Friday, June 10, 2011

Michigan's Throwback Jerseys Receive Mixed Reactions

In a special press conference Friday night, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon unveiled what will be worn by the Wolverines during Michigan Stadium's first night game, which will be played against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on September 10, 2011.

Weeks before the unveiling, photos of early designs of the throwback uniforms had been leaked by the Detroit Free Press. Reactions from the Michigan faithful to the leaked photos showed almost unanimous dismay, but Brandon quickly told reporters that those designs were nothing like what Michigan would be wearing.

It seems the actual design wasn't that far off.

On Wednesday, June 8, a reader at MGoBlog stumbled upon another photo from the online catalog of the M-Den, the Michigan athletic department's official store for merchandise and apparel. Likewise, the photo was quickly removed. The goal of the athletic department, it seemed, was to keep the unveiling a surprise. Yet the surprise, as it happened, got out. Some Michigan fans were hoping that it was all a marketing ploy. They were wrong: the picture on the M-Den was indeed the same design as the unveiled jerseys.

Michigan's "legacy uniforms," as Dave Brandon calls them, features a mixture of Michigan's modern look with different parts of the uniform designs of Michigan's early history. This is largely why Brandon insists it is not a "throwback"—at least, not in the strictest sense. The legacy jerseys contain a retro-style Block-M on the front, with 1880s-style stitching over it. There's also the player number on the back with the same stitching. On the front, the player number is small and on the upper side, adjacent to Adidas's retro logo, which rests on the other side. Most notably, however, is the use of maize stripes on the shoulders of the jersey. In the leaked designs, this was what primarily received outcry from the fan community, including several blog writers.

Finally, the throwback uniform's helmet, while still being the traditional Michigan winged helmet, features player numbers on the sides.

Michigan Football's official Facebook page has already received thousands of comments, both positive and negative, on the new uniforms. "We did this with the Big Chill, and frankly it was a little bit of a test for us," said Brandon. "Initially when we launched, unveiled the Big Chill uniforms, like everything else, there were people who loved them and people who didn't love them and that's almost part of the fun of this."

Player reactions were mostly positive. "I like them," said offensive center David Molk. "They're interesting. They're unique. They're different. I mean, we've had the same jerseys for as long as I can remember. It's kind of cool to see something different."

"I love the stripes, man; I'm not even going to lie to you," said wide receiver Je'Ron Stokes. "The Block M, everything. It's something new, and it's original. It's fresh."

Quarterback Denard Robinson and defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen were the models for the uniforms at the unveiling. They received a sneak peek Friday morning.

"It's tight!" said Robinson, seeing the uniform for the first time. "People thought the stripes weren't going to be right, but I like it. These jerseys are crazy sick right now. I mean, if you're a part of something like this, the University of Michigan, and they got throwbacks on, man—it's crazy."

He especially liked the Block M on the front and the stripes on the shoulders, despite rumors that the designs would be unattractive. It's interesting that Denard pointed these out so specifically and mentioned that people thought the stripes were "going to look bad," because it shows that Denard was clearly aware of the circulating rumors and he may be more in touch with internet chatter than we realize.

"My arms look good in this jersey," he added.

Across the internet, reactions to the uniforms have been mixed. Most of the apprehension, however, seems to have dissipated. "They don't look quite as dumb in pads," wrote Tim on MGoBlog.

"I'll probably get crap for saying this, but I like them," wrote Brad at Maize and Blue Nation.

"All in all, I must say my opinion has gone from 'these are complete disasters' to 'not bad'," wrote the Wolverine Blog. "The shoulder stripes look much, much better when worn over actual football pads, and I really like having the uniform numbers on the side of the helmets."

Some blogs, however, have given scathing reviews. "Those suck ass," writes the MZone blog. "In general, I hate throwback jerseys - even when the design isn't as obnoxious as the one above. Because they are nothing - NOTHING - more than a money grab. Period."

Here, the MZone raises an important point. The concept of throwback uniforms, while sometimes exciting to a fan base, is usually driven more by the desire to profit off them. In the press conference alone, Brandon made sure to mention that these uniforms were already available for sale at the M-Den, and the jerseys of the players would be auditioned off after the night game. Also, if you went on Facebook and clicked "like" on the uniform's page, you'd be able to win tickets to the Notre Dame game, which provides even more incentive that feeds into the throwback jerseys. This leads many (such as the MZone, see above) to have a cynical disposition when it comes to what throwback jerseys mean and what they entail.

Adidas and other sports apparel companies make millions by designing and creating "throwback" apparel, both for players and for the fans. They make money from athletic departments through taking the time to design the jerseys, going through multiple designs, and then, when the athletic department finally likes one, Adidas makes more revenue by putting them into production for the players—and later distributing them to the M-Den for fans.

Brandon noted that, when the hockey uniforms for the Big Chill were unveiled, the athletic department "couldn't keep them on the shelves" because of their popularity and how quickly they were selling. However, while Michigan athletics is clearly a source of high revenue, there's something else to it. Denard and the players are clearly excited to play in these uniforms. Denard's reaction in particular shows that he absolutely loves Michigan and everything about it. So, while people may buy into and even purchase the throwback uniforms, thus making the uniforms generate larger revenue for the athletic department, it's also important to consider that the athletic department is providing merchandise and apparel for something that people love: Michigan athletics.

"It just shows that Michigan fans love these special opportunities to do something unique and to do something different," added Brandon.

Personally, I never thought Michigan needed a throwback jersey. I still don't. (I particularly don't care for the numbers on the side of the helmets, mainly because I think the winged helmet is perfect the way it is.) However, seeing the uniform at the unveiling, I have to admit that it could have been a lot worse. Notre Dame's throwback jerseys for this game, by comparison, are horrible. If I were someone who was trying to pick between Michigan and Notre Dame as my favorite college football program, and these jerseys had to be considered, Notre Dame would be out of the running. People will see the two jerseys on the field on September 10, and it will be no contest that Michigan's is clearly the better-looking one.

When asked if these jerseys would be featured more often than just the night game, Dave Brandon made sure to clarify that this was just a one-time thing. "These things are fun because they're one-off," he said. "It's a little bit like the Big Chill. If you tried to do the Big Chill every year, I think it would lose some of its uniqueness and some of the things that really made it special, and it's probably the same thing with this."

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