The NFL’s Partnership with Nike Has Inspired Some Bolder Changes in Its First Five Years
For 30 of the NFL’s 32 team fan bases, it’s the offseason already. The focus is on what your favorite team could do to improve their performance and identity on the field next season.
But for several teams, there’s also the business side of improving the identity of the team. Sometimes this can go hand in hand with the football side. Sometimes, that identity can leave fans just as frustrated.
Today in the NFL, these changes have been further encouraged by the involvement of league partner, Nike, since 2012. What’s gone right under Nike? What leaves us wanting? What happened before Nike?
We reached out to a number of experts in logos and brand identity for some of their thoughts on the past and future of brand and visual identity changes for NFL teams and explored how teams can make these changes.
THE WORLD OF NFL IDENTITY CHANGES BEFORE NIKE
There are teams that have maintained the same, basic look for well over a half-century. The Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, and others come to mind in thinking of a more timeless brand identity.
The lone star adorns the Cowboys helmet. Vince Lombardi’s famous “G” for greatness rests on Green Bay’s. Even Bubbles the Lion has been on Detroit helmets in some fashion since the 1960s. Their business side need not worry about that part of their identity.
Not every franchise has such a look…or one that might create a fan revolt if they tried to change it.
Over the years, NFL rebrands have either tried to modernize a look or completely overhaul it. Sometimes, the rebrands were attempting to jump-start a floundering team on the field. Other times, teams were in the middle of success.
Let’s take a look at examples of each.
Entering the early 1980s, the Cincinnati Bengals had failed to produce much success on the field since their founding. Paul Brown took to Cincinnati and immediately created an identity similar to what the Browns had built under him in Cleveland with orange helmets designed to aid the quarterback looking down the field.
In 1981, the team switched from an orange helmet with the word “Bengals” plastered over it to today’s unique, striped orange helmet. Strangely enough, their fortunes turned around on the field right away.
After defeating the Chargers in freezing temperatures to win the AFC Championship, they played in Super Bowl XVI against Joe Montana’s San Francisco 49ers and made another Super Bowl appearance at the end of the decade as well.
Todd Radom (@toddradom) of Todd Radom Design has worked in sports branding and design for a quarter century. When we asked him about his favorite brand change in the NFL, he saw the Bengals as most notable.
“This may be an outside of the box opinion, but the Bengals’ 1981 helmet and uniform change comes to mind first. They went from a bland, vanilla look to something truly ownable and noteworthy. The uniform has been degraded in the years since, but that first iteration was a brilliant one, way ahead of its time. The helmet communicates the franchise identity seamlessly and effectively. A winning tradition would have helped elevate this in the public consciousness.”
Not all fans of this year’s Super Bowl participant, New England, remember the old Pat the Patriot logo on a white helmet with a striped red jersey at the shoulders.
The Patriots made one Super Bowl appearance in the old uniforms, but fell on hard times behind less memorable quarterbacks, such as Hugh Millen and Scott Zolak. That was until Robert Kraft bought the team from Victor Kiam and hired Bill Parcells in 1993.
That year, the Patriots conducted a dramatic rebrand to their “Flying Elvis” Patriots logo on a silver helmet with blue jerseys. The look also welcomed new quarterback Drew Bledsoe, and within a few years, Parcells led them to a Super Bowl appearance in 1996.
It would not be until Tom Brady’s arrival with Bill Belichick in 2000 that the look (and another adjusted uniform) became as cemented in the minds of football fans, but the dramatic branding change paid off in New England.
In the middle of the 1980s, things were so bad in Tampa that a local media outlet took a survey to determine which NFL team locals should consider rooting for instead of the Buccaneers (FYI, the Browns were the winner).
The “Bucco Bruce” logo of a swashbuckler with a sword in his mouth and creamsicle orange jerseys didn’t quite inspire fear and neither did the team’s play.
Enter new owner Malcolm Glazer, new head coach Tony Dungy, and the color known as pewter. The “Pewter Pirates” suddenly sported a large red pirate flag on the pewter helmet and a team muddled in failure for 15 years became a consistent playoff participant through winning Super Bowl XXXVII under Jon Gruden.
In these cases, the teams rode significant branding changes from rags to riches.
Two other teams made major changes while on top of the world.
The Denver Broncos logo and “orange crush” persona were so iconic, that the horse in the middle of the D on their helmet came from not just the top of Mile High Stadium’s scoreboard—“Bucky Bronco” was actually a model cast from Roy Rogers’ horse, Trigger.
Denver had been a top-tier AFC franchise since John Elway’s arrival, but they had gone 0-for-4 in the Super Bowl to match the dubious achievements of the Vikings and Bills at the time.
The first year the team switched to the dramatic rebranded horse head along with the navy uniforms (fueled by design from Nike), they erased that tradition of losing the big game and claimed the first of their two back-to-back titles.
In 1999, Trent Green went down with a season-ending injury for the St. Louis Rams in the preseason, and well, the rest is history. Kurt Warner’s improbable story resulted in a title, but the following year, the Rams ditched their bright blue and yellow colors they brought with them from the Golden State to wrap themselves in Y2K with Millennium Blue and New Century Gold.
