Hey, MLB: Want to get kids more interested? Let them design Players Weekend uniforms

MLB

New rules. Robot umps. A reimagined postseason.

As Major League Baseball attempts to tweak its formula for a new generation of fans, there have been some hits and some misses.

We have an idea that could be a home run.

While Players Weekend has been a big success for the league the past two seasons, the jerseys have not, with last year’s monochromatic black and white designs translating poorly to television and receiving mass criticism from around the sport. The look confused fans at the park, too, who had a hard time separating the players from the umpires, while the Cubs quietly protested the monochromatic look by wearing their regular blue caps with the white uniforms for one game.

“What’s the slogan, ‘Let the kids play?'” said Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona. “Let the grown-ups look like morons.”

Said Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts: “It’s not our proudest moment rockin’ these all-white milkmen jerseys.”

So here’s the idea: Why not hold a contest to let young fans design the uniforms?

Why now is the time

Major League Baseball kicked off its inaugural Players Weekend during the 2017 season to give players, from the stars to the final few guys on the roster, an opportunity to express themselves and better connect with fans. But while the league allows players to wear their nicknames on the back of their specially designed uniforms, those uniforms have not been particularly well-received.

“Last year’s was really awful,” said Paul Lukas, a former ESPN.com contributor and founder of UniWatch, a website dedicated to tracking the latest developments in sports sartorial choices. “I don’t think much of the Players Weekend uniforms. They feel a little gimmicky to me. The idea is that this is for the players. Like really, is this what the players wanted to wear? I question that.”

A new partnership, though, could make this the right time to rethink the uniforms.

This year, Nike takes over as the official jersey supplier for Major League Baseball, adding to the multibillion-dollar sports apparel giant’s portfolio its third of the four major American sports leagues, along with the NFL and the NBA. For baseball, it marks the league’s first major switch-up since 2004, when Majestic took over as its sole provider of on-field uniforms. This year in spring training, the Swoosh logo now sits squarely on the front right shoulder of every MLB uniform, to the consternation of many traditionalist baseball fans. But whether or not you like the corporate advertising on the front of the uniform — Majestic chose to place their logo on the uniform sleeves — Nike is here to stay in baseball, with a 10-year contract through 2030.

According to a 2019 Nielsen Sports report on Generation Z fans, baseball has one of the largest generational gaps in interest, with 41.1% of people between 25 and 69 interested in the sport but just 27.8% of Gen Z — which Nielsen lists as those between 16 and 24 — interested. Additionally, the average age of an MLB fan (57) is significantly higher than that for the NFL (50) and NBA (42), according to a 2017 study commissioned by SportsBusiness Journal.

The collaboration with Nike is part of the league’s larger effort to reach out to those younger fans. Combined with the marketing and design forces of the world’s largest sports brand, baseball has an opportunity to take some risks, pushing the envelope for what fashion looks like on — and off — the baseball field in the 2020s.

How it would work

A uniform design contest would not just generate buzz for the games, but perhaps draw a whole new type of fan into the sport, inviting the next generation to help shape the league’s cultural future.

Smartphones and tablets make the setup relatively easy. MLB and Nike could create a template for submissions, and through a dedicated app or website, fans could simply upload their designs. If the league prefers to stay within a certain set of boundaries, all types of design limitations could be imposed, such as keeping to a particular palate of colors for each team.

Once the designs are in, an All-Star panel of judges — from players to celebrities to designers — could comment on and critique them. From there, Nike and MLB could take the best designs for each team, work with the artists to tweak them as needed, and put them out there for a final online vote.

Lukas, who has held design contests on the UniWatch blog and column for years — giving readers an opportunity to re-imagine the outfits for existing teams and dream up new ones for expansion franchises — has seen how technology has given savvy fans a new way to connect with sports.

“As digital and design software has become more sophisticated and more accessible to more and more people, the participation has increased and I would say that the quality of the designs have increased,” Lukas said. “The digital tools available to people now are pretty powerful and pretty sophisticated and you can do a lot with them. [The contests] have really shown it’s possible for even laypeople, as opposed to professional designers, to put out some pretty decent looking work.”

Why it would work

Nike has already proven that design contests can be incredibly effective marketing tools. One of Nike’s most hyped and critically acclaimed sneakers of the past few years, the Nike Air Max 1/97 Sean Wotherspoon, was the product of the 2017 Vote Forward campaign, which invited designers from around the world to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, to develop their own sneakers. Nike fans could then vote for their favorite sneaker to go into production, thus creating the 1/97, seen on the feet of everyone from LeBron James to rapper Travis Scott to RM of the K-pop band BTS. Between the success of Wotherspoon’s shoe to the fashion phenomenon of Virgil Abloh’s collection to the mega-success of Scott’s collaborations, many of Nike’s biggest hits in recent years have been at least partially outsourced. The Nike By You (previously NikeID) customization application has long allowed people to build their own favorite silhouettes.

