ESPN’s Paul Lukas Critiques Cincy Sports Uniforms

Before the sports journalist — who never fails to provide incisive aesthetic criticism — visits the Queen City, we asked him to critique our team's threads.

click to enlarge Paul Lukas - Provided by Paul Lukas
Provided by Paul Lukas
Paul Lukas

Over three decades, Brooklyn journalist Paul Lukas has established himself as an expert in a number of impossibly-niche fields like supermarket product packaging and depression-era reform-school report cards, but he’s best known for his obsessive analysis of sports uniform design. Lukas’ foremost writing project, Uni Watch, debuted in 1999 in New York’s now-closed alt-weekly The Village Voice, migrating to ESPN.com in 2004 after the Voice nixed their sports page. Since 2006, he’s maintained a daily blog to keep fans satiated between official installments. 

In anticipation of his upcoming late-December road trip to Cincinnati (which culminates in a fan meetup: details/location are to be announced via the Uni Watch blog), we asked Lukas for his hottest takes on our city’s taste in athletic attire.  

CityBeat: The Reds recently unveiled 15 throwback uniforms that will be worn throughout the 2019 season. Which of these are you most looking forward to seeing on the field?

Paul Lukas: One of them I’m particularly interested in seeing is the throwback from 1936 — the one with the red pants. They’re actually the only red pants ever worn in Major League Baseball. It was an alternate design for that year alone. I think it was originally a lightweight alternative to the heavy flannels of the time. Today’s uniforms are obviously lighter than those from back in the day, so this will be a pretty appropriate throwback. I’m not sure if it’ll look good, but it will look interesting. I’m a big fan of interesting. 

I am a little disappointed, given that the Reds are the oldest pro baseball franchise, that they only went back as far as 1902. They could’ve gone back to the late 1800s and resurrected some uniforms from that period — that’s never been done before. I think 1902 is the earliest throwback in Major League baseball. It could’ve been an interesting move.

I do love that they’re doing so many of them. For a major program, 15 uniforms is a serious commitment, and there are lots of great little details.

CB: For a club with their sort of historical significance, how important is it for the Reds to stick to tradition?

PL: There are Coke teams and Pepsi teams. If you think about cola marketing, Coke has never really changed its logo. Their slogans are usually really simple, like ‘Enjoy Coca-Cola’ or ‘Coke Is It.’ Pepsi has changed its logo and packaging many times, and they tend to use youth-oriented slogans like ‘Generation Next’ or ‘The Choice of a New Generation.’ I feel like the the Reds are not a total Pepsi team, but they’re certainly not a Coke team. They’ve made a lot of changes over the years. They were one of the first teams to wear a vest, and were one of the last to hold out wearing a 70’s-style pullover jersey and elastic-waistband pants, a look they kept until 1993. In a way, that became their tradition. For a lot of people who grew up watching the Big Red Machine, that’s what the Reds look like.

The Reds have always tinkered.They’ve shown a willingness to innovate with their look or change their look, so although they have a deep history, I don’t think they’re associated with a classic-looking traditionalist style.

CB: In this year’s NFL preview, you said that the Bengals are in dire need of a “full uniform overhaul.” If you could re-design their uniforms, where would you start?

PL: Personally, I’d start with the helmet. I know a lot of people really like it — it’s a polarizing design. There are people who think it’s the best or second-best helmet in the league because it doesn’t have a logo. It treats the surface as a canvas. Then, there people who see it more as a wacky costume that doesn’t belong on a football field. I’ve always been in the latter camp. It’s been around long enough that it has its own heritage and history, and I appreciate that. Personally, I’d rather see them with a more traditional football-style logo on the side of the helmet. 

The side panels on the jerseys — the white stripes going down the sides of the black jersey, connecting with the pants stripes — are the worst. They’re way too prominent. They’ve got to cut down. 

There’s an adjective that some of us who talk about uniforms use, “Bengalian,” to describe something that’s really bad. “That’s a bad uniform of Bengalian proportions.”

CB: How would you change the helmets?

PL: The stripes were kind of fun back in the day, but it seems kind of rinky-dink by today’s NFL standards. I think you’d want a logo. It could either be the current tiger head logo, which would look pretty good on a helmet. Or the leaping tiger.

CB: FC Cincinnati’s kits have some pretty prominent Toyota sponsorship across the chest. How do you feel about advertising on uniforms? 

PL: I’m not a fan of it. When I’m watching the Mets, the only logo I want to see is the Mets’. I don’t even want to see the uniform manufacturer’s logo, really. You know the famous joke from Jerry Seinfeld? “We’re all rooting for laundry.” It’s true — think about brand loyalty. 

Let’s say I like Cheerios, which, in fact, I do. Over the years, I’ve internalized a positive connection with the Cheerios packaging and design. The yellow box; the typography. When I see it, something inside of me smiles. But the familiarity and affection only goes as far as I like the product. If they change the formula and I didn’t like how it tasted anymore, I might try one more box before the whole brand loyalty thing goes out the window. It’s really product loyalty.

With sports, however, the product and quality of their content is changing all the time. Players get traded. They retire or get injured. Your team can be really good one year and really bad the next, but you keep rooting for that team just like you keep buying boxes of Cheerios. That’s the power of the uniform. We’ll keep rooting for it no matter who’s wearing it. Let’s say I’m a Mets fan, which, in fact, I am. Let’s also say that I hate the Yankees, which, in fact, I do. If all 25 Mets players were traded today for all 25 Yankees players, who would I root for tomorrow?

To me, it’s a no-brainer. I root for the 25 guys wearing the Mets uniform. It’s not rational, but that’s the nature of sports rooting: it’s an intense form of brand loyalty that persists regardless of the product. 


Paul Lukas will visit Cincinnati in late December for a Uni Watch fan meetup. Get more info about Lukas and the blog at uni-watch.com



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