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Does MLS’ deal with adidas stifle kit creativity?

Atlanta United's new 2018 jersey. (All photos courtesy of Major League Soccer)

The design of a jersey is the purest manifestation of a team’s identity. It’s not just about the jersey itself, but what it signifies. It’s why the seasonal jersey launch is anticipated by so many, with fans marking its release as an important date in their soccer calendars.

But while MLS was once renowned for its unique and distinct collection of jerseys, now there is a palpable sense of indifference around the designs being served up. As Brian Strauss wrote for Sports Illustrated after the release of this year’s crop, “you’ll see an awful lot of white and black, a ton of monochrome, and what looks like a conscious effort from several clubs to scrub every bit of individuality from their brand.”

Some argue this is a consequence of the centralized apparel deal MLS holds with adidas and that the contract, recently extended by six years to 2026, stifles the individual creativity of clubs. 

What’s the incentive for adidas to create 23 truly original jerseys for its MLS teams if there is no external competition? Some jerseys have been homogenized over the years. Look at the Philadelphia Union, for instance, which recently toned down its once bold blue-and-gold color scheme complete with center stripe. Now, the club’s color scheme centers on more solids. The gold accents are more subtle, and there is no longer a center stripe.

Or Real Salt Lake’s iconic red-and-blue look that lost much of its blue over the years. It is now just another monochrome red uniform with a flash of blue. 

And the third jerseys, once seen as a canvas for the more creative-minded are gone, with MLS now only permitting one jersey release per team every season.

Would it be better for MLS clubs to strike their own uniform deals with their own manufacturers and brands like they do in almost every other league around the world? 

“I think there would be a lot of brands jumping to get a slice of the MLS pie at the moment.”

“I do believe competition is always a good thing for creativity, especially with football kits,” said Nathen McVittie, co-founder of the creative agency Common Goal. “It would mean more bespoke designs because some brands want to be known. Smaller brands like Umbro or Erreà might throw extra resources behind just one client to try and make a splash. I think there would be a lot of brands jumping to get a slice of the MLS pie at the moment.”

That may be true, but is it correct to assume more creativity would be afforded to each team with that model?

“I don’t really know if that would have an effect or not,” MLS’ vice president of consumer products, Mike Walker, said, fresh off a trip to meet with Adidas in Germany. “The current process is very collaborative and teams can pretty much do whatever they want.”

From a brand perspective, the value of a league-wide deal with adidas is obvious. 

Photo gallery: See all 2017-18 MLS jerseys

“All teams are invested equally,” Walker elaborates. “You don’t have the larger-market teams outwitting the smaller-market ones, they all get the same level of service. And to have one of the largest sporting goods providers in the world as the brand the clubs are wearing on field is absolutely a big thing for the league.”

Walker is keen to stress the freedom each MLS club is given, even under the centralized deal with adidas. The German manufacturer will inform every MLS club of its overarching creative direction for the season ahead, but beyond that it’s largely up to teams to decide what they want to wear. An in-depth document is passed back and forth as clubs put forward ideas. 

“Some of them will say, ‘We don’t know what we want, but can you help us do that?’” Walker said. “It’s a very collaborative process.”

For many, the identity of a team can be found in the jerseys they wear, explaining why it is considered to be so important by fans. For Los Angeles FC, that link between jersey design and team personality was even more pronounced as the club embarked on its inaugural season.

LAFC 2018 black jersey. (Courtesy of MLS)

And yet for all the hype around the release of the first jersey, some were critical of what LAFC and adidas came up with. More accurately, they were critical of the “YouTube TV” logo splashed across the chest. Rather than adhering to the distinctive black and gold color palette, the well-known brand name is printed in its usual white and red.

“The sponsorship of a team can destroy a jersey,” McVittie said. “I don’t personally enjoy the red on that kit. It grabs your eye when you don’t want your eye to be grabbed. It’s about 75 percent of what it could have been.” 

LAFC argues having one of the most recognizable brands on the planet, unaltered, on the jersey boosts the club’s own brand. 

“We wanted to be referential to their globally-known brand and go with the red and white,” LAFC creative director Marcus McDougald said. “What’s always open is discussion over future iterations. We’ve all seen cool logos around the world, and that’s something we’ll definitely discuss in the future. But out of the gates, we were excited about being a part of their world. We’re their very first ever sports sponsorship. It was a ‘we’ decision, not a ‘they’ decision [to have the logo in white and red].”

LAFC’s home jersey is on track to become one of the most popular in MLS history, so the design has clearly struck a chord with the fan base. As the club underlines, the intention was to establish a base identity in the inaugural season. 

“We knew that if we started with this really clean foundation there would be room for branching out and trying different things in the future,” Rich Orosco, executive vice president of brand and community at LAFC, said.

Maybe MLS could follow the precedent set by some of its fellow American sports leagues innovating within a centralized apparel deal. The NBA, for instance, hosts an annual Spanish heritage month, with every team wearing a custom uniform for that month. NBA teams have also been known to wear custom jerseys around Christmas time. 

Some might bemoan the lack of imagination in the final product, but MLS argues the process still gives it every chance to thrive.

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