A New Article, Way Better Than That Last One

Liverpool has unveiled their new home jersey for the 2015-16 season. But by looking at it, you can hardly tell. They have a new supplier, New Balance, but functionally, the jersey looks basically the same as all their others: solid red, with white trim. The main shirt sponsor, Standard Chartered (a bank based in London), is unchanged from last season, so there’s not even that. There was a whole entire unveiling ceremony for it.

People would be surprised if there wasn’t.

Every sport has its off-field checkpoints that help serve to get fans excited for the season to come. Free agency, scouting combines and rookie drafts abound. Soccer has its offseason transfer windows, but combines and drafts are largely out of the question due to the nature of the labor market. With most leagues in constant flux regarding club personnel, most of the time any offseason union of clubs is purely theoretical. They won’t really be seen together in one place aside from broadcast studio collections of logos. Clubs typically make their own fun, and so preseason hype has to be on a club-by-club basis. And what’s the easiest thing to roll out every season, aside from new players? A new uniform. Sometimes clubs do a total revamp, sometimes it’s only the most minor alterations- changing the placement of some of the trim, perhaps. An increasingly popular option is to include some element with special meaning to the club or the area that, nonetheless, will prove effectively invisible when viewed during an actual game.

For instance, Zenit St. Petersburg opted for a phrase, ‘Our Name, Zenit’, embedded into the inside of the back of the collar, which can’t be seen during a game unless you can peer through a man’s neck. The Portland Timbers have decided this season to include an emblem in the lower corner of the shirt- where it’s unlikely to be seen from any distance- reading ‘5/40’, signifying the number of seasons the Timbers have been in MLS, and alive overall, respectively; in addition, where Zenit puts its phrase, the Timbers wrote “Let it rain, let it pour, let the Portland Timbers score,” an homage to a chant from their supporters, the Timbers Army. The New England Revolution included a tiny version of the flag that represented the New England colonies in the American Revolution. A number of clubs have taken to including the names or photos of supporters on certain incarnations of their jersey. You’ll never pick it up on a broadcast, but it’s certainly meaningful.

It’s certainly not ineffective. The uniform has meaning to fans. It has more meaning than any of the players do. The uniform, though it may depict the name of a particular player, represents not just that one player, but all the players that have put it on over the years. It represents all that has been done by and to players while wearing it. The colors of the uniform may have meaning from the very start- all teams in the city of Pittsburgh, for instance, wear the colors of the city flag, black and gold (and I mean all teams; all the way down to roller derby and rugby league)- but even if they were chosen arbitrarily, they gain meaning as the ghosts of seasons past, perhaps championships past, begin to accumulate within them, to the point where an attempt to change them can result in furious backlash, as Cardiff City owner Vincent Tan learned in 2012 when he changed the colors from blue to red. Many fans simply refused to wear the red jerseys and continued to turn up wearing blue. (This past January, he surrendered and changed it back to blue.) Richard Beech of the Mirror, fawning over an AS Roma jersey rollout, presents a typical perspective on this kind of thing.

In North America, typically jersey news is saved for substantial reworkings, often involving a change in the team colors that forces a change in everything else, jersey included. But then, it can afford to be. North American leagues go to great lengths to ensure each and every team is financially stable and healthy. Outside that, league protections for the also-rans are far less comprehensive, and far more fragile due to the threats of relegation. Jersey sales, thus, are a valuable revenue stream. A stream that must be kept constantly stoked. A club can’t wait for an attractive new signing to sell laundry. It has to happen every year, no matter what, even if the team looks substantially worse than last year and includes nobody new worth writing home about.

The solution: alter the jersey. Make the old one obsolete. If people want to come out to the park clad in what the team is wearing right now, give them no choice but to buy the hot new thing in order to stay current. (And who wouldn’t buy a team’s jersey knowing that their own name or face was on it somewhere?) Even if you want to show up in the same basic jersey that you’ve worn for years, you still change some piddly minor element that doesn’t really affect anything. MLS has mandated something more substantial as of 2013, instituting ‘Jersey Week’ in which all clubs in the league are expected to introduce at least one actually new-looking jersey every season.

This is not to say North America doesn’t have a similar phenomenon. It just typically doesn’t revolve around the jersey itself. A North American fan typically has no problem wearing last season’s jersey; in fact, retro jerseys do brisk business, and teams frequently take the field on a ‘Turn Back The Clock Day’ of some sort, wearing what they, or some other previous local team, had worn in a particular year. The North American equivalent revolves around the names on the jersey. Beloved retired players are one thing, but who wants to be caught wearing the jersey of a player who recently left and is now playing for someone else? Better find another player’s jersey to wear.

What’s going on here is called perceived obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is more well-known, but that’s not the same thing. Planned obsolescence is when a product is made in such a way that it will break after a certain period, forcing the consumer to buy a replacement. Perceived obsolescence is about convincing a consumer to discard a product that, functionally, is still perfectly good. Those old jerseys could, if desired, still be worn for years and years, maybe even decades, to come. The car industry heavily relies on this: if people all kept their cars until they naturally stopped working, they wouldn’t sell enough to remain in business. They have to get people to buy new cars long before the old ones break down, and so they change the seats, change the hood, change the rear bumper, whatever other cosmetic elements will get people to go buy a new car, quickly. Buy a new TV. Buy the new iPad.

Buy the new club jersey.

Look. Look at the shiny new pinstripes. If you can notice them, because they’re the same color as the rest of the jersey.

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