The YouTube clip begins to play and it kind of feels like you’re watching a home video of a family’s Christmas morning.
In this video, however, there are no wide-eyed children, evergreen trees, or sleep deprived moms and dads. Instead, there’s the Miami football team gathered at the Schwartz Center for Athletic Excellence, the program’s facility.
There are some presents waiting to be opened, though.
At the center of the meeting room filled with Hurricanes are four life-sized mannequins covered with white sheets, hiding the hottest toy available on the college football market: new uniforms.
As Miami’s equipment manager, David Case, uncovers the mannequins, revealing the threads the players will soon be donning, a joy fills the room seemingly only matched by that of a set of kids unwrapping gifts at daybreak on Dec. 25.
Outside of winning a championship or a game in heroic fashion, nothing carries as much excitement as a set of new jerseys, pants, and helmets.
Welcome to college football’s Uniform Age.
There are currently 128 programs playing college football at the FBS level. This season, at least 75 of those programs will be wearing a uniform different than the ones it wore in 2013.
It’s become more common to change a uniform than it is to maintain the same look.
“It’s amazing to me how many people care about uniforms,” Darren Rovell, a sports business reporter at ESPN, told College Spun. “There’s just so much talk and buzz.”
How’d we get here? What happened to the days of having one uniform for home games and one for road games, with potentially only the color of the jersey the difference between the two?
Most people will say it started with Oregon.
Situated in Eugene, a modestly sized city 60 miles east of the Pacific Ocean and west of the Cascade Mountains, Oregon is not based in an area ripe for producing a college football power. They don’t really play amateur football in the Beaver State. Not well, anyway. 247 Sports’ ranking of the top high school football players in the country in 2015 includes zero players from Oregon.
From 1920-96, Oregon won just two bowl games.
The Ducks, though, have become an elite program in the 21st century, winning 93 games over the last nine years. They’ll start this season with national title hopes, ranked in the top 10.
“It’s all about the uniforms,” Rachel Bachman, a former sports business reporter for the Oregonian now with the Wall Street Journal, told Grantland.
In 1997, Phil Knight, the founder of Nike and an Oregon alumnus, began funneling money into his alma mater’s program. The Ducks started sporting vibrant-colored uniforms with innovative designs and people—high school prospects, most notably—started paying attention to what was going on in Eugene, Ore.
— QuackCave (@QuackCave) December 20, 2013
Now, pretty much everyone is attempting to reap some—or all—of the same benefits Oregon’s football program has for the last decade-plus.
Those benefits come in three areas, mostly:
- Player Satisfaction
Show Me The Money
Oregon’s online store, shop.goducks.com, sells the team’s football jerseys. This year, there are 25 different No. 8 uniforms available. Marcus Mariota, the Ducks’ star quarterback, wears No. 8.
You don’t need to be a business expert to understand that having new uniforms—and, even better, a wide variety of new uniforms—is a good way for both the school and their sponsor (Nike, Adidas, Under Armour) to make money.
(And, to be fair, it’s a decent way to raise money for charity, too. Under Armour’s “Wounded Warrior” uniform series, for example, has raised millions of dollars for injured service members and their families.)
Money needs to be made. Apparel deals are a $100 million-plus business for collegiate athletics. Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour combined to pour more than $250 million into athletic programs in 2013. Being able to sell new uniforms is a solid way for the brands to make some of that back.
“The schools run it but the brands are definitely pushing for (new uniforms),” Rovell said.
Inserting new uniforms into a team’s wardrobe isn’t as easy a process for some schools as it was and continues to be for Oregon. The Ducks, prior to their collaboration with Nike, were a program with little tradition, little national recognition, and, most importantly in this scenario, a team with a fan base that cared little about its former uniforms.
— Patrick Maks (@maksimuspatrick) May 7, 2014
That’s not the case with the programs in the country deemed by most as “classic.” You simply can’t tell most fans, “here’s a new uniform, buy it, please.”
Ohio State fans love their scarlet jerseys and gray pants; Michigan fans adore their winged helmets; Nebraska fans cherish the simplicity of their scarlet and cream threads; Notre Dame fans worship their golden dome lids.
All of these programs are getting in on the new uniform action, though.
Nebraska will wear “Red Rising” uniforms against Illinois Sept. 27; Michigan will sport “Go Blue” uniforms Oct. 11 against Penn State; Notre Dame unveiled its “Shamrock Series” uniforms earlier this month; Ohio State has worn an alternate uniform for four consecutive years against Michigan.
Here’s this year’s Notre Dame Shamrock Series uni, to be worn on 9/13 vs. Purdue. pic.twitter.com/7fHPG5a79L
— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) August 19, 2014
How are they doing this and not upsetting their don’t you dare change anything about our prestigious, iconic program fan base?
“It’s one of their championship teams, updated, and it makes it a little new, and people are OK with that,” Rovell said. “That’s the way you get around it.”
Basically, the schools and brands often claim that they’re just “honoring” the tradition with a modernized look.
