Ep 1: Who will play QB for the Fleet, if not Josh Johnson?

AAF television appeal, XFL to do list, and valiant efforts in alphabetizing.

These questions, and many more, are left unanswered in the first episode of the Outlaw Sports Podcast. Join Mike Brantley (@MikeBrantley_YJ) and Mike Sherman (@MikeShermanInfo) for a one-hour discussion of outlaw sports teams and leagues.

Show Highlights

  • The opportunity for the AAF and the XFL to enter the video game space
  • A look at the television appeal of each AAF team
  • A run down on the XFL’s to do list: broadcast partner and head coaches/GMs

Show Lowlights

  • Introducing a show name that’s already changed
  • Heavy-handed editing
  • Mike Sherman setting the one-hour world record for saying “it’ll be interesting”

Thanks for listening! Or, at least, thanks for reading the description of the show!

Don’t tell anyone, but the XFL is bringing back a lot of its 2001 rules

The XFL is keeping the similarities to its ancestor on the down low.

The XFL followed up on its announcement of its first eight cities by pulling back the curtain on the work being done to develop its 2020 rulebook.

There some original tweaks the league is implementing — most prominently in the way the game is timed (clock runs continuously until the final 2:00 of each half; 10 second stop after every play thereafter) and the kickoff (players line up five yards apart on the receiving team’s 30- and 35-yard line; players can begin to move once the ball is caught).

But what stands out to me is how much is unoriginal. Here’s XFL Commission Andrew Luck talking about the rules on the The Grueling Truth’s “Survive and Advance” podcast:

We’ve even borrowed an idea from the CFL [Canadian Football League], which is on a punt, no fair catch allowed, but there’s a halo rule.

It’s true that the CFL uses the halo, which prevents tacklers from coming within five yards of the receiver until the punt is caught. It also happens to be true that the XFL used the halo itself in 2001, infamously marketing it as “no fair catches” and sort of implying that punt returners might be decapitated.

Also recycled from 2001 is the 1-, 2-, and 3-point conversions from the 2-, 5-, and 15-yard lines. The XFL added tiered extra points for the playoffs in 2001, with the 3-point attempt then coming from the 10-yard line.

That these are presented as “reimagined” or even “borrowed from the CFL” is illustrative of the complicated relationship XFL 2020 has with its ancestor. Vince McMahon cited “brand equity” when asked why he decided to bring back the XFL name, but Luck is keenly aware of the baggage that accompanies it. Here is Luck at the Sports Business Radio Road Show, in response to a question about whether the league will again put nicknames on the uniforms:

We’re going to be careful not to do things that are viewed as gimmicky. I’ll be very candid; one of the challenges XFL 2001 had were there a couple of things that the viewing public looked at as gimmicky. … We want to make sure that what we do is not viewed as gimmicky. That doesn’t mean you cannot innovate and do some things we think are fairly clever and will help the game. … But we want to stay away from gimmicks.

Of course, nicknames on jerseys is now mainstream, and in the same interview, Luck floated the incredibly gimmicky idea of letting the fans call the first play of each game. It’s not the ideas that Luck fears, it’s the source. XFL 2001 was basically ruined by the sports media, and XFL 2020 is going to do everything they can to prevent today’s sports media from saying “here we go again.”

And on that front, so far, so good. Most mainstream coverage of the league lately has ranged from positive to benign. The bulk of that credit goes to Luck, who oozes professionalism and has sports administration bona fides that command respect. If that trend holds, it will be interesting to see if the XFL ever publicly warms to its legacy. After all, the apple doesn’t seem to be falling terribly far from the tree.

My Christmas List for XFL D.C.

It was Christmas season last year when news first leaked that the XFL might be making a comeback. As someone who fell in love with the 2001 version as a sophomore in high school in the Washington, D.C. area, the XFL’s return, coupled by the announcement that D.C. is getting a team, has been nothing short of surreal. So as I make my Christmas wish list for XFL D.C., I’m focusing on the payoff, not the hurdles. After all, we’re already living in my own personal pipe dream.

Pick a color scheme that matches Audi Field

Audi Field was built primarily for D.C. United, affectionately known as the Black-and-Red by its supporters. That color scheme is featured prominently in its home stadium, and my hope is that XFL D.C. uses a similar palette as the foundation for the team: black and red as a loose starting point, with charcoal/grey/silver/chrome as possible directions to go.

This has less to do with the quality of the color scheme itself (although it’s strong; look no further than the greatest uniform in football history) and much more to do with creating the feel of a team playing in its home stadium, rather than just some building its renting.

Name the team the Federals

For the unaware, the Washington Federals were a USFL team, best remembered for their atrocious on-field performance (7-29 over two seasons). If the XFL is passing on bringing back their own brands, their certainly not going to want to borrow from other leagues as they seek to forge a new path and sell new merchandise.

But this isn’t a nostalgia request — the Philadelphia Eagles-esque logo and colors ought to be left in the 1980s. The name, on the other hand, is just perfect. It’s uniquely D.C., versatile (the team can be called Feds for short), and marketable.

The name is so good that it would be my choice for a Redskins or Wizards rebrand should either come to pass. If Martians land on Earth and teach us marsball, my vote for the name of the D.C. franchise is Federals. It’s just a fantastic name, and the XFL would be lucky to jump on it.

Run the triple option

Note: The triple option is technically a play, not an offense. I think “flexbone spread option” is the preferred nomenclature; I’m using the colloquial “triple option” because I’m lazy and willing to perpetuate ignorance.

The XFL’s vision of its game seems like its being based on a Chiefs-Rams utopia. But they would be smart to take a broader view of the game.

One of college football’s great strengths is the schematic diversity. You can see pro style, the spread, pure air raid, pistol, old school run and shoot, etc., each week. In the NFL, homogeneity reigns, as teams relentlessly copy the strategies of one another, while the sheer volume of teams in college football allows different visions to flourish. As a single entity, the XFL can manufacture diversity if they so choose. As they seek to create a compelling television product, they would be wise to consider the value of giving different teams a different offensive DNA.

It’s also a way to improve the team’s offensive talent. Schools that face recruiting challenges (the service academies and academically rigorous Georgia Tech being recent examples) have turned to the triple option as a way to change the recruiting dynamic. Rather than fighting for the same type of players with their unencumbered rivals, the triple option lends itself to a different body type at most offensive positions. This allows the school to work on a comparatively higher place on the food chain. An XFL team running the triple option will be able to target first or second tier option-style players that otherwise are left out of pro football or playing out of position, as opposed to fighting with the other XFL teams (not to mention CFL and AAF teams) over the NFL leftovers. We’ll get to one very specific example soon.

Finally, it would be likely be very effective. Personnel aside, a well-run triple option is extremely challenging to defend, especially for defensive coaches who aren’t practiced in it. (It’s telling that triple option teams tend to struggle the most against other triple option teams.) Assuming the other seven XFL teams feature pro-style defensive coaches, running the triple option would likely amount to a significant competitive advantage. But here’s the brilliance: Even if the triple option fails spectacularly, that would be OK too. The triple option getting a chance to prove itself in a professional setting is a built-in storyline for the league to market. No matter which way the results fall, it will be an interesting and compelling journey to follow.

Hire Paul Johnson

A willingness to run the offense isn’t useful without a coach qualified to teach it, and fortunately for the XFL, one of the masters just became available. Paul Johnson retired as Georgia Tech’s coach after amassing a record of 189-98 at Georgia Tech, Navy, and Georgia Southern.

He retired due to burnout; The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz, who broke the story of his retirement, said shortly after that Johnson “still enjoys game day but a lot of other stuff that goes with being a FBS [head coach] today has worn on him.”

