Throwback Uniforms – a Case for Authenticity in Big Business

I was reading a great column by Paul Lukas on ESPN Playbook regarding the upcoming changes in college football uniforms, and it occurred to me that the college football world must have been reading our work on authenticity in marketing.  Well, maybe they just share the same strategic POV – that authenticity is resonating strongly with the consumer – but I’ll let you decide.  Hear me out:

In a season of 12 games and a Bowl, The University of Texas Longhorns generated football revenue of close to $100 million. To put it in perspective, the program hauls in over $125,000 for every minute that ticks off the clock.  College football is big business, and like all thriving businesses is driven by marketing.

The uniform is the packaging for these brands and changing successful packaging can backfire. So why are football programs, some of them over 100 years old, changing their uniforms?

It’s true that more uniform options generally mean more gear for sale. There is a reason Nike, Adidas and Under Armour spend millions sponsoring college football programs – it drives the purchase of jerseys and apparel by the fans in the stands.

It’s also true that packaging isn’t just about the fans, it impacts the players, too. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen is on the record as saying (about uniforms), “It’s recruiting.  Why is everyone doing it?  Because the kids want it.  It’s television and marketing and the kids get excited…”

But there seems to be an additional reason: many of these uniforms are displaying their team history. Schools like Texas and Alabama have always had a classic look throughout their long history, reminding us of their stability as powerhouses…and throwback uniforms are hardly a new phenomenon. When we look at these uniforms as packaging of the product, we start to see a school of thought that calls attention to the roots of the team – an authentic movement.

The throwback uniform can divert from just picking an old scheme. Schools like Wisconsin and Nebraska have classic looks as well, but are taking it one step further by creating a throwback letterman-style look.

Iowa is going with a true throwback concept for their game against rival Iowa State this year.  In this case, it honors a specific season, the 1921 campaign. The throwback uniforms represent an undefeated Iowa team, and draw current fans into the team’s history of greatness over the past (near) century.

An authentic throwback doesn’t have to go back that far; this year Southern Miss will have the option of helmets hearkening back to the 1970s, giving older fans a sense of familiarity while giving younger fans a fresh new look.

The authentic movement in college football uniforms draws on the teams’ past accomplishments and a sense of history and pride – marketing messaging in which we strongly believe.