Look better, play better?

New star, new city, new ownership, new push from fans – why do professional teams remodel their 'look'? A glimpse inside the iconography and visual culture of sports apparel.

When the Atlanta Hawks visited the Boston Celtics Nov. 9, the main story line was the one making headlines since before the pro basketball season began: the rise of a new Boston Big Three – with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen flanking long-solo star Paul Pierce.

But the game – a 106-83 Celtics win – also showcased a major piece of re-branding work: Atlanta hit the famous parquet court wearing navy blue rather than the red, white, and gold that defined the team's identity from the early 1970s through the high-flying Dominque Wilkins era and beyond.

The makeover, two years in the planning, addresses a "perception problem" that has dogged the Hawks in recent years, says Lou DiPaoli, a senior executive with Atlanta Spirit, the team's branding arm. He says this year's unveiling, the 10th image tweak since the Hawks moved from St. Louis in 1968, should coincide with the team's resurgence and help boost attendance and revenues.

In hockey, the NHL's Ottawa Senators rolled out an updated logo this year: The Roman soldier the team had used since 1992 was given more of a "game face."

Just two variations on a rebranding exercise that's repeated often and for a variety of reasons – new star, new city, new ownership, new push from fans – across all major pro sports leagues. Expect it to accelerate as the iconography and visual culture of sports draws more attention in an age of high-definition broadcasts, design awareness among fans, and a demand for wow-factor wares for the $15 billion business of replica sports apparel.

"A hundred years ago, a team might have worn a certain color because the local sporting-goods guy said 'Hey, we've got a special on the maroon,' " says Paul Lukas, an ESPN columnist who also writes a startlingly detailed blog called "Uni Watch." "Most sports teams came up with their own logos and trim designs," he says. "[And] there was no merchandising. You couldn't go and buy a Yankees cap or jersey if you wanted to."

Who chooses the blue?

Today, of course, such sales are one major driver of redesign. In each sport, image adjustment comes out of a conceptual churn among the league, individual teams, and sports-apparel firms. It taps focus groups and color forecasters. Experts debate which of those entities holds the most sway, just as they weigh in on the aesthetic hits and misses.

"Sometimes a franchise in any sport will just make a completely clean break," says Todd Radom, a freelance graphic designer whose work includes recent Super Bowl logos and the Fenway Park 90th-anniversary piece. He cites the Memphis Grizzlies basketball team as a franchise that donned new uniforms upon arrival in a new city. "They came up with something very nice, visually, and that I think has some staying power," he says.

ESPN's Mr. Lukas points to a lowlight in uniform changes. "To me," he says, "one of the worst ones was what the Denver Broncos did when they went away from their Orange Crush look and went with that Nike-fied sort of horns coming up the side of the jersey, which at the time was going to portend a new generation of football-uniform design."

In cases like Atlanta's, where the aim is to face down a "culture of losing," team brass typically decide it's time for change, says Christopher Arena, an NBA vice president who oversees apparel. The league and Adidas – the apparel giant that recently swallowed Reebok – then weigh in, he says. Time it right, and you've got a LeBron James bursting onto the scene flying the new colors, as happened for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003.

Others see it as being short of collaborative. "If, 30 years ago, the San Diego Padres wanted a new look, there were unique considerations made to the local market and what they could get their hands on," says Mr. Radom. The power of leagues and manufacturers today, he says, makes for a tail wagging the dog.

"Part of the story is about the shift from external [branding] companies being involved to Reebok really being the barometer of fashion on sports teams because of their stranglehold on licenses," says Tom O'Grady, who heads Gameplan Creative, a Chicago firm that has repositioned teams in several leagues.

"We never push [teams] to do anything," says Travis Gonzolez, a spokesman for Adidas in Portland, Ore. "We say 'We can be a partner, we can help with design.' "

Mr. O'Grady knocks the overuse of throwback jerseys, an NBA theme this season, as "a straight merchandising ploy." He calls himself a traditionalist who favors tweaking fonts or piping to blink-and-it's-different change. O'Grady describes such fads as the "teal bandwagon" that crossed basketball, baseball, and hockey (with the Hornets, Marlins, and Sharks, respectively). He decries some newer trends.

"The [Colorado] Rockies running out [for some World Series games] with the black-on-black vests was brutal-looking," he says. "The black alternative uniform is probably the scourge of what I've seen in my 15 years of experience across sports."

O'Grady says he wouldn't mind seeing a rumored reprise of the Kansas City Royals' light-blue road uniforms from the George Brett days come to pass. While he sees the point of uniform updates, O'Grady says he'd like it to involve careful consideration of tradition.

In fact, "older teams [like the NFL's Cleveland Browns] tend not to mess around as much," says Lukas. Newer teams, he says, especially ones formed in the past 15 "era of merchandising" years, haven't established an aesthetic heritage, and perhaps never will.

"The Arizona Diamondbacks had a completely new design this year," Lukas points out. "On Monday their colors were X, Y, and Z, and on Tuesday they were one, two, and three. And I think newer teams like that are going to change all the time ... because they're just part of an era where it's a given that your look is going to change with contemporary fashion – not so much because that's how you want to look on the field, but because that's what people want to buy."

Capturing a city's vibe

Designers have had help crafting intricate and clever. Perhaps too much.

In the 1990s many designers switched from working freehand to using Macintosh computers, says Radom. "Things got sort of out of hand in terms of the level of detail in these identities," he says. "I think the overall trend now is a sort of a return to simplification."

Radom enjoys the fact that, for example, St. Louis is a very different city from Boston or Los Angeles. "It's really [important] to come up with something that is locally evocative." As hot a color as light blue is, he says – think Denver Nuggets or San Diego Chargers – "you would not want to impose a powder blue on the Boston Bruins."

Different sports have developed distinct visual traditions. Baseball's visuals are deeply rooted. Football is loaded with traditional Packers and Giants looks. "In the NBA it's a fast-moving game," says Radom. "The physical demands … offer up a different dynamic."

Gameplan's O'Grady expects continued focus on the "performance attributes" of jerseys – good fit, a smart use of lightweight new materials. "That's more the measure of success, rather than what's the latest in teal. Make sure players like playing in it." But designers will also keep in mind those tribal hordes of fans.

Radom reflects on a successful logo designed for UPS by the great Paul Rand, and gently tweaked over the years. Then he compares it with the unique challenges of the sports-logo world. "Nobody ever went out in public," he says with a laugh, "and painted a UPS logo on his body."

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