It’s a big leap from that to being willing to join the XFL, but supposing that the lighter workload and the chance to run his offense on a pro stage sparks his interest, the XFL shouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger.

For starters, he’s really, really good, and would thrive in a start-up environment like the XFL. From a career retrospective by TheMidReport.com’s fantastic Mike James:

Throughout his career, Johnson has repeatedly accepted the challenge of situations that others would label as impossible tasks. He helped to build Georgia Southern up from literally nothing and turned it into the most successful FCS program of its era. His offense was the catalyst that Hawaii needed to advance to the program’s first bowl game since moving up from Division II. Two years after Sports Illustrated published a column suggesting that Navy drop to I-AA, that same offense won the Aloha Bowl. Navy wouldn’t return to a bowl game until Johnson returned as head coach. He took Georgia Tech to two Orange Bowls, the Yellow Jackets’ first major bowl games since 1966.

In addition, he carries a lot of respect in the D.C. media thanks to his success at Navy, especially amongst the stuffy old guard that will be least inclined to give the XFL the benefit of the doubt. He’s also a fantastic quote and carries petty grudges that Vince McMahon would be proud to script. An example of one reared its head this season, when Johnson’s Georgia Tech faced Louisville, whose defensive coordinator was Brian VanGorder — the same man that had succeeded Johnson at Georgia Southern. From a SB Nation breakdown of the feud:

Before season began, VanGorder made a point that he wouldn’t be running Johnson’s flexbone option. From the Statesboro Herald:

In the advertisement, Georgia Southern’s marketing department promoted the 2006 season with a series of video clips that ended with VanGorder pointing at the camera and proclaiming “There is no option.” The school later chose to edit out the coach’s comment. The four words drew criticism, became a catch phrase for the season and spawned t-shirts reading “Win Coach. There is no option.”

Well, word of VanGorder’s overhaul made its way to Johnson, the head coach at Navy at the time.

”VanGorder had made some comments that he didn’t think too highly of the offense,” longtime Georgia Southern administrator Robert Inman said via USA Today. “And Paul called me up and said, ‘I need to talk to (athletics director) Sam (Baker) and get Georgia Southern on the schedule,’” Inman said. “I said, ‘Why do you want to play us?’ And he said, ‘Because I want to beat the hell out of Brian VanGorder.’ “

That was 12 years ago. Fast forward back to this October, Johnson kept the foot on the gas as Georgia Tech beat Lousivlle 66-31, and VanGorder was fired at the end of the season.

All of which is to say, the D.C. press will enjoy covering a Paul Johnson-led XFL team.

Sign Keenan Reynolds to play quarterback

If we’ve gotten this far, Johnson will need a pivot to execute his offense, and one of the all-time greats is theoretically available in Keenan Reynolds. The former Navy quarterback and NCAA rushing touchdown record holder is currently bouncing off and on NFL practice squads as a wide receiver (at the time of publication, he is on the Seattle Seahawks’ practice squad). From the aforementioned Mike James:

There is no position in football that has more impact on his team and on a game than that of a triple option quarterback. None. Every play revolves around him. Playing quarterback is difficult in any offense, obviously, but the option quarterback doesn’t have a chance to hand the ball to a tailback 20-30 times per game. He’s not getting easy yards by throwing a bunch of screen passes. When you run the option, even the running plays depend on your decisions, and nobody makes those decisions better than Reynolds.

There’s no guarantee he would be willing to trade that for a top-tier XFL contract and the opportunity to return to his natural position, but if he was, XFL D.C. would be running the triple option with one of the best, if not the best, option quarterbacks on the planet, while other teams would be running standard offenses with, at best, the 150th-best quarterback for that system.

In addition, XFL D.C. gets a star with local cache, thanks to his record-setting career at Annapolis, and the XFL gets a picture-perfect poster boy to market as it seeks to set themselves apart from the ugliness of domestic violence that haunts the NFL.

