their uniform now, when it has the Reebok logo on the sleeve, versus 10 years ago, when it had the Nike swoosh on the sleeve? Nothing, except for the change in logos. In short, a different company bought advertising space on the jersey.)

Getting back to the car analogy: What if the steel mill that produced the steel for the Focus insisted that its logo be visible on all of the car’s doors? And what if the manufacturer of every other component of the car did the same? That’s the proper analogy — that would be the automotive equivalent of logo creep. But of course those companies don’t put their logos all over a car, nor would it be appropriate for them to do so.

Wait a minute, my car has Firestone tires and AC sparkplugs, and those logos are visible.
But those are items that you, the driver, can switch out and replace with other brands — they’re more akin to a fielder’s glove or a goalie’s pads. They’re equipment, which can be purchased from a variety of sources, not part of the car’s “uniform.” I’ve never had a problem with logos on equipment, because equipment is a matter of personal choice, not team uniformity.


OK, maybe you have a point when a company is just the latest manufacturer to produce an old, pre-existing design. But in a lot of cases, the sportswear companies are actually creating the designs we see on the field. Why shouldn’t they take credit for that in a visible way?
Do you know who designed the chair you’re sitting in right now? Or the building where that chair is situated? Or any of the hundreds of objects with which you interact on a daily basis? For better or worse, designers in our culture generally don’t get to sign their work — they, like the manufacturers they work for, are simply vendors supplying a service for a client.

Even if you think designers should get visible credit (an argument that I agree has some merit, but one that we’ll save for another day), that doesn’t really change the parameters of the logo creep debate as it applies to uniforms. Small example: Todd Radom designed the Anaheim Angels’ uniforms — so should his logo or initials be on the sleeve? I think most of us (maybe even Todd) would agree that the answer is no. And if that’s the case, then why should a uniform designed by Nike carry a swoosh?

Look, sports is all about business now, so logo creep is just part of the deal.
Romantic nostalgia aside, sports has always been a business. You think Walter O’Malley wasn’t a businessman? Or Calvin Griffith? Or Charles Comiskey? In fact, the team owners from that era were arguably more revenue-obsessed than today’s owners, because most of them had no other business holdings besides their teams, while many of today’s owners got wealthy in other industries and then bought a team as a vanity project. So while the dollar amounts may be bigger today, it’s not as though sports has suddenly morphed into a business after spending generations functioning as something else.

Anyway, the “It’s just business” argument misses the larger point: Yes, sports teams are business entities, but I would argue, strongly, that they’re also civic entities — that’s why we care about them so much! They carry the name of our cities and states, we rally around them, we live and die with them. Moreover, most of them have gotten big tax breaks and/or play in facilities that were built with public money, and many college and most high school teams represent public scholastic institutions, so the public has a stake in their behavior — a stake that goes beyond the bottom line of the accounting ledger. In short: I don’t want to see my team, in which I have a huge emotional investment, selling out part of its uniform to an advertiser. These teams already make tons of money — there’s a big difference between business and greed.

How can you tell a team, or a league, or anyone else, not to capitalize on a potential revenue stream? That’s just common sense, plus it’s the American way.
Just because you can sell something, that doesn’t mean you should sell it. You could make a lot of money selling a kidney, putting your family’s heirloom silverware up for auction on eBay, or pimping out your sister, but that doesn’t mean any of those things is a good idea. There are certain things that we, as a society, have said are not for sale. Remember the outcry when MLB wanted to put Spider-Man 2 ads on the bases a few years back? Personally, I see little difference between that and a swoosh on a uniform sleeve, although I realize many fans don’t see those as comparable examples.

In the larger sense, the “It’s just business” argument essentially boils down every human interaction to its economic value, which is both reductive and offensive. The things we value most highly — love, faith, art, genius, charity, friendship, family, nature, community, etc. — all transcend monetary issues. In fact, that’s a big part of why we value them so highly. I believe the fan/team relationship, as symbolized by the uniform, should fall into that category too.

As for the “American way” argument, putting ad logos on uniforms is actually the European way. We’ve mostly avoided that here in America, except for manufacturer’s marks. I wish we could avoid those, too.

