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In November the San Diego Padres unveiled their 2017 uniforms with a 49-second video. It featured dramatic music and one too many close-ups of a jersey button, and had as much flare as the uniform designs themselves.
By removing the yellow piping from their 2016 uniforms designed to mark the All-Star game the team hosted, the Padres are now left with navy-on-gray and navy-on-white looks.
“We have a very classic-looking baseball uniform. A very traditional looking uniform,” said Wayne Partello, chief marketing officer for the Padres.
The internet and national sports media had a few different ways to describe the new look, including “boring,” “disappointing” and even “devoid of all imagination and creativity.” “Traditional” was nowhere to be found.
This is the team’s second redesign in four years. The team also wears military jerseys on Sundays, reimagined brown and gold uniforms for Friday night home games and the blue and orange uniforms from 1998 they wear on “way-back Wednesday.”
“The only consistency we have right now is inconsistency,” Partello said. “We have a lot for the fans to look at, and we think that’s a good thing.”
I spoke with Partello to try and figure out the Padres’ process for uniform redesigns, and what kind of research goes in to it. How did they end up with uniforms that came under such immediate and widespread derision?
“We talk with community leaders, season ticket-holders and casual fans to understand what they think about the uniforms, and what it means to them,” Partello said. “We hold focus groups and we get everyone’s input on anything from colors to logos to design. It’s a long and in-depth process that usually takes at least a year to complete.”
This left me wondering who is in the focus groups they’re talking to, and just how much local involvement goes into these decisions. The push for a permanent return to brown and gold, the iconic and most recognizable Padres look, has been a large and continuous movement from all over San Diego. The brown and gold is unique to the Padres and the color scheme the team has donned the longest.
Perhaps this tradition doesn’t matter to the current ownership group. In fact it was Ron Fowler, the Padres’ owner, who told the Union-Tribune, “I like tradition. We don’t have any tradition except brown. We’ve done a lot of research on brown. A lot of people like brown, but it’s not the majority.”
I asked Partello if we could see any of this research. He said they don’t release internal information.
Without seeing the research, you don’t get the sense they’re executing a clearly designed plan. It seems more like they’re throwing darts, hoping one happens to hit a bullseye.
“We try our hardest to make every fan happy, and although that might never happen, we’ll keep trying,” Partello said. “Our goal will always be to give the fans the best experience possible. Right now the brand and tradition is to build for a championship team.”
The sorts of decisions Partello and the Padres are wrestling with are the full-time job of Casey White and Jason Klein, lifelong friends who together founded the company Brandiose in 2000. It’s a local company that specializes in branding and design. It handled roughly 75 percent of the branding for Minor League Baseball last year alone.
“It’s important to have a tradition, but you have to either be willing to completely change that tradition or enhance it,” White said.
In 2007 Brandiose redesigned the Cincinnati Reds logo and uniforms, to critical acclaim and praise. Their new look took the traditional Reds brand and logos from 1890 to 2006 and overhauled the uniforms while enhancing the team’s storied tradition.
I sat down with Klein and White before baseball’s winter meetings to get a little more insight into the process behind re-branding a professional sports team. They made clear that the major leagues and minor leagues do things a little differently.
“In the minors, you’re communicating with team ownership, they make all the decisions, and they directly give you notes.” Klein said. “When you’re working with Major League Baseball, that is exactly who you’re working with. They act as the middle man between the designers and team ownership.”
The MLB errs on the side of classic designs, they said, but minor league teams give them more leeway.
“We want to think of the craziest, most creative, out-there idea, and see if we can make it happen.” White said. “We want to change the way people experience a game just by pushing the limits on what a uniform can look like.”
“We take what’s special about the city, its history and people, and put all of that into the designs.” Klein said. “We want to create a design that resonates with fans and locals alike for decades to come.”
It would be hard to make the case that the Padres’ 2017 offering does either of those things, or makes much of a case for long-lasting impact or something that might resonate.
“The goal,” Partello said, “is to build a look that our young team can grow in to, but first and foremost our brand and tradition is to build championship teams.”
“Building championship teams” would indeed be a wonderful tradition for Padres fans, but we’ve yet to have it. Short of that, a logo and brand that’s unique and different is all the more important. The Padres have never won a World Series, never thrown a no-hitter and the guy who hit the franchise’s lone cycle, Matt Kemp, was shipped off after a season and a half.
The brown and gold or brown and yellow may not be the most aesthetically pleasing color combination – and some old-school baseball guys, like the Union-Tribune’s Nick Canepa, consider them downright ugly.
But what other real tradition do the Padres have than baseball that more often than not isn’t pretty?
“Fans need something they can identify with.” Klein said. “A fan will buy a Pirates jersey ‘cause they love Andrew McCutchen. But, they probably won’t buy an Altoona Curve jersey for the same reason. So, it’s our job to give fans a reason to buy one.”
While Padres fans wait for the new tradition of winning to take hold, they need something to identify with. And, when you can’t recognize the players on the field, it’d certainly be nice to recognize the team.