They went right back to the Super Bowl after a year and fell short to New England, but the bold move caught the eye of Chris Creamer (@sportslogosnet), who is well known for his work for two decades on SportsLogos.net, a comprehensive database of sports logos for all things sports.
“At the time I was a big fan of the change the St. Louis Rams made to their logo and color scheme, back around the turn of the century. It seems odd to have this opinion now with everything retro being big, but by the late 1990s that yellow and blue of the Rams was aging poorly and needed an update bad – a switch to navy blue and gold while maintaining the classic horns and introducing the modern rams head logo was great for the era. It hasn’t stood up to the test of time (the color scheme, that is… the logo is doing just fine) and it could stand an update now, but as far as a classic look getting an update in 2000 that was a good way to go.”
“My favorite logo change of all time is a completely biased one, but I believe is still worthy of mention: the Arizona Cardinals rebrand in 2005. I’ve been a die-hard Cardinals fan since the late ‘60s, and what makes that particular change so perfect (in my eyes), was the fact that they created a logo that completely modernized the look, while still preserving the tradition of the primary mark. Most people noticed the corresponding uniform changes, but were somewhat unaware of the logo change. Put them side-by-side and you can easily see the differences, but on the field, they still look like the Cardinals.”
These days, there are fans of some teams who would long for such an incremental change.
An incremental change wasn’t on the mind of two NFL teams who were quite successful in the 1980s and 1990s.
The San Francisco 49ers unveiled a “49ers” helmet in 1991 that replaced the “SF” they had won four Super Bowls with and scrapped it six days later.
Also in the 1990’s, the Miami Dolphins had prepared a very avant-garde design that would be a violent shock to the system for most Dolphins fans that was dismissed before any public unveiling.
Even the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns kicked around prototype helmets in the 1960’s with logos that would stun many fans that weren’t aware.
It’s not that teams didn’t try major rebrands prior to Nike’s work with the NFL…
NFL IDENTITY CHANGES UNDER NIKE
After replacing Reebok as the NFL’s exclusive manufacturer in 2012, Nike sought to bring with them some of the same revolutionary branding they had created for universities, such as Oregon.
At first, the only team in the Pacific Northwest tried Nike’s magic. In the following years, teams became bolder.
NFL Rebrands by Year under the Nike agreement:
- 2012: Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Seattle Seahawks
- 2013: Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings
- 2014: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- 2015: Cleveland Browns
- 2017: Detroit Lions
While some were more modest upgrades and modernization of the brand, others were much more dramatic. Seattle, Jacksonville, Miami, Tampa Bay and Cleveland are generally considered to be among the greatest changes in terms of rebrands in this group.
SportsLogos.net’s Chris Creamer saw the perks of teams trying to be bold in utilizing Nike for rebrands so far as well as the drawbacks teams have faced.
“Nike taking over the NFL has led to some interesting and out-of-the-box designs – their Miami redesign would’ve worked if the team was an expansion franchise, but alas a history (with championships) is involved there, so it changes how one perceives it. I can’t say I was much of a fan of what they did with Cleveland, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville, but I’m never going to fault a company for trying something new, I’m just not necessarily a fan of the result.”
On the other hand, fan sentiment seemed to applaud redesigned uniforms in Seattle. It certainly didn’t hurt that the team has since experienced success in them with a Super Bowl title and two appearances coinciding with the Russell Wilson era in 2012.
However, as Creamer noted, some fans in places like Cleveland and the three Florida teams have been less receptive. A visit to some of the pages of the SportsLogos.net Forum section of his site will often find discussions about the two-toned Jaguars helmet and the appeal of the Dolphins’ throwback jerseys as examples of fans hoping for change already.
Todd Radom sees some improvement in the work Nike has done as the contract has aged along with some opportunities ahead to improve their work:
“It’s still early, but Nike has corrected some egregious mistakes, particularly with regard to neck trim. I think it’s safe to assume that we will begin to see a wave of changes next year and beyond, so the jury is still out as far as I’m concerned.”
Those windows for change of the initial teams to rebrand under Nike are now starting open.
As noted, Nike’s contract with the NFL began in 2012. According to the NFL Constitution and Bylaws, teams essentially must wait five years after a change in branding to try again.
NFL Constitution and Bylaws Article XIX 19.9
It’s not just the five-year waiting period, though. Besides the notification of March 1, of the year prior, it takes two years just to design a new uniform as noted in a report published by CBS Sports last year that dealt with dissatisfaction around the Cleveland Browns uniforms.
Cleveland will have to start the process now, but still wait until 2020 to see the finished product. However, fans in Jacksonville and Miami are eligible this upcoming season—provided that pre-work has gone in.
So what is sparking all this fan interest in uniforms and logos? Is it just Nike?
Again, we reached out to our experts for their thoughts on the evolution of fan interest in team branding elements.
From Todd Radom’s perspective, he noted, “Some folks have always cared about this stuff, but the sheer number of uniforms that are trotted out these days and the marketing behind them has really ramped up interest tremendously. There was a time when NFL uniforms were, for the most part, functional and very utilitarian. Third jerseys, the use of throwbacks and, yes, ‘Color Rush’—have all helped to ramp up fan interest.”
