I’m not the first person to complain about the grey Super Rugby strips, and I won’t be the last. I do, however, need to provide two caveats before going any further.
- I am no fashionista.
- I am not a diehard Super Rugby follower.
It’s that last point which is the most pertinent in this discussion. After a weekend away from most sporting results, it was the TV sports news which brought me up to play with games I’d missed, which is really all I need – especially during cricket season. I don’t need to watch three or four games a week, I just need to know who won. The problem was, as someone with a loose, but strong-enough-to-know-who’s-who interest, I couldn’t tell which team I was looking at.
This is a problem for viewers, but it’s also a problem for the organisation. In these jerseys, they lose their identity.
Uniforms are arguably the strongest tangible element of a sporting brand. They make teams instantly identifiable and give a fanbase something to attach themselves to. When you think of the biggest sporting franchises in the world – think LA Lakers, Manchester United, the All Blacks – uniforms and colours are undoubtably the picture that comes to mind. Replicas are sold worldwide as fans and aspiring players are desperate to show their affinity and association to the team. Even those not overly interested in sports can relate to the colour and style of a uniform and logo – they’re easy to relate to and understand.
There’s no other way to describe these grey abominations than diluting the franchises’ brand. Your brand is meant to be unique, distinctive. Something which is yours, and consequently, your fans’. One of the most powerful brands in the world doesn’t even need their name to evoke association – just the golden arches. Your opinion of that brand, favourable or otherwise, is instantaneous upon seeing that logo. In Super Rugby this year, that connection is muddied (the most appropriate word given the murky dishwater palette) – these alternate strips are missing the red, yellow, blue or black which defines them, just a prison-wall grey with the odd ‘stylistic feature’. Lost in that is your team’s identity, history and messaging, not only to those who may not know who you are, but it also sends a complicated message to those who thought they knew it inside out. Imagine being a player on debut, fizzing to pull on the storied Hurricanes jersey, only to debut in a strip which looks generic and bland.
As baffling a decision as it may seem, it has a very simple explanation. Money. Adidas has the rights to the New Zealand Rugby jerseys, and with that I’m sure comes surrendering a lot of money for the privilege. Of course the return in generated sales across the range of franchise and national jerseys would be worth it for the manufacturer, but other than a financial windfall, what’s in it for the franchises? They become silenced partners to the ‘creative’ whims of the manufacturer’s design team, who supplement the kit with the most hilariously superfluously-worded press releases to generate ‘hype’.
Rugby are not on an island here. Cricket in this country went through its own colour identity crisis, before settling on black, with ‘ironic’ throwback releases. The worst offenders are the Warriors, who are partially at the ransom of the NRL and its various ‘celebration rounds’. The numerous jerseys released each year – Heritage round, Indigenous round, Women in League round – plus a training strip, a Nines version, and the standard home and away kits, create a technicolour crowd. Look around the stands and you see highlighter orange, pink, grey, black, blue. There’s no wall of one colour – an instantly-recognisable home crowd section. And perhaps that’s less important in a two-thirds empty Mt Smart Stadium. But in a full Staples Center, Old Trafford or Eden Park, stands full of a uniting colour brings an atmosphere and collectivity which strengthens and passes on a passion for the home team, and a visually-intimidating backdrop for the opposition.
This piece, and our collective moaning on social media or talkback isn’t going to change anything. The alternate jerseys exist and will continue to be used, out of spite and/or hope that familiarity will breed acceptance. But for sporting organisations who live and breathe ‘brand’, using everything from hashtags to sponsorships to style of play to build and maintain consumer affections, you wonder if there’s a tipping point in the balance of revenue against brand dilution.
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