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The Simple Beauty of American Sports Logos

Words:

Edd Norval
April 11, 2018

American sports logos have entered popular culture and become a mainstay. People from all over the world can be seen sporting the famous NY cap or have at one point owned a basketball top . We look at their legacy and future.

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The beauty of sports teams is that they mean something beyond their sport and beyond their city. Their impact is global - they can be a symbol of aspiration, wealth and social affinity. Getting the logo right in sports is perhaps more important than in any other sector - these will be worn proudly, used to represent pride and celebrate joy. They're much more than just a logo on a credit card.


The effect that sport evokes in people is unmatched by almost anything else. It has an ability to tap into our psyche of tribalism and gives us an identity - the clubs act as a defining feature of a person. Our interpretation of the club comes from more than their on-field performance though, we are wearing their colours and kits to say something about ourselves.


Sports in America is ubiquitous - college football grounds can pull in upwards of 80,000 fans. Giving these people a banner to rally under is a cause of utmost importance. So what is in a logo? What made some logos endure and others fade away?

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It's important to firstly understand that a logo can gain significance from a certain player or a certain person wearing them. Michael Jordan was a phenom - his abilities on the court were near incomprehensible and his cross-over appeal into culture, helped along by Space Jam overseas is undeniable. There was also the Oakland Raiders. Their logo was already iconic within the States, the monochromatic man with the eyepatch represented a sporting rebellion, but that was nothing until members of NWA wore their stuff.


The Raiders coach Al Davis was instrumental in the design. Although not the designer, it was his vision that saw the logo and subsequent colourway replace their former and more light-hearted image. He was a renegade in the sport, a singular character whose influence was part of the club's popularity. He praised independence and individuality - the fans responded by embracing that image whole-heartedly. Their impact remains one of the most eccentric in the game. There have been rumours of a re-branding for some time. Such whispers tend to be met with firm opposition.


Michael Jordan's presence in basketball helped the overseas profile and popularity of the Chicago Bulls. The logo came out in 1966 and was designed by Dean Wessel. The payment for this logo? Free tickets. Had he perhaps thought that the Chicago Bulls, a small franchise at the time, would have had more success then collecting royalties would have made him a rich man. The angry bovine head with bloody horns exudes confidence, vigour and the will to dominate. It's a powerful figure that has endured, so much so that even Kim Jong-un is a fan of the club. Picture that.

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Outside of the teams themselves, the actual sport has its own significant identity and social importance. Certain sports are more popular in certain parts of the country - this says a lot about the societal make-up. One sport that has a fairly even spread is baseball, a sport deeply woven into the fabric of American life. It was once all there was - in parks, on the radio, as cards to trade. America is a nostalgic nation and baseball has that romantic ingredient.


To secure its endurance, required an image that people can associate with - the fans from generation to generation must have a thread that holds their memories and stories together. For baseball that comes in the form of the MLB logo, almost as well-known as the NY that's on the front of so many caps. The red, white and blue logo is a masterclass in evoking simple times, national pride and the effectiveness of design.


The logo, which features an unknown player, has tapped into a common yet immensely powerful aspect of the American Dream - meritocracy. The idea that anyone can make it is intrinsic to American culture. Baseball perhaps more than any other sport promotes this. There is no ideal player. You don't have to be as tall as a basketball player or as powerful as an American footballer - you can learn the necessary skills and they can change your life. The unknown batter on the badge is an aspirational everyman - someone you want to be without knowing exactly who or why.

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Its colours are evocative of the Star Spangled Banner. It's not hard to sell people nationalism and its associated sentiments. The MLB logo designer, Jerry Dior, shared a similar story to Wessel. He was working in a marketing agency and received little-to-no recognition for his contribution to American culture for almost 40 years. As other sporting franchises, and indeed logos in all realms, began to echo his famous design - Dior and his wife petitioned to get some recognition for his authorship, something the MLB had hitherto neglected him.


This symbol has endured, and will most likely continue to. But American's aren't just good at original branding for sports, their rebrand efforts are fairly handsome too. The Major League Soccer logo was relatively similar to Dior's baseball logo in that it was a logo intersected by the image of the respective sport - a football boot and a ball. This logo changed slightly from the league's inception in 1994 up until 2012 where a total redesign was proposed. It too had the qualities of nostalgia - only their league wasn't that old and the history wasn't all that great. They needed a symbol of progress without alienating original fans.


It came in the form of their shield logo, designed by New York based Athletics and Berliner Benson. Utilising the traditional colours of America, the logo morphs to fit each club competing in the league. To go along with their own individual crest they also have the leagues badge, in their own colours. It's a simple message - you're part of something bigger, but you're your own club. The message, once again, of independence struck a chord. That chord wasn't always the right note in this case though. It's taken its fair share of criticism - why is there so much empty space? Why three stars? Why a stripe going through the middle?

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The new branding has versatility in mind - as a standalone piece it lacks the stand-out appeal of some of America's other franchise logos. The way it integrates with teams, allowing all of them their own language based more on their personality than just their branding style, is what sets it apart from the others. It might lack the strength of logos that endure, embracing an of-the-moment minimalism that has probably come close to its day, nevertheless the mission to be fresh is embodied in the work. It's a way of moving forward, breaking the confines of the league's reputation as being distinctly average.


The way a sport functions in society and its unofficial role as a pillar of communities depends as much on perception as reality. Baseball illustrates a romantic love of the sport, despite it being considerably less popular than it was in previous decades. The same can be said of the MLS. Football in America has long taken criticism from the rest of the world for being too, well, 'American'. They chose to break from their confines and associated expectations of what their rebranding would look like. The result has produced a mixed-bag reception, but ultimately - it's gone a long way to change perceptions. Where the past is the strength of baseball, it's the future that is the strength for football. Both of their success comes down to the image of the sport, how it is viewed and received - almost as much as the sports themselves. One thing is sure, they're situated in a good country for it.

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