Chris Creamer remembers an earlier time that piqued his interest, sharing as follows, “Pre-internet, I just presumed I was the only person in the world who cared about the uniforms being worn. I’d point out the throwback helmets and jerseys during the NFL 75th anniversary games in 1994 and the others in the room would usually respond with ‘huh, I didn’t even notice.’
The internet changed all of that when I discovered that there were plenty others just like me and they all thought they were all alone in their interest. The explosion of interest is fantastic for me because I run a site dedicated to this topic, but I also wonder if it puts too much pressure on teams to tinker with their look and to try and come up with a reason for every little design element perhaps complicating a design.
Back in the day, a team would have two stripes on each sleeve and it wouldn’t be for some manufactured reason, it’d be because it looked better that way.”
To Creamer’s point, when the MLS’s Columbus Crew SC rebranded back in 2015, they actually identified six separate elements to a simple soccer roundel.
So, these days, fans don’t take rebrands that lightly as evidenced by the infamous one-day L.A. Chargers logo last year that involved the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Lightning exploring their relationship dynamic on Twitter and sparked a quick retraction.
LOOKING AHEAD TO CHANGES IN 2018 AND BEYOND
So, what’s on the horizon in the NFL?
As already noted, the Jaguars and Dolphins are eligible to make a change—as are any teams that have not made a change since 2013.
Tennessee Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk confirmed last training camp in an interview with The Tennessean what had been rumored previously, that the Titans would be changing uniforms (and likely helmets) for 2018. She went on to add that the changes are “not minor.”
Amy Adams Strunk just told me the #Titans plan to have a big shindig to unveil new uniforms in April.
— Paul Kuharsky (@PaulKuharskyNFL) January 22, 2018
In fact, Titans fans need to ready themselves for this in April. Back in Jacksonville, one of the newly eligible teams to make a change appears ready to take another swing for the fences with Nike.
The Titans aren’t the only fan base that can look forward to this upcoming April.
As rumored last year and confirmed this week by Mark Long of the Associated Press, the Jaguars will have new helmets in 2018 and will feature more teal in their uniforms in a redesigned look. The impetus here might be the team’s former coach now serving in the front office—Tom Coughlin.
Say goodbye to this piece of (art). The Pro Bowl will be the final game for Jaguars in the widely mocked, two-tone helmet pic.twitter.com/4C3p2awA2Z
— Mark Long (@APMarkLong) January 28, 2018
Chris Creamer agrees with the suspected changes ahead with the Jaguars.
“The Jacksonville Jaguars need to re-embrace the teal part of their identity; I realize the Dolphins use something similar in-state, but there’s nothing necessarily special about this club wearing black and gold (also… Saints?), not to mention that gimmicky helmet. One of those designs folks will look back on ten years from now with a chuckle, and twenty years from now with a ‘they need to bring it back!’”
So, we have two teams making changes to their identity this offseason.
What else would our experts like to see?
For Donovan Moore of ColorWerx, it’s cleaning up some aspects of “America’s Team.”
“My most hoped for uniform change is one a lot of uniform aficionados have been waiting for: the Dallas Cowboys. Although they made a very subtle color change in 2012 to match the helmet color to the road pant color (at least in print – the helmets used to be Silver-Blue), they are still using Silver and Navy helmets with White, Royal Blue and Silver-GREEN pants at home (yes, they are officially called Silver-Green). I truly believe they could easily standardize the color scheme without too much of an uproar from the traditionalists.”
Todd Radom looked ahead to two teams rumored to be targeting notable changes in 2020.
“Let’s start with the Rams, who are a disjointed mess. Then we can shift our attention to Cleveland, a franchise that needs to blow many things up and start anew—and yes, this sentiment applies to their on-field look too.”
The Orange County Register confirmed last year that the Rams have begun the process of making the change, but have yet to decide when. Originally, they were to change uniforms to coincide with moving into their new stadium in Inglewood, Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park. However, with the project delayed by a year, the Rams may very well give the new uniforms the same fate.
Perhaps the Rams will return to something closer to their look when in Los Angeles most recently? Don’t get Rams fans started…
There are a whole host of possible changes and tweaks diehard fans have thought about that weren’t even mentioned.
Occasionally discussion will arise topics like the Philadelphia Eagles and Kelly green uniforms (owner Jeffrey Lurie has said he’d love to see this). Additionally, the Denver Broncos and the old bronco in the D logo on helmets occasionally will arise as a possible change (Color Rush helmets tried this the last two years).
After all, beyond the traditional uniforms, teams can experiment further with throwbacks and now Color Rush uniforms to stir the imagination and support of fans.
Branding and identity are big business.
So, it’s the offseason again for most teams, and all hope springs eternal for next season.
What can we expect? We’ll know soon enough.
…and for other teams that won’t see April showers bring new branding flowers, it’s another opportunity to stir up more and more interest in their team’s identity and only increase awareness of branding, uniforms, and logos.