Well, good for you, Mr. Holier Than Thou, but the horse is already out of the barn. Look around you — you’ve lost the argument. Logo creep is everywhere in sports. Give it up already!
First of all, it’s not everywhere. There are no manufacturer’s logos on NBA uniforms (to David Stern’s everlasting credit), or on college basketball jerseys, or on MLB caps, or on socks in any of the four major pro leagues, and I want to make sure those situations stay that way. Moreover, I want to raise awareness about the encroachment of advertising in places where I don’t think it belongs. Even if it’s too late to keep the Majestic logo off of a baseball uniform, I hope it’s not too late to make sure a MasterCard sleeve patch never appears there. And it’s never too late to make people think a bit harder about what they see during a sporting event — that’s what Uni Watch is all about.

Well, it’s fine for you to say a team shouldn’t maximize its revenue. But Nike gives college athletic departments a lot of money in return for all those swooshes, and that money goes a long way toward helping all sorts of student athletes. If they turn down that money, how are you gonna replace it? Are you gonna write a big check yourself?
I’m not going to get into a long discussion over the cesspool of money that characterizes so much of college sports, but the above-stated argument makes two major suppositions: (1) Major funding for college athletics is an entitlement, and (2) the athletic department is essentially for sale to the highest bidder. I reject both of these notions.

But for the sake of argument, let’s go along with the idea that big money for college athletics is a good thing. Now, we both know that Nike isn’t giving out all that money from the goodness of their hearts — they’re doing it because they think they’ll get a good return on that investment, which means it’s essentially dirty money. By way of analogy, let’s say American Express offered to give the state of Illinois a huge sum of money targeted for the state’s school system — but in return, the AmEx logo would have to be printed on the statehouse dome, AmEx ads would have to be posted throughout state facilities, and the state itself would have to be renamed “American Express Presents Illinois.” Would that be a good idea? Not to me, no matter how much money they were offering. And if you think that hypothetical example is ridiculous, ask yourself how ridiculous “the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl” and “the FedEx Orange Bowl” would have sounded 15 years ago.

I’m sick of all this corporate-bashing — you just hate brands and products and capitalism and consumerism.
If you knew anything about my pre-Uni Watch writing, you’d know that I’m fascinated by consumer culture. Hell, I have an iconic product tattooed on my right arm. Again, my problem isn’t with consumerism per se — it’s with consumerism run amok. We may all have different ideas of what “run amok” means, but to me it means, among other things, a Nike logo on a uniform sleeve. And it certainly means MJ having to tape over the Adidas logo on his practice jersey.

You’re such a hypocrite. If you hate logos so much, why do you slap the Uni Watch logo on T-shirts, coffee mugs, and lots of other merchandise?
Yes, I put my logo on T-shirts, just like the Mets put their logo on T-shirts, and Nike puts a giant swoosh on T-shirts. I have no problem with any of that — I just don’t want a swoosh and a Mets logo together on the same shirt, because they have nothing to do with each other. I’m not taking issue with marketing per se — my gripe is about marketing in inappropriate places, like on a uniform.


Yeah, but you’re still a big phony, because the Google logo appears all over the Uni Watch home page. Now there’s some logo creep!
Actually, quite a few logos appear on the Uni Watch home page. That’s advertising for ya. Publications and web sites are traditional and appropriate places for ads to appear — that’s how publications and web sites stay in business (especially web sites, since most of them — including this one — give away their content for free, as opposed to most publications, which have a cover price). One more time: I’m not opposed to advertising and marketing per se — I’m simply opposed to them in places where I feel they don’t belong. I think a team’s uniform is one of those places.

You know, I don’t necessarily disagree with you, but I’m sick of hearing about it. I love sports, I love uniforms, and I want to enjoy them without thinking too hard about any of this stuff.
I’m actually more sympathetic to this point of view than you might expect. I think we all have areas where we’d rather have blinders on and ignore troubling information because it gets in the way of our enjoyment. Case in point: I love animals, but I also love eating meat. When I hear vegetarians talking about the deplorable conditions in cattle feedlots and such, I tend to tune it out — not because I think they’re wrong, but because I want to keep enjoying my steak without wrestling too hard with any ethical and moral implications. This is, as Al Gore puts it, an inconvenient truth.

So I understand that I may come across as a crank regarding this issue. And really, I’m not trying to ruin your good time — it’s just something I happen to feel strongly about. And that feeling comes from the same place as the rest of Uni Watch.

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