Fashion Week or Football?

September 13, 2013 by Mike Goff

The college football season just started but I feel like I stumbled into some sort of Fashion Week reality show instead. What’s with all of the fancy new uniforms being “unveiled” this year? I thought we were done with that after adidas’s use of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament to “highlight” its neon, Zubaz-like uniforms in March. Apparently not, because here we go again with football.

The cynic in me says it’s all about the (licensing) money.  After all, who wants to wear last year’s jersey to the game when there’s some new flashy model in campus bookstores this fall?  The realist in me understands that it’s about far more than that, this tsunami of new college football uniforms being unveiled now that the final BCS season is upon us.  What it’s about is the school’s – and sports program’s –  brand.

Programs like Nebraska, Tennessee, Georgia, Ole Miss and even Notre Dame, with its “Shamrock Series,” are in on the act.  And, that act is about schools using player real estate to build their brand.

Oregon, of course, is the poster child for this effort through its affiliation with Nike and alum Phil Knight.  The Ducks have routinely trotted out numerous uniform combinations.  Even the socks worn by the Ducks got significant media coverage in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game when Oregon played Auburn.  Not to be outdone, Under Armour used Maryland, the alma mater of founder Kevin Plank, as its canvas for a batch of uniform designs that included the state flag and multi-color helmets.

Numerous teams, from major powers like Ohio State to schools better known for their basketball (Western Kentucky), are hopping on the fashion bus with their uniform designs and/or special edition models.  The Buckeyes have worn special edition helmets and throwback designs as has archrival Michigan.  Fellow Big Ten mate Indiana unveiled six different helmet designs for this upcoming season.

Not to be outdone, the Big 12 has Oklahoma State leading the effort with its multi-combination approach that began two seasons ago.  Baylor has several designs to pick from, and Kansas, speaking of teams better known for basketball, has just unveiled enough combinations that the Jayhawks will never wear the same uni twice this season.

Whether it’s throwbacks against a rival opponent (Iowa State’s jerseys versus Iowa) or a helmet designed to distract an opponent (Western Kentucky’s chrome helmets), each week seems to bring some new uniform surprise.  Heck, UCLA even announced this past week its “L.A. Midnight” uniform—for the November 15 game with Washington!

Coaches cite the interest the uniforms engender from recruits.  And, at Texas A&M, recruits are even given an opportunity—via an augmented reality program—to see how their name would appear on an Aggie jersey.

While appealing to a recruit is a significant benefit, what these uniform designs are is the most tangible representation of the school’s brand on the field of play or the court.  Just as consumer brands work hard to find ways to differentiate, so too now are athletics programs scrambling to do the same.  It’s a fascinating case study in brand marketing.