Why Sports Logos Are So Important

Want to build a strong sports brand? Design is key

  • Share
  • Read Later
David Dow / NBAE / Getty Images

Brooklyn is bold enough on its own; the marketing minds behind the rebooted Nets NBA franchise didn’t want loud colors and boisterous designs to send a message. Instead, with the design help of team minority owner and pop culture icon Jay-Z, the Brooklyn Nets — freshly relocated from New Jersey — created the the league’s only all black-and-white color scheme. Just because you see a san-serif font void of flashy colors, however, doesn’t mean the team didn’t dedicate itself to creating a culture-defining look to pay homage to Brooklyn fans. The logo includes ties to the team’s visual past with a shield, basketball and retention of the Nets nickname, and ties to Brooklyn’s personal identity by basing the color scheme and simplicity off the 1957 New York Subway system signage, the last year Brooklyn housed a professional franchise.

“We wanted to have something that would have a long shelf life,” Fred Mangione, Brooklyn’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, tells TIME. “We wanted it to be simplistic, but be something that would resonate through the times. The whole background came through going into the borough and going off the subway system and an urban feel look.”

The result was a brand that screams “Brooklyn,” just as Mangione says the goal was from day one. “It was about Brooklyn being across the chest (of the jersey),” he says. “It was all about the black and white. All about Brooklyn. We didn’t want to overthink it.”

In a crowded market of entertainment and sports, the right logo helps carve out a carefully crafted identity. By playing on a fan base’s emotions and pride—ties to a more romantic successful era or stylized local landmarks, for example—or offering a way to stand out with flashy colors, professional sports teams use their logos to play a key role in reaching fans, even if the strategy to get there differs from team to team.

Some teams wouldn’t dream of touching a historic mark—a star on an NFL helmet, wings on an NHL sweater or interlocking letters on a MLB cap—but for franchises without the obvious link to historic success, they must build that emotional tie one of two ways: modernize the look of a nostalgia-based era or build an entirely new brand identity showcasing the future.

Brooklyn? They trusted the emotional tie that comes from such a “bold” New York City borough and the personal connection folks have with the word Brooklyn. “Just think about walking around the streets and you see someone wearing something of Brooklyn,” Mangione says. “It is simplistic and cool. That is what it became about.”

And while bold, basic black and white works in Brooklyn, every region is different. Case in point: the Miami Marlins. The team opened a new ballpark this past spring, redefined the Florida Marlins to a more city-centric Miami Marlins moniker and recreated the team’s identity (at least off the field). The Marlins fall in the norm for teams rebranding, as the two most popular reasons to rebuild an identity is when a new ownership group takes over or when a team opens a new venue.

Without a storied history to draw from (how do you feel about the old Florida Marlins teal?), the team excused itself from its lack of history by looking to the future and fully embracing the colorful diversity that defines Miami by unveiling an “M” mark set apart by yellow, blue and vibrant red-orange striping. Coupled with a stylized, yet subversive, marlin behind the M, the Marlins certainly created a new look that includes a color never before used in sports that offers a buzz-generating, regionally specific vibrancy. Black and white in Brooklyn. Bright orange in Miami. Equally fitting. (Though Brooklyn hopes to have a better first season with the new logo; the underachieving Marlins finished in last place this season).

(MORE: Are Sports Fans Really Out of Control?)

Anne Occi, MLB’s vice president in charge of design, tells TIME the look reflects the Miami community, creating a “rhythm and movement” to the brand that “sings” with life, a far cry from the past. “It is distinctive and matches the ballpark,” she says. “The ballpark is very different from what you will find in Fenway, and (the logo) is a reflection of that different style. It is unique to the ballpark and unique to sports. It is reflective of the community at large and of a new era moving forward.”

Emotional connections

Miami hopes that the emotional ties they create by embracing local culture lasts, a strategy that spans all professional sports. “A brand is a commitment and promise to fans and hopefully when they look at a logo, court, uniform or secondary logo, they see that promise conveyed through that,” says Christopher Arena, the NBA’s director of apparel. “We are trying to communicate city name and nickname and develop icons in that logo.”

Sometimes those icons simply need retooling. While Miami may have spun their color wheel wide open on the red-orange, another new look for this past baseball season had Toronto taking cues from everything “romantic” about its early 1990s success, Occi says. The Blue Jay erased the old “Jays” script with a silver-heavy modernized bird head, instead reimagining its former circular baseball motif with a still somewhat modern looking Blue Jay in the club’s more traditional blue shades. And adding a Maple Leaf to the logo certainly plays on the emotion of not only the Toronto fan base, but also links the only MLB franchise north of the border with communities across all of Canada.

While Toronto wants to relive its emotional high, the entire city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, recently used a new mark to rekindle an old love. The NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers (talk about no history) suddenly relocated to the Canadian plains before the 2011-12 season and while the new Winnipeg ownership group certainly discussed a nickname and look that signified something new, the power of a fan base still in love with the old Winnipeg Jets simply wouldn’t allow it.

