Since buying the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars last year for $770 million, auto-parts billionaire Shahid Khan has been trying to revive one of the NFL's worst teams. He's brought in new coaches and players. He's upgraded team facilities and added fan amenities. And this fall, he's sending the Jags onto the field with a dramatic new look: a menacing logo, a striking two-tone helmet, and a completely redesigned jersey. "It's got to look cool," Khan says of the attire. "We want to signify this is a new direction, a fresh start. We need more fans."
Overhauling uniforms as a way to amp up enthusiasm and merchandise sales is an increasingly popular strategy in the pro-sports world. In recent years, teams such as the NBA's Brooklyn Nets, MLB's Toronto Blue Jays, and the NFL's Seattle Seahawks have generated buzz with eye-catching reboots, and the pace of such face-lifts only seems to be increasing. "Redesigns have always been a part of sports, but things are different now," says Paul Lukas, creator of Uni Watch, a popular blog that covers "athletics aesthetics." For one thing, there's more at stake: Annual merchandise revenue for the NFL, MLB, and NBA is at record levels, with the NFL alone raking in an estimated $9.5 billion in total revenue. And teams must now work harder than ever to attract fans' endlessly divided attention.
For the Jaguars' redesign, Khan worked with Nike, which last year began making NFL uniforms as part of a reported $1.1 billion deal that lasts through 2016. (The company is also behind the less-bold 2013 uniform tweaks for the Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings.) The goal was to create something flashy and different, but not too radical for either the team's supporters or the NFL, which has to approve all uniform-design changes (the league designs logos itself). "We err on the side of evolution, as opposed to revolution, which is where we have a healthy debate going with Nike," says Leo Kane, the NFL's senior vice president of consumer products. "We've encouraged them to push us."
- The helmet's unique design fades from matte black in front to shiny gold in the rear.
- Nike's Jags jersey is made out of high-tech stretch material that hugs the torso for a sleek look but still offers the necessary range of motion.
- An armed-forces-style badge is a nod to Jacksonville's sizable military community.
- The belt adds hidden padding, which could help players avoid hip pointers, a common injury.
- When a player interlaces his hands just the right way, the gloves create a single image, the team logo.
After the Jaguars requested a new look in March 2012, the NFL's marketing group and team officials got to work on a creative brief that would guide the process. "We explored, What is the essence of the brand?" says Kane. "What is the personality? What do fans think?" One of the new uniform's key elements is a military-style badge that's attached to the front of the new jersey—a nod to the 12% of Jacksonville's population with ties to the armed forces. The helmet, a groundbreaking design with a matte-black finish in front that fades into shiny gold in back, is meant to evoke the hunting style of a big cat, which stalks its prey in the shadows before pouncing. And the new team logo features a less-goofy jaguar head than the original, introduced in 1995. "We heard 'The cat has an overbite' or 'It looks like a cartoon,'" says the Jags' Khan. "You listen. That is vital. Where is the threshold where you hit some nerves and offend fans? You want to respect the history, even though it may be short."
That tension between tradition and originality is at the heart of most redesigns. Fans feel intense connections to their favorite teams, and the classic uniforms are intimately linked to cherished memories. For venerable mega-brands such as the Green Bay Packers and New York Yankees, that means you don't mess with the uniform—ever. But for most teams, the potential rewards outweigh the risks. And some of the more fashion-focused fans who covet fresh sports apparel think redesigns can't come fast enough. "You hear people [complain] their team has had the same uniform for three years," says Lukas. "Wow. Three whole years!"
A growing hunger for variety helps explain the proliferation of alternate and special-event jerseys, which let teams tweak their look without permanently affecting their brand. NFL and NBA franchises have increasingly embraced retro "throwback" jerseys, and the NHL and MLB have also experimented with limited-use designs. In fact, the NHL's one-off jerseys for its annual Winter Classic match-up are among its biggest sellers. And if there's a backlash (USA Today dubbed the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2012 historic duds "a bumblebee in a Depression-era chain gang"), at least the outcry is short-lived.
For Nike, avoiding that kind of negativity will be key. The company has already made noncosmetic changes to uniforms throughout the NFL, introducing new lightweight fabrics that create a more formfitting profile. Last season, it debuted its well-received first full overhaul, of the Seahawks. That revamp catapulted the team's apparel sales from near the bottom of the league into the top 15 (although having breakout rookie quarterback Russell Wilson didn't hurt either). "It's all about telling the story of a team [through design]," says Todd Van Horne, Nike's global creative director for football. "What sets them apart from the 31 other teams?" Nike is now working with more franchises that are considering changes, including the Cleveland Browns, one of the league's oldest teams—and, with those unadorned orange helmets, also one of its most visually staid.
Could a rethink of the Browns' look help dig them out of their 5-11 2012 season? Khan certainly hopes the Jaguars' style upgrade will help his win-starved team. "If fans buy the jerseys, wonderful," he says. "But we're using it to lift the spirit of the franchise." Ultimately, though, he understands that uniforms are just packaging; they can only do so much for a team that hasn't finished above .500 in six years. "When all is said and done," Khan says, "we have to win."
A version of this article appeared in the September 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.
Slideshow Credits: 01 / Photos by Kent Larsson; styling: Janine Iversen; 03 / Karl Roser; 06 / Image Courtesy of Nike; 09 / Image: Courtesy of Nike;