From the PR release last November detailing Ohio State’s new all-white uniforms that were worn against the Wolverines:
This year the Buckeyes will take on the Wolverines in an all-white uniform that pays homage to the Nov. 25, 1950 ‘snow bowl’ game played in Ohio Stadium against Michigan.
Notre Dame is perhaps the most interesting classic program currently using new and alternate uniforms. The Fighting Irish, previously sponsored by Adidas, signed a record 10-year deal with Under Armour in January worth close to $100 million, the largest financial commitment ever made by a brand to a university.
For this dedication to pay off, Under Armour will likely have to be creative in the uniform department.
“That’s going to be the most intriguing thing, because Under Armour has to deal with arguably the greatest tradition (in college football), which could lead to great backlash,” Rovell said. “At the same time, they can’t go too conservative, because then they won’t stand out. That’s probably the biggest challenge right now, the thing that I’m most interested in seeing in the coming seasons.”
The schools that lack tradition and/or a rabid fan base can just attempt to piggyback on the triumphs Oregon has had. This is extremely prevalent at Maryland, a program seemingly trying to become Oregon East.
Maryland, like Oregon, benefits from the relationship it has with a rich alumnus. Kevin Plank, the founder of Under Armour, played football for the Terrapins and began creating his climate controlling apparel while in school. In 2008, Under Armour became the sole outfitter of Maryland athletics.
“What Oregon did with Nike and college football uniforms, I would assume Under Armour is trying to do something similar (with Maryland),” Matt Zenitz, the Terrapins’ beat reporter for the Baltimore Sun, told College Spun.
Unlike with Notre Dame, Under Armour doesn’t really have to worry about upsetting anyone at Maryland. The Terrapins have worn some of the craziest uniforms college football has ever seen in recent seasons.
“I don’t think Under Armour has much to lose with Maryland,” Rovell said.
While team and brand’s strategies differ, making money off new uniforms is something everyone in college football wants to have in common.
Recruiting, Recruiting, Recruiting
In 2008, LaMichael James was a four-star recruit from Texarkana, Texas. The all-purpose back had offers from a host of premier programs in the Midwest and the South, but he pledged to Oregon, where he went on to star.
What initially attracted him to the Pacific Northwest school?
“I loved the uniforms,” he said, “and then I got to know more about Oregon.”
This is now true with many prospects. Will cool, new uniforms get a kid to commit to a school? Rarely. But it is a way for a team to catch the eye of a high school prospect.
“It’s a residual type of effect,” J.C. Shurburtt, a national recruiting analyst for 247 Sports, told College Spun. “Prospects make decisions on relationships. But to build those relationships and build a comfort level, sometimes you have to have an in. You have to get that initial attraction. If you have cool uniforms, that’s one way in.”
Zenitz said he’s seen this first hand with Maryland recruits.
“I think some players care about uniforms. I know I’ve seen high school prospects tweet out pictures of themselves wearing Maryland’s uniforms, and not only the uniforms, but the gloves, the cleats, the other things Under Armour puts out for Maryland. I don’t know how much that plays into the decision making process for high school players, but they certainly seem to like the designs.”
College programs recognize this.
Whenever a recruit visits their campus, one of the first things that typically happens is the coach will show the youngster around the team’s facility. They’ll bring them into the locker room and walk them to a locker. It’ll be filled with the team’s different jerseys and helmets.
“Try them on,” the coach will say.
And so the recruits do. And if they like what they’re wearing, they’ll probably take a picture of themselves sporting the cool gear. That picture will go up on Twitter or Instagram. The school’s fan base will then comment on the photo, telling the recruit how great they look.
— Khalil Oliver (@Deramus26) February 5, 2014
“I’m not so much into looks,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said, but…“I’m into good players and recruiting.”
Keeping Players Happy
At Big Ten Media Days this July, one Big Ten player joked about the ridiculousness of Maryland’s uniforms. The colorways, the design, the helmet patterns—everything about the Terrapins abundance of uniforms is crazy, the player said.
Someone told this to Stefon Diggs, Maryland’s star wide receiver.
“Stefon just laughed at him. Maryland players love the different designs that Maryland puts out for them,” Zenitz said.
— iG: GETCHU_1 (@stefon_diggs) June 10, 2014
This is maybe the most important part of why uniforms matter so much in modern college football.
While new uniforms bring money into the schools and to the brands, and attract the eyes of recruits, they typically make the program’s current players very, very happy.
“Any time you get a chance to wear a different uniform, it’s like, ‘All right, cool, yeah, we’re going to go kill them,’” former Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby said. “There’s something about wearing a different uniform that makes you play a little better.”
A joyful team is usually a fairly easy squad to coach.
“We live in a world where attention spans are short,” Shurburtt said, “a lot of times when you try to do something new each and every week, it subconsciously helps focus.”
Who wouldn’t want to look good?
“Kids want to play in something cool,” Rovell said.
Kids will always enjoy getting presents, too.
In today’s college football world, there isn’t a better present to receive than new uniforms.