“The Jets really listened to a lot of their fans and there was a pretty large percentage of the base that thought the Jets had great equity,” says Brian Jennings, the NHL’s executive vice president of marketing. With the help of Reebok, the Jets and NHL took that history and modernized it with a brand-new design, including a fresh jet design (the Royal Canadian Air Force is located in Winnipeg). And, since this is Canada, they added in the much-beloved maple leaf for good measure.

In the end, the Winnipeg logo was derived from equity already established. And whether a team has a rich tradition or not, creating a local or regional connection helps whittle out space within what can sometimes be an oversaturated sports market.

When History isn’t Obvious

“You can’t create tradition,” Jennings says. “If you’re an Original Six franchise, part of your brand is the history from the beginning. You can’t duplicate that. In non-traditional marketplaces, you want to have some smart design that celebrates the marketplace.”

The NHL’s Tampa Lightning, for example, decided to update their look this past year with something simplistic and sleek. Other markets may opt for ornate, bold or whatever sells. “Your brand is the most important thing you have, it shows up in a myriad of places,” Jennings says. In Nashville, the Predators chose to stand out from the ever-increasing move to darker looks by pushing yellow from within their logo and then playing off their music tradition with piano cues and a shoulder patch in the shape of a guitar pick.

MLB’s San Diego, after a redesign in 2004 that went beach-like with a wave and flowing “Padres” script, reverted to the interlocking SD logo this past season, something that still played in the hearts of San Diego residents according to extensive market research. (But, alas, the Padres have stayed far clear of the brown and mustard color scheme of decades past; shifting back to that color wasn’t discussed in the latest redesign, Occi says).

But sometimes attempts at creating new emotion can go wayward. “We had a trend in the mid-90s where some of our teams went off the path a little from where they truly were and you see us going back and revisiting their past,” Arena says. The NBA’s Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee and Washington franchises all had “odd updates” in the ‘90s that didn’t feel right and the teams have since returned to logos and colors derived from before the unfortunate departures. “Our trend is to stay close to our history,” Arena says.

Testing Grounds

To keep from suddenly jumping into a new brand that won’t fly, teams can now first experiment with alternate jerseys that include new colors and secondary marks. As teams push for a foothold on a market, these new looks test the waters without a full commitment. But sometimes they turn into exactly what a team was looking for. The latest Los Angeles Kings logo and color scheme actually spawned from their secondary mark, used on their alternate jersey. As the team worked to create more distinction on television, moving away from the black and purple with a gaudy crown, the alternate jersey allowed the Kings to create a new, clean crest and bring in a contrasting black and white (thankfully the purple has lost its reign).

In the NBA, Dallas successfully modernized to a sleeker, more modern look that has become its prime look by working in alternate jerseys until the fan base adopted them as their own (winning an NBA Championship with one logo helps solidify brand equity). Other teams have utilized the “hardwood classic” jerseys to test out historic schemes. As the public responds, as for the Golden State Warriors, teams listen. Golden State, a team that has been located in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Oakland, brought out its “city uniform” as an alternate to the delight of fans. Golden State created a new logo based on that historic design. While keeping the yellow and blue history and the circular mark, the team conveyed some modern flair by using the new Bay Bridge instead of the Golden Gate Bridge, as in the past.

(MORE: Lance Armstrong Had Little Choice But to Dope)

With jerseys playing such an intricate role in branding a mark, colors have utmost importance. Fans may wonder why they don’t see too many Miami Marlins (the new red-orange) or Seattle Seahawks (the neonish green) type colors out there. “Miami’s brand new color is going to be very popular all the way through the winter of ’14,” Occi says. “However, if a club changes, alters or embraces a color to merely follow a trend, that will be very short lived.” At the same time, current popularity could help create long-lasting ties.

Also, hues outside the traditional color rainbow can be difficult to replicate, even on team-issued gear. Try getting T-shirt makers, web designers, glove makers and helmet manufacturers to all line up the exact tone of your vibrant yellow or flashy green, creating a consistency nightmare across fabrics and media.

“Crazy unique colors, even in print and on the web, become difficult to merchandise in a robust and consistent way,” Arena says. “Logos have to communicate well in different spaces. It must be an icon for Twitter, a website and either horizontal or vertical. You can’t be too detailed and lose out in those small sizes.”

In the end, a logo works as a connection to fans, a way to generate excitement about a region and build emotional ties that translate to more revenue in ticket and merchandise sales. While all the leagues have rules about not allowing rebranding too often to help stabilize the looks of teams, when a team finds a logo that sells—or a tradition that evokes 100-year-old memories—it wants to tap into that logo, branding it across as many platforms as possible. To find that mark, Arena says, “teams are listening to fans, listening to hearts” and choosing logos that will make an emotional mark. Whether in bright neon or black and white.

(MORE: John Carlos – Looking Back at a Raised Fist and at a Raised Consciousness)

Tim Newcomb is a contributor for TIME. You can follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.