Dream Big

Are any of these wishes likely to come to fruition? The color scheme would really be prudent, but even there, it is important to remember that these decisions will not take place in a vacuum, It is the clash of colors that makes football its most visually appealing, and there are seven other teams to think of. Even if the league is sold on using the venue as a starting point, that still leaves Houston and Tampa Bay vying for red as a primary color. (Although we can hold out hope on the latter doing a full Houston Oilers revival.)

So no, none of this likely. But we live in a world where the XFL is coming back, nearly two decades after one of the most spectacular sports failures in history. Anything is possible, so I invite us all to dream big this Christmas season.

Happy Holidays!

Why the XFL is going into NFL markets

It’s all about the money.

On December 5, the XFL made official its eight markets for the 2020 season: Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, St. Louis, Tampa, and Washington, D.C. On the same day, XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck was interviewed by New York Sports Day’s Peter Schwartz, where he said this about choosing New York as a market:

“I don’t know if you can start a league without being in New York. … This is our most important city. … I just don’t know if you can launch a league and try to have a national footprint, even a small national footprint like ours would be initially; I think you have to be in New York.”

The quote highlighted a major difference in how the XFL is thinking about the placement of their franchises with how a lot of the general public is looking at it.

Notably, seven of these eight cities are home to NFL teams, with only the recently-vacated St. Louis being the exception. New York and Los Angeles have two apiece. A common reaction I’ve seen to this portfolio has been surprise and skepticism, centered around the fact that the XFL didn’t target more markets without NFL teams. After all, it’s not the fans in New York and Los Angeles that need football, it’s the fans in cities like Albuquerque and Omaha, right?

In a certain sense, that’s true. But in another sense, it misses the big picture.

What is the XFL’s goal?

You can be forgiven for looking at the XFL as a vanity project, but the goal — the reason the XFL exists — is to make money. Whether that’s a realistic goal is a separate conversation, but make no mistake: the point of all of this is to turn a profit.

If the primary goal is to make money, then where is the money in football?

For a long time, the answer was in selling tickets, but that dynamic has long since flipped: the money in football is in broadcasting rights. The NFL’s least valuable property — the much-maligned Thursday night broadcast — has just started a contract with Fox that’s worth around $3 billion over five seasons. That’s obviously not what the XFL can hope to earn, but consider that the American Athletic Conference’s annual deal with ESPN is worth about $18 million annually. Only time will tell what the XFL’s ceiling might be, but this is where the league is, rightfully, pinning its hopes.

If the money is in broadcasting, then what underserved market is the XFL trying to capture?

It’s easy to look at the football landscape and think of the likes of Portland and Tulsa as the underserved markets; in a certain sense, that’s absolutely true. But that’s not the market the XFL is targeting: they’re chasing the 80 million fans, to cite Charlie Ebersol, that watch NFL and college football in the fall and then stop watching sports entirely until the next football season. It’s these consumers that are theoretically underserved for six months of the year, and they aren’t any better served in Tampa than they are in Orlando.

If the target consumers are television viewers, then what purpose do the home markets serve?

From this perspective, the home markets themselves serve a different purpose than just selling tickets and merchandise: the home markets’ primary role is to create a strong television product. There are a few ways that is accomplished:

Market Size and Out-of-Market Brand Awareness

By definition, this favors big markets.  The larger cities not only deliver eyeballs in their own market, but they’re also brands that people outside of the market are more likely to have strong feelings about. A given fan in, say, Boston is more likely to be able to get invested in a game involving a team from New York or Los Angeles than they would a team from Sacramento. Maybe they hate the Yankees, or maybe their wife is from Los Angeles. Statistically, a given person is more likely to have a connection to a larger market. These are fixed advantages for the big markets.

Regional Distribution and Television-Friendly Venue

Other things to consider are regional distribution (spacing your teams so as to cover as much of the country as possible) and having a venue that looks good on television. These are market-size neutral; neither big or small markets carry an inherent advantage.

