With all the obvious NFL storylines of recent weeks -- Deflategate, the Seahawks' inexplicable play call, Marshawn Lynch's unbridled love of the media -- one intriguing subplot has largely flown under the radar.
Here it is: Nike's hold on NFL uniforms may not last much longer.
That may sound surprising, because it seems like just yesterday -- OK, maybe the day before yesterday -- that Nike took over the NFL's uniform contract. But Nike's deal with the NFL, which began in 2012, is for only five years, and we just finished the third of those five years. So we could be closer to the end of the current Nike/NFL era than we are to the beginning.
Nike's five-year contract term is unusually short by the current standards of the professional sports world. Consider that the NFL's previous uniform contract, which was with Reebok, was for 10 years; Majestic has had the exclusive MLB uniform contract since 2005; Adidas is in the midst of an 11-year uniform deal with the NBA that began in 2006; and Reebok has had the exclusive NHL uniform contract since 2005. When viewed in this context, the NFL's five-year deal with Nike seems like a fairly minor commitment.
And if you think nobody would walk away from Nike, think again. Just two months ago, Nike was outbid by Adidas for the Arizona State uniform contract. A few weeks after that, one of Nike's signature universities, Miami, also defected to Adidas.
So could the NFL be considering a switch to, say, Adidas or Under Armour? It's certainly possible, especially since Nike's short tenure has included some major embarrassments:
• The collars on some of the Cowboys' jerseys inexplicably turned blue toward the latter weeks of the 2014 season, which the team says is due to colors running when the uniforms were laundered.
• Nike's much-ballyhooed Pro Bowl uniforms were widely ridiculed as being unwatchable. (To be fair, the same thing had been said about most of the other Pro Bowl uniforms over the previous several decades.)
The hunch is that the NFL, which tends to favor stability, will stick with Nike and extend the company's contract. But here's a question worth pondering: If the NFL does decide to switch to another outfitter, would it really matter, at least from a visual standpoint?
To assess that question, let's look at what has happened to the NFL's uniforms under Nike. When it was announced that the company would be taking over the league's uni responsibilities, many observers expected a wholesale makeover that would fundamentally alter the look of the NFL. But a certain uniform columnist always believed that Nike's effect on the league would be fairly minimal (scroll down to the "Looking Ahead to Next Season" section). At the risk of saying, "Told ya so," that uniform columnist has turned out to be right. Sure, a few teams' uniforms have been overhauled. But if you ignore Nike's tailoring gimmicks -- the funny collars, oddly placed mesh panels and so on -- most NFL teams haven't changed their look during Nike's reign. Here, let's take a team-by-team look:
That's pretty much the same rate and degree of change we would expect to see during any random three-season period. To put it another way, Nike's effect on the NFL's look, at least relative to what another company's impact would likely have been, has arguably been zero.
There's no reason to believe a change to Adidas or Under Armour would make much difference either, especially since the NFL has uniform rules that prevent things from getting too crazy: A team can change its uniforms only once in a five-year period; a team can have only one alternate or throwback uniform, which can be worn only twice per season; teams can have only one helmet shell; and so on. Faced with these constraints (not to mention the rather conservative visual preferences of team ownership dynasties like the Maras and the Rooneys), it's hard to envision any outfitter making a big difference in the league's look.
Of course, if the NFL relaxes any of those rules, then all bets are off. One proposal that's been discussed, for example -- and it's worth stressing that for now it's apparently nothing more than a proposal -- would have teams wear new alternate uniforms for Thursday night games. A variation of that rumor is that teams would wear new throwback designs on Thursday nights (Throwback Thursday, get it?). But all of that could be done with any outfitter, not just with Nike.
In short: As we've discussed before, a uniform manufacturer can have a big impact on a college program, but the NFL is a tougher nut to crack. So even if Nike's run of bad luck extends to losing the NFL uniform contract in two years, it probably won't make much of a visual difference.
What about Nike and MLB?
When talking about leagues and their uniform outfitters, MLB is the great outlier. While the other pro leagues and major college programs have gone with lifestyle brands like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, MLB has stubbornly stuck with Majestic, a company that doesn't make sneakers or other footwear, doesn't have flashy marketing campaigns, doesn't sign athletes to big endorsement contracts, and really doesn't do much of anything except make baseball uniforms.
If Nike lost the NFL uniform contract, would it make a play for the MLB deal? I recently posed that question to a few industry insiders, and they say the answer is probably no. There are lots of reasons, but these are the two primary ones:
• Although some fans associate Nike primarily with eye-popping graphics, the company's brand image is really rooted in performance-enhancing technology and innovation. Baseball uniforms just don't play very well to those strengths, because the sport doesn't feature sustained contact or athleticism.
• Nike already has the MLB undershirt contract and gets great exposure from having its logo appear at most players' necklines. The Majestic logo, by comparison, is on the left jersey sleeve -- a much less prominent spot. Nike is getting so much bang for its branding buck out of this arrangement that retailers often get inquiries from fans who say they're looking to buy their favorite team's "new Nike jersey," even though Nike doesn't make MLB jerseys. So why invest in a big jersey contract when some fans already think you have one?
Of course, the situation is more complex than that, and there are lots of additional factors that could make an MLB deal either more or less appealing to Nike. Still, the feedback from these insiders makes good food for thought.
Paul Lukas still thinks NFL games on Thursday night are sort of weird, so having different uniforms for those games wouldn't bother him too much. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch membership program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.