Nike has brought some significant changes to both the NFL and NBA. When Nike took over NFL uniforms in 2012, the company gave a dramatic redesign to both the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it followed suit in the NBA in 2017 with the City Edition uniforms, creating bold alternates that have become some of the most praised in sports, most notably the Miami Vice-themed unis for the Heat.

Major League Baseball, on the other hand, has been hesitant to take bolder risks with uniforms, according to multiple sources familiar with the conversations. Dramatic redesign attempts such as the Arizona Diamondbacks’ have been panned in recent years, and baseball fans are — fairly or not — notorious for being hostile to change. Many of the design tweaks announced for the 2020 season were minor (aside from the San Diego Padres’ return to brown and yellow, which was determined before Nike signed on).

A design contest led by younger fans would certainly take on a different tenor, but as other online design contests have shown, there are a lot of incredibly talented people out there. With some help from Nike, a weekend designed to appeal to young fans could also be visually designed by them as well. And from a public relations standpoint, it’s much harder to criticize a design when it’s created by a young baseball fan (although Twitter would surely find a way, as it tends to do).

Despite the league’s hesitation at times, baseball’s relationship with its uniforms has actually evolved in recent years. Even in a sport steeped in tradition, nostalgia and history, the baseball uniform has become a canvas for subtle rebellion. Lately, more and more players are ignoring the unwritten rules of generations past and choosing “untraditional” baseball numbers — like Aaron Judge, Alex Verdugo and Hyun-Jin Ryu, who wear No. 99 for their respective teams, or Mallex Smith, who wears No. 0 (until recently, Marcus Stroman did as well). Baseball has also been more willing to take risks during Players Weekend, not only allowing players to wear their nicknames, but even emojis on their backs, while working with Majestic to create the alternate uniforms specific for the event.

While many today think of conservative uniform designs when it comes to baseball, the sport has been more of a uniform edge-pusher in the past. During the 1970s, baseball largely switched to pullover uniform designs, and road grays were swapped for powder blues to account for the mainstream proliferation of color televisions. Some of those once-loathed uniforms are now seen as classics.

“Usually, it’s when teams go back to basics that I hear the most positive response,” Lukas said. “I’m not sure what fans want from baseball right now. Do they want it to be more innovative and experimental, something along those lines, or are they happy with the basic and classic designs? With Nike on board, we’ll see. Nike has not and cannot do anything unilaterally. They don’t tell a team that they are going to wear this. The team has the final say.”

There have been examples of teams using fan contests to shape team branding in the past. In the 1980s, the Chicago White Sox held a design contest won by Richard Launius, who created the “SOX” design that’s been retroed by the South Side squad on multiple occasions. Minor league teams have held similar contests around the country, where in other sports, the NHL’s Ottawa Senators created an alternate uniform designed by a 29-year-old fan in 2011. In the NBA, the Dallas Mavericks produced an alternate uniform design in 2015-16 that came from a design contest.

Allowing amateurs to design Players Weekend uniforms would create a unique channel of communication between Major League Baseball and its fans — which would be invaluable, according Dr. Brandon Brown, a clinical associate professor at NYU’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport.

“Anything that you can do to not just understand your consumer, but live out your consumer’s wants and needs in your own product speak directly towards them, and I think that increases consumption and brand loyalty,” Brown said. “It almost creates an unsaid relationship that they’re listening to what I’m saying as a consumer. [A design contest] is almost a two-way dialogue between company and consumer, and that’s where you want to be.”

There are other design collaboration opportunities as well. Why not let someone like Drake put a personal spin on the Toronto Blue Jays uniforms, similar to the OVO City Edition uniforms he inspired for the Toronto Raptors? Perhaps they could drop in a limited release, similar to the sales strategies behind Supreme and some of Nike’s most hyped sneaker releases.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Baseball, after all, is a sport that has largely repressed personality through its unwritten rules, sometimes pushing away the young fan in this age of social media. If MLB is serious about developing its next generation of fans, it could hand them partial control of what the future of the game looks like, at least during the limited, experiment-friendly Players Weekend — representing an unprecedented level of outreach by the league.

So … could it happen? When we pitched this proposal to Major League Baseball, the league called the idea “fun” although we were told planning for 2020 Players Weekend has long been in development. If not this year, though, why not 2021?

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