Crowd density and energy level

Finally, you need a market that can fill your stadium and provide a energetic environment. Nobody knows better than WWE and Vince McMahon how much a “hot” crowd can improve the quality of a broadcast, and it’s here that the smaller markets get their chance to distinguish themselves: As the argument goes, a city without an NFL team could theoretically fill their stadium and create a wonderful backdrop for a broadcast. Meanwhile, a city with an NFL team might be apathetic, and the stands might remain empty.

So, should the XFL expect non-NFL markets to outperform NFL markets at the gate?

No! In fact, quite the opposite. The XFL has good reason to believe they’ll be able to draw just as well in NFL cities as they would in non-NFL cities, because that’s exactly what happened in 2001. NFL cities averaged 26,341 fans per game compared to the non-NFL cities’ average of 21,652. Those averages take into consideration Chicago, which finished last in the league in attendance thanks to the cold winter weather and an 0-5 start.

In Summary

  • The XFL’s goal is to make money, and the money in football is in broadcast rights.
  • This means the XFL is targeting television viewers without football to watch, not football fans without games to attend.
  • In turn, this means that the home markets are evaluated for their potential to create a strong television product.
  • Of the factors that go into to evaluating a market’s potential to contribute to a television product, the only area that a small market might even potentially hold an advantage is the ability to fill a stadium.
  • The XFL’s experience in 2001 instructs them that NFL markets will likely perform just as well, if not better, at the gate as non-NFL markets.

Bonus: Does the AAF have reason to believe that they will perform similarly well in NFL markets?

The AAF is following the same line of thought as the XFL: their path to profit also lies in broadcast revenue. But that league chose a less aggressive portfolio: two NFL cities (Atlanta and Phoenix) among its original eight markets. Why?

The AAF has another data point to consider. The first league to make a serious run after the XFL’s 2001 attempt was the UFL. They tried four of the best XFL markets (Las Vegas, New York, Orlando, San Francisco) in 2009 and got murdered at the gate. They eventually found a modest following in minor league cities such as Hartford, Omaha, and Virginia Beach before folding under a sea of debt.

There were many differences between the two — not the least of which was that the UFL inexplicably decided to run a fall schedule — but the biggest by far was the difference in the two league’s abilities to raise awareness. The XFL’s hype machine was basically so powerful that they lost control of it. The UFL couldn’t have generated a headline if their league’s life depended on it. Which it did.

The lesson to learn here is that you need to be strong enough to penetrate a major market. The XFL, thanks to the gravitas of WWE and Vince McMahon, was able to do it in 2001 and can be confident they can do it again in 2020. The UFL was not in 2009. The AAF is probably right to figure that it will land somewhere in the middle, which is why they chose a less aggressive starting position. But as the AAF’s status (hopefully) grows, I would fully expect that their expansion plans include moving up the food chain, not down.

Two ways the XFL can improve upon the AAF’s branding process

Splitting the work among local designers and executing an open branding process can both yield significant benefits.

The Alliance of American Football released the logos and color schemes for its first eight teams in a pair of unveilings on September 20 and September 25. Some turned out better than others, but rather than getting too deep into the weeds critiquing the individual logos, I would like to take a step back and examine the overall process the league used:

  1. Hire a designer
  2. Work privately with that designer to design all eight brands
  3. Release the final product to the public

This is the standard in the industry, so I hope nothing I write comes across as accusing the AAF of cutting corners. This was a professional, serious branding process, and after the UFL’s “effort” in 2009, that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

But as the XFL looks for ways to improve upon the AAF’s performance ahead of their own 2020 launch, I see two big opportunities for improvement:

Split the work among local designers

The biggest issue with the AAF’s work is that all eight logos are pretty clearly done by the same hand. The designer, Joe Bosack & Co., was eminently qualified and produced some strong work, but there’s a cost associated with the sameness. I talked a lot about this theme here, but to summarize: the fan-team connection is the foundation on which sports are built, and anything that makes the teams feel like units of the whole rather than independent clubs compromises that relationship.

