July 10, 2015

Horse 1934 - The Mystery Of The Uniform

Think about this for a second. If you took the Richie Cunningham from Happy Days and put him on Fonzie's motorcycle, would he be cool? No. If you took Fonzie's leather jacket and put it on Richie, would he be cool? Again, no. If you put the leather jacket on Richie Cunningham and then put him on Fonzie's motorcycle, would he be cool? Still, no.
How is it then that if you took a Manchester United player and put him in a Liverpool kit, that he would be cool? How is it that when you take Buddy Franklin, who used to be a dead set legend at Hawthorn and you put him in a Sydney Swans kit, that he instantly turns from a legend into a total boofhead?
Something is going on here and that something is the power of a uniform.

For most people, they will see most of their friends replaced through circumstance, several times in their lives. Parents die, children grow up and leave home and even siblings move out and the story of hatch, match and dispatch continues on, on and ever on.
About the only constants in life are people's faith, the continual scratching around to keep the bill collectors and tax collectors at bay and bread on the table, and the football team, or baseball team, or basketball team, or cricket team... that one follows. If you look at FA Cup fixtures on telly, or Australian Rules matches, or baseball games from America, or Hockey Night on CBC, invariably there will always be at least one shot of an old person with an indeterminate number of teeth, who has suffered through years of blinding disappointment and they'll still be there to watch their team lose yet again. Very few organisations illicit such brand loyalty and its certainly an interesting thing to observe.

I'm going to illustrate what I mean with something hideously mundane: Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. The box looks roughly identical to how it did when I was a kid but it no longer comes with that little tin of cheese sauce. The thing which made Kraft Macaroni & Cheese the thing that it was, was that little tin of cheese sauce. Change that out and you have what amounts to an essentially different product.
The weird thing is that if you changed out all eleven players from Liverpool and replaced them all with Manchester United players then the product doesn't actually change. I bet that if you swapped out all eleven players from Liverpool with Manchester United, I'd still follow Liverpool. Unlike Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, you can change out every single component and yet still garner the sort of brand loyalty that other companies and organisations can only dream about. Over the course of five years, a professional sporting team can change its entire staff and even though the players themselves might not show any real loyalty to their employers, the fans will.

This strikes me as odd. A professional sports player has an incentive to show loyalty to their employers because that's where their livelihood is coming from but a fan does not and what's more, players will often move on if someone else is waving a bigger wad of cash at them. What's worse is that a fan actually pays for the privilege of watching their team, which includes watching the players move on and be bought and sold like trading chips. The players move from club to club with as much speed as a ball across the turf but the fans do not.

When you talk about brand loyalty, people will sometimes lie to your face until you probe further. A generation ago if you'd asked someone if they were a Holden or Ford person, then more than likely they'd had a corresponding Holden or Ford sitting in the driveway. Although I might claim to be one of Henry's boys, a blue oval does not sit in our driveway, a lion does; it isn't even a Holden lion either but a French one. (Secretly though, if someone wants to donate many many tens of thousands of dollar pounds to the "Get Rollo an RS Fiesta Fund*" then I'm willing to shoulder your burden however massive.)

Even the uniform itself is subject to change and the fans still remain loyal. If I look through my own wardrobe of Liverpool red kits, there are the sponsors Crown Paints, Candy, Carlsberg and Standard Chartered represented and there are three different kit manufacturers yet despite all of this, it's still the same team. Apart from firms and organisations which outlast generations, that sort of continuity never occurs, and unless you happen to be talking about faith based organisations and family businesses, no other entity has that sort of claim.

Even though styles change, materials technology changes, so long as the basic colours remain the same, a uniform will begin to acquire an aura of its own over time. Before the World Cup of 1954, Brazil played in white but thanks to the absolute tragedy of their 1950 World Cup campaign and losing to Argentina, Brazil changed their kit colour to yellow.
In 1964, Bill Shankly had the Liverpool kit changed from white shorts to an all red kit because it made the players appear larger and fiercer. They bought into the myth and the legend was born.
Even in the genteel and discrete game of Test Cricket where there is little to distinguish the teams, Australia's Baggy Green cap has gone on to become a much treasured thing; helped by the fact that players only get one (or only get a new one when the previous one has become threadbare worn).

From a design perspective, the uniform is something which you mess with at your peril. When Malaysian billionaire Vincent Tan bought Cardiff City FC, he changed the kit from red to blue, in order to try and represent the red dragon of Wales. The fans weren't having a bar of it. Bluebells fans continued to wear their old blue kits and this season, Tan has had to give in to the fans because the uniform is bigger than the management of the club.

I know that I'm waxing lyrical here and and a tendency to be overly sentimental but in the year 2058 when half of my teeth are falling out and I am one of those weird old codgers you see on t' telly, there will still be valiant lads in Liverpool red kits, still be plucky warriors in tangerine Blackpool kits and still enemies in Man United red bits of rag.
That's what a uniform does. It connects fellow travelers through the ages. 

*If someone does want to send me £100,000 for an RS Fiesta, rest assured, I'm not that proud to accept charity. Charity beings at home; I see no reason why it shouldn't be mine.

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