Nike Nabs The Crown Jewel Of Sports Branding: The NFL

NIke’s latest marketing win: A contract to design the NFL’s official uniforms. Here’s a taste of what’s to come.

Nike’s ascendancy to mega-brand status began with basketball, on the feet of Michael Jordan. But yesterday, the company finally unveiled a dramatic new branding strategy: They’ve now replaced Reebok as the official uniform sponsor of the National Football League, and will be charged with designing uniforms for all 32 NFL teams.

On the right, with the neon: The new Seahawks uniform.

It’s the crown jewel of a push that Nike has been making into football for years, through college football, and their Bowl-season designs for the University of Oregon have become a mini event. None of the designs rolled out yesterday have that same crazy visual flair. But they did reserve a bit of extra sauce for the NFL team closest to home: The Seattle Seahawks. The flourishes there display nods to Native American art. Otherwise, the other teams got only minimal refreshes, though you can bet that we’ll soon see redesigns rolling out in force—especially given all the positive buzz that’s surfaced from players such as Jermichael Finley saying that the Seahawks unis are the "best in the league."

Tech-wise, the uniforms are something Nike calls the Elite 51, a "body-led" design that utilized heat mapping, sweat mapping, and motion capture "to understand exactly what the athlete needs and where they exactly need it," according to Todd Van Horne, Nike’s creative director of football and baseball.

The uniforms are made out of super lightweight fabric that’s woven to stretch equally well in any direction, while stretching as tight as possible over padding, to reduce grab-points for opponents. Nike Pro Combat, the uniform’s base layer system, is outfitted with a raised honeycomb construction, which likewise is meant to conform to a opposing player’s hit. In addition, the pads themselves are placed a bit more intelligently, so that the base layer doesn’t constrain airflow to places that give off the most heat, "so you get airflow from underneath and around the torso and exiting out the lumbar area," Van Horne tells Co.Design.

Last come the hands and feet. Players will get new cleats; gloves display the team logos (a move that first appeared in the Oregon Ducks uniforms), and the socks have padding for arch support and texturing at the heel, to lock them in place once a player’s cleats are on.

Its all clever stuff. But clearly, the real news is yet to come—Reebok was never able to make a uniform redesign into a major event, but Nike probably can. We’re hoping to see a design war as teams begin trying to outdo each other, backed by Nike’s design might.

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  • Matt

    I agree with Nike's fairly conservative approach.  My guess is they have a 3 year plan to slowly introduce more progressive/contemporary designs so that it's not a shock all at once.  Oregon, Georgia State, UMaryland, Baylor: all good examples of companies trying to push the industry and being met with criticism from sports fans. I see Seattle as the guinea pig; fan reception in Washington will dictate how Nike moves forward with "evolving" professional sports apparel, and it's not a coincidence that they started with their "hometown" team.  The NFL fan base is tough, stubborn, and rooted in tradition.  Some things you just don't change (i.e. Browns, Giants, Bears, Packers, Steelers), but if it's gonna happen, I see Nike having the best odds at succeeding.

  • Matthew

    I feel that this grants a powerful new marketing platform to Nike, that will basically enable them to use the entire NFL uniform line as advertising blitz area.  I bet they will be rolling out special technologies annually through this very professional outlet as they trickle down into an everyday consumer one, much like what is in existence with Reebok as of recently.  Bottom line, I think that this is an incredibly potent acquisition that will allow Nike to perform what they did through Oregon, on a smaller basis, but to a much larger group of people.  

    more elaborate analysis


  • Jhealy

    Looks like the redesing is more with the materials than the look of the unifoms.  NFL owners are typically very conservative and are not likely to overhaul the look of the franchise uniforms.  Either way Nike will definitely be able to turn this into a branding event.

  • Joanne

    That makes sense. I'm a Packer fan and any major redesign would make the blowback on new coke look minor