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.