The BIG3 made diversity a priority.

A better effort was executed by the BIG3. Creating unique identities was especially important for the 3-on-3 basketball venture, as the eight teams aren’t based in a single city but rather travel the country together. Both the designer, Todd Radom, and the founder, Ice Cube, spoke specifically to the importance of creating diversity in this June 2017 ESPN piece:

Another priority was avoiding the cookie-cutter look that often results when designing uniforms for an entire league at once. “The teams had to look separate,” said Radom. “They should look like each one came from a different designer, if possible, because each team deserved its own look, its own feel.”

“I wanted a mix of styles,” said Cube. “I wanted to start from old-time basketball, back when the game first started, all the way up to a modern look. What was cool about working with Todd is that he’s able to give you all those different styles, all those different eras of basketball.”

Taking this a step further would be actually contracting eight different designers to design the eight different logos, which guarantees authentic diversity in the look and feel of each team. And splitting the work allows for a final optimization: contracting local designers for each market. As critical decision on imagery and colors are made, working with firms based in the host cities gives a league the best chance of coming up with a brand that resonates with local fans and steers clear of stereotypes or misconceptions.

Precourt Sports Ventures turned to the Austin-based Butler Bros to design Austin FC

An example of this recently played out in Austin. Precourt Sports Ventures (PSV), the ownership group of the Columbus Crew, recently unveiled the name and badge for Austin FC ahead of its planned move to the Texas state capital. PSV eschewed national designers in favor of the Austin-based Butler Bros, whose portfolio includes local favorites like Tacodeli. The result has been an instant hit locally and helped bolster support ahead of a crucial Austin City Council vote that secured PSV’s right to build a new downtown stadium in the city. The local bona fides of the designer played a critical role in that reception.

Would the XFL consider it?

Branding is a hard process, and working with eight designers is much more complicated than working with just one. The temptation to keep all the art under one roof will be especially strong for the XFL, as they already have easy access to WWE’s fantastic arts department. The league would be wise to resist.

Execute an open branding process

Screen Shot 2018-09-29 at 10.57.41 AM
The Open Branding Project provided updates on the progress of Baseball New Zealand’s rebrand.

Providing public updates on the status of the branding process contravenes the standard practice of only releasing the final product, but this very concept was recently executed by designers Brian Gundell and Brandon Moore for their redesign of Baseball New Zealand. The duo provided frequent insights into the status of the project before eventually delivering the final product. From their initial post explaining the project:

We believe there are 3 factors that attribute to a poor launch of a brand identity … 1.) It comes as a surprise. 2.) There is poor communication about what honestly went into the work. 3.) The public only sees the final piece and never the process or thought that created it.That’s why [we] want to do what we do best all in the open. We’d like to go through an entire design project and put all that we do on a virtual wall for all to see, in hope of solving the mentioned issues.

I loved reading the Baseball New Zealand updates, but it was watching the AAF’s process play out that convinced me an open process is worth trying with a wider audience.

I receive email alerts from the AAF San Antonio Facebook page, and from the moment the city was announced as the league’s eighth city in June until the league unveiled the San Antonio Commanders name, logo, and colors in September, the chatter had been almost exclusively been of two types: potential players desperately trying to get a roster invite, and fans suggesting names, colors, and uniforms.

For over three months, the AAF didn’t engage with their fans in any way on the topic that was most meaningful to them. Now that it’s time to start moving ticket packages, the San Antonio Commanders need to recreate momentum that has been lost. Moreover, for fans who had their hearts set on a different name, colors, or imagery, the Commanders now need to overcome a sense of disappointment.

An open process addresses both of these points, making it a marketing and engagement strategy in and of itself. Fans are engaged on the exact topic that they are most invested in, and as critical early choices in the branding process are made, fans get insight into why a decision may have been made and a chance to make peace with it early.

Would the XFL consider it?

One of the biggest differences we’ve been able to observe thus far between the XFL and the AAF has been the former’s openness. While the AAF made its public debut as a mostly fully-formed idea in March, the XFL announced its intention to return over two years ahead of time with little more than the league name settled. The AAF did their brainstorming in private ahead of their big initial announcement, while the XFL has been giving the public small glimpses into the work of their Football Reimagined Committee.

As anyone who’s ever had to deliver an update on a big project can tell you, the updates themselves can be a fair amount of work. Exposing yourself to criticism at every step of the process can be draining, especially for a league like the XFL that will have so many critics salivating at the prospect of its failure. But the XFL has already demonstrated an inclination toward showing their work, so an open branding process could be a natural fit.

Pulling it all together

If the XFL acted on both suggestions, this would be the resulting process:

  1. Hire eight designers in each of the eight XFL cities
  2. Communicate frequently about the status of each branding process
  3. Finalize the design

There’s a cost associated with both concepts, but the XFL would be wise to balance that against the significant benefits of a branding process designed to cultivate the engagement between the fans and the teams. In the end, that relationship is what will determine the success of each individual team and, in turn, of the league as a whole.

Of Hurricanes and Homogeneity

Amidst a sea of standardized sports merchandise, the Carolina Hurricanes are dipping their toe into unique apparel.

Toward the end of this SportsLogos.net story about the Carolina Hurricanes owner soliciting fan feedback for a third logo was this tidbit (emphasis mine):

“We are revamping our apparel line to feature more than just some of the league-wide gear,” [Mike Forman, the Hurricanes Sr Director of Marketing & Brand Strategy], “We will be heading into year three of our ‘Homegrown Series’ which includes limited-edition t-shirts designed by t-shirt artists/vendors across the state. And we are working on both player-inspired and now fan-inspired merchandise.”

I hadn’t heard of the program, but a quick search revealed the program’s offerings for the 2017-18 season:

The Hurricanes Homegrown Series returns for the 2017-18 season and features seven games that showcase some of the best that our local community has to offer in t-shirts, food, beer & spirits, art and music.

Each game features a unique Hurricanes t-shirt designed and produced by one of these seven North Carolina clothing companies: Porch Fly Supply Co., Oak City Collection, Recover Brands, Runaway, Humbly Made, House of Swank and Asheville T-Shirt Co. Each shirt debuts at its corresponding Homegrown Game and is sold for $30 in the north end location of The Eye team store (section 112). Each shirt is produced in a limited quantity of 200 and is marked by a unique printed tag that denotes the game and shirt series.

A quick anecdote

Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, I was a huge Washington Redskins fan. The team wasn’t particularly good in the mid to late 1990s, but the memories of the glory years of Joe Gibbs’ first tenure with the team were fresh, and there was no shortage of Redskins gear at yard sales and gas stations. I couldn’t get my hands on enough of it.

Along the way, I somehow ended up with a t shirt that featured a cartoon collage of Redskins symbols and icons, among them a “Cowboys Suck” sign. Maybe not the classiest shirt ever made, but it was perfect for a 12 year old super fan. I loved it.

My memory is betraying me on the details, but the general gist is that I eventually saw another t shirt of the same format for another team. Instead of a Redskins t-shirt saying “Cowboys Suck,” it was a Cowboys t-shirt saying “Redskins Suck.” Same layout, same artist.

I remember feeling betrayed — the artist who made my t shirt didn’t love the Redskins. They couldn’t have. And if my shirt wasn’t a true symbol of love and support for my team, what was it?

