Owner Jimmy Haslam recently informed the NFL that the Browns are exploring possible changes to their iconic uniforms. It is a league procedure to make the notification, and part of that means the earliest a change can occur is 2014.
Paul Lukas, who writes a column for ESPN.com on uniform designs called Uni Watch and is the foremost follower of uniform changes, said much of the feedback he has received from Browns fans has been resistant to a change.
As Lukas said, much of that derives from the team keeping its colors and history in Cleveland after the late Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore after the 1995 season.
“Let’s remember, in terms of conservatism and sticking with what one has, this is a team that pretends it is another franchise,” Lukas said. “This team, and the league, has created this fiction, this fantasy, that this team is still the old team that moved away. That’s the fairy tale that gets told. When they assume that role, they’re stuck with that uniform.”
There’s also a reason the change won’t be taking place during the 2013 season, as some might have expected. Brian McCarthy, vice president of corporate communications for the NFL, said a lot of care goes into the design process. In a sense, the goal is to get it right rather than get it right now.
“[Those making the new design] will analyze it from a number of different perspectives,” McCarthy said. “They’ll look at it from the perspective of the fans and how it looks from every seat in the stadium, they’ll show what it looks like on TV and do TV testing. ... It’s a lengthy process. That’s where the time lapse is.”
There are things the Browns can do to retain tradition while ushering in a new look. Lukas suggests a more prominent role for Brownie the Elf on the new uniforms (the helmet would have been the best placement for this, but the Elf could be placed on the shoulder or hip) or a change in stripes or pant color. One of the biggest requests he receives from Browns fans, he said, is the return of the orange pants, made famous in large part thanks to Brian Sipe and the Kardiac Kids.
Another option is using a less traditional font with the jersey numbers, much like what the Pittsburgh Steelers did in the late ’90s.
“I would say the block numbers are very Cleveland. I can tell you when the Steelers went away from the block numbers and switched to the rounded italic fonts in the late ’90s, I still get emails from Steelers’ fans,” Lukas said. “They would say, ‘This isn’t what the Steelers are about, it [the font] is too slick.’?”
Vince Quevedo is an associate professor of fashion design at Kent State University, which was recently ranked as the No. 3 fashion school in the country by Fashionista.com. Quevedo said the most important thing the Browns can do when redesigning their uniforms is to keep a firm grasp on their identity.
“It can’t be so drastic of a change that no one will know who they are,” Quevedo said. “This is a very competitive field where there is a lot of body contact. The uniform has to appear menacing and strong.”
Superstition can also play a large part in a team’s uniform design.
“For example, the University of Nebraska had a very winning team in the ’80s, and they had this one helmet that they used. Well, in subsequent years they changed it. And then their luck changed. They soon went back to that winning helmet,” Quevedo said. “A lot of teams want to go back to what they were wearing when they were at their best. Sometimes that hinders the design. If they don’t want to change the helmet, then I would imagine they wouldn’t make such a big change in the uniforms either.”
Nancy Stanforth, associate professor of fashion merchandising at Kent State University, believes that change is about increments.
“Dramatic differences can alienate those who are committed fans,” Stanforth said. “Fresh and tradition must be blended. Much of what we see today in traditional looks that have been updated to contemporary standards is simplicity, cleaner lines and clearer graphics. Logos seem to become more graphic and simpler with each update.”
When it comes to revealing the change to fans, Stanforth knows that there are always going to be people who don’t want change.
“Uniform changes generally are not a make-or-break for fans. They love the players and the team and that will continue,” Stanforth said. “What it does do is generate discussion, which whether positive or negative, is good. Marketers always prefer positive, but negative comments demonstrate passion and commitment. They [the Browns] need to emphasize that the uniforms are fan-driven.”
Stanforth doesn’t believe that new is necessarily better either.
“New is about being somewhat tired of what is current and looking for a bit of excitement in the new.”
Sports writer Ryan Lewis contributed to this report. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns.