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Putting on the ritz in the blitz

Flashy uniforms as marketing tool

Kevin Dorsey displayed one of the Maryland Terps’ 32 uniform combinations before the season began. Sports clothiers like Nike view outfitting college teams as a huge marketing opportunity. Kevin Dorsey displayed one of the Maryland Terps’ 32 uniform combinations before the season began. Sports clothiers like Nike view outfitting college teams as a huge marketing opportunity.
(Toni L. Sandys/Washington Post)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post / September 16, 2011

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At the chaotic intersection of college football, social networking, and billion-dollar commerce, there arrived this week 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 tomorrow 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 on 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. Tuesday, Navy and Army revealed the futuristic, but tasteful, duds they will be wearing in their annual matchup Dec. 10.

The special Georgia, Navy, and Army uniforms are part of Nike’s Pro Combat “fully integrated uniform system.’’

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.

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

“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.’’

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 the University of Oregon team - for much of its history a middling football program that gradually became a powerhouse after Nike, whose cofounder, Phil Knight, is an Oregon alum, began designing team uniforms with increasingly shocking flair in the late 1990s. After years of attracting a better class of athletes to the image it built through its uniforms, by the 2010 season the Ducks were playing in the national title game.