A march toward homogeneity

One of the things that, in my opinion, plagues modern sports is the march toward homogeneity: clubs within a league (or even across leagues) increasingly looking and behaving like clones of the others. This extends to every facet of an organization (see CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrose’s mission to emulate the NBA’s model and standardize 80% of each team’s business plan) and is most readily apparent when it comes to a team’s art. Consider:

  • Bad: The NFL and NBA’s quiet efforts to have teams wear the same shade of a color to save on costs. For example, the Packers have the exact same shade of green as the Jets and shade of yellow as the Steelers on the Pantone Matching System.
  • Worse: MLB having each team wear the same color scheme for holidays and the same uniform template for Player’s Weekend games.
  • Worst: The WNBA dressing each team in the exact same uniform template.

This is all done with good reason: duplicating uniform templates and business plans, including merchandising, saves costs and (theoretically) ensures that each unit of the whole will be adhering to best practices. But for me, at least, my connection is to the team, and pushing a team away from an independent club and toward just a unit of a whole chips away at that foundation.

Now, I’m keenly aware that catering to my personal whims is not always (or even often) a sound businesses strategy, and the numbers seem to back up the practice of standardization. The NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL have all reached new heights in franchise value and merchandise revenue in recent years. It’s hard to argue that the system isn’t working.

But anecdotally, I know I’m not alone in my distaste for the trend toward homogeneity, and I’ve recently stumbled onto an argument that might back that up.

A business case for putting design first

I’m currently reading Tom Peter’s book “The Excellence Dividend: Meeting the Tech Tide with Work That Wows and Jobs That Last.” Peters, in turn, appears to have read every book ever written, and he quotes a passage from Kevin Roberts’ book “Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands.”

Shareholders very seldom love the brand they have invested in. And the last thing they want is an intimate relationship. They figure this could warp their judgement. They want measurability, increasing returns (always) and no surprises (ever). Imagine a relationship with someone like that!

No wonder so many brands lost the emotional thread that had led them to their extraordinary success and turned them into the metric-munchers of the lowest kind. Watch for the sign: Heads, not hearts, at work here …

Peters cites Apple, BMW, and Starbucks as companies who have benefited from prioritizing (and re-prioritizing) design over bottom line efficiency. The idea is that to keep the customers that made you a titan in the first place, you need to respect, cultivate, and nurture the things that made them fall in love with you in the first place.

What does that mean for a sports organization?

In sports, that first love will often be the relationship between a fan and a team. Speaking only for myself, my enthusiasm for sports gear was never really the same after that with my Redskins t-shirt. I support the team, but at an age when my disposable income has never been higher, the only article of Redskins clothing I actually own is a 1937 Turk Edwards replica jersey that I made myself. In many ways, I’ve been lost as a customer.

Does that translate to a larger group? The Hurricanes’ initiative provides an interesting test case, and the early results are encouraging. The Homegrown Series drew an encouraging average of 15,783 fans compared to 12,814 for the rest of the home slate last season. Whether that increase is enough to justify the efforts from a strict financial perspective, I don’t know (although I suspect it is). Regardless, I know no kid in Raleigh wearing one of those shirts will ever pass a Florida Panthers fan on the street and suddenly feel like a sucker. I think that’s an investment in your brand worth making.

More football is good for football

Leagues like the AAF and XFL won’t just be fun while they last; the sport will reap the benefits of their efforts for decades.

Smart Football’s Chris B. Brown recently shared on Twitter a highlight video of the offense New York/New Jersey Knights of the World League of American Football (1991-1992). The team was coached by Mouse Davis, one of the patron saints of the Run and Shoot offense, and quarterbacked by the current coach of the reinging Super Bowl champions, Doug Pederson.

The video reminded me of another WLAF anecdote, this from S.C. Gwynne’s fantastic book The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football, which details the rise of the Hal Mumme, Mike Leach, and the Air Raid offense. Mumme was the head coach of NAIA’s Iowa Wesleyan with Leach as his assistant, and the two spent the 1991 offseason picking the brains of other coaches around the country. The road trip included a stop to see CFL legend and coach of the brand-new Orlando Thunder Don Matthews, known to fans as simple “The Don.”

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