Inspiration. Sometimes it comes along during a mundane game week and smacks you upside the head like an angry wife who just caught you checking out a Chi-O in a jean skirt on game-day. That's what happened to me, anyway (the inspiration, not the angry wife...although, there were plenty of Chi-O's in jean skirts on Sunday). Last week, there was this fanshot from one of our readers discussing WVU's football uniforms. It prompted some brief discussion, nothing earth-shattering. Then, while perusing the newly-christened Grantland.com (a great read for those of you who enjoy quality writing about sports and pop culture...or Bill Simmons), I noticed this article by Michael Kruse about Oregon's uniforms, and the story of how the uniforms helped shape the Ducks into a national football power.
Oh sure, the uniforms aren't the only reason Oregon is good. Nike, who I'm fairly certain prints money at a rate in excess of the U.S. Mint, has thrown bazillions into the programs in Eugene. Practice facilities. Stadium improvements. Luxury boxes. Coaching salaries. Locker room and travel accommodations. The list goes on. But the article raises an excellent point about today's "attention economy." In that economy, appearance matters. Branding matters. If you want to get people's attention (and the recruits, dollars, fans, and money that comes with it), you have to stand out. That's what Oregon has tried to do over the last couple decades, and judging by their recent success, they've done it well.
How, you ask, does this relate to WVU? Well, aside from the uniforms, let's take a look:
[Before we begin, I want to make it known that this post is not meant to degrade or criticize the poster of the fanshot, Scott Icard, in any way. That is not what we are about here at The Smoking Musket. Rather, his post simply provided the coincidence necessary to prompt this story. Moreover, it generated discussion, which is the whole point of the blog to begin with. So for that, I thank him and his candor in expressing his opinion. I just happen to differ with that opinion. At the end of the day, I'll be glad to buy him a beer and discuss WVU sports. Certainly, feel free to disagree with me and the author of the Grantland article, Michael Kruse. Please, voice your opinion---favorable or unfavorable---in the comment section.]
For reference, Mr. Icard said this about WVU's uniforms:
Mr. Luck, PLEASE go back to the strong, simple old gold and blue football uniforms of the Nehlen era! The current yellow and baby blue is ridiculous and embarrassing - not to mention the idiotic "coal" uniforms with the baby crap yellow shoes! You don't see the traditional football powerhouses changing their uniforms at every whim and feminizing their players' appearance like WVU has! And, no more same-color pants and jerseys!
My response was, essentially, that almost everyone is doing it now and that flashy uniforms catch the attention of recruits and viewers, thus enhancing the school's "brand" and, by extension, marketability. Without really knowing it, I hit on the premise of Kruse's article about Oregon. Naturally, his research, understanding, and prose far surpass the babbling I'm typically known for in the comments section.
Let's start with the premise---as Kruse and others call it, the "attention economy." When I was in undergrad, back during the second Punic War, I read that the most valuable thing we have is our time, because we can't get it back. What you do with your time, then, generates value. Catch someone's attention (i.e. their time), and you have a one-up on others competing for that scarce resource. Kruse says this about the "attention economy":
"This new economy," Goldhaber said in Cambridge in January 1997, "is based on endless originality.
"If you have enough attention," he added, "you can get anything you want."
Now, to be sure, I'm not sure that that premise, taken to its logical conclusion, will hold up against strenuous intellectual testing. But it doesn't have to. The economy doesn't have to be based on attention in order for the premise to work in the world of college football. Heck, maybe that's not even what Kruse is saying. All we care about is the premise that attention is scarce, that attention leads to power, and that attention and, by extension, power, are what lead to success in college football. How does a school go about fostering an atmosphere that promotes success?
Let's take this one step at a time. What wins games? Playing better than the other team, duh. How is that accomplished? Well, either by having better players and/or having better coaches. Preferably both, but if you swap the kids from the 2004 USC national championship team with, say, the players from this year's Norfolk State team...I'm not exactly betting on Pete Carroll to win the same number of games with this year's Norfolk State players. So it comes down to players, at least to a certain (and probably the greatest) extent.
How do you get better players? I would argue that there are two categories of factors that recruits consider: brand, and stuff. Stuff can be bought---practice facilities, stadium, equipment. Brand must be cultivated---winning tradition, fan support, reputation among the media.
You win by getting better players, you build a brand by winning...sort of.
As Kruse points out, some programs have established that brand. No matter what happens in college football, people will be talking about Ohio State. Fans will be streaming through the gates at Alabama. Pollsters will be respecting Notre Dame.
Tradition? Tradition is great where it's a sell-able, marketable commodity. Alabama can sell tradition. Penn State can sell tradition. Michigan can sell tradition. At those places, tradition is the differentiation, but at the schools where it's not? They have to go in the opposite direction. And no one has done that better, or more consciously, than Nike and Oregon, which for the purposes of this conversation are essentially one and the same. Oregon's tradition at this point is the overtly embraced lack of tradition. Change.
West Virginia is not Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame, Penn State or Michigan. It's more Oregon, but with arguably better tradition. But brand? No, WVU does not have the brand Oregon has right now. Oregon is flashy. It's hip. It sells merchandise. It attracts TV dollars and media attention. And the merchandise, TV dollars, and media attention? Oh yeah, they generate revenue. Revenue to build stuff, like practice facilities and locker rooms. Revenue to pay salaries of top coaches like Chip Kelly who know what to do with the top recruits who came to Oregon because of the attention they got from the swag uniforms they rocked last season.
[A]s the Ducks were making their way to the Rose Bowl and their first no. 1 national ranking and then this past January's national championship game, which they lost to Auburn on a field goal with two seconds left, more teams around the country started wearing uniforms that made them look like … Oregon. West Virginia and Virginia Tech. Miami and Boise and TCU. Now Arizona State and Oklahoma State and Wyoming.
Oliver Luck understand this. He knows that WVU isn't Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame, Penn State or Michigan...or Oregon. But he also knows it's a lot more like Oregon than anyone else on that list, and that WVU must, if it wants to keep up with the Joneses of college football, do something to make a name for itself---to develop its brand.
That's what the Nike Pro Combat uniforms last year were about. They got people talking. They got people to buy jerseys and helmets. They got recruits to notice that, hey, WVU is playing. And maybe, just maybe, they got some recruits to pay a little more attention than they otherwise would have. What's the value in that? One recruit? One win? One Big East title?
That's what the all-gold uniforms are about. They get people to notice. You see some blue uniforms on TV and hey, if you weren't really looking it may have been Cal...or Toledo...or Kent State. You see some bright yellow uniforms running around out there, you just might look a second time and notice, oh yeah, it's WVU...and they just beat someone by 21, so they must be pretty good.
That's what hiring Dana Holgorsen was about. Putting up points. Developing an exciting brand of football that people want to watch and that puts up video game numbers that people notice when the score scrolls across the bottom line on ESPN. It puts people in the stands, who pay money to buy tickets and money to buy concessions. It gets attention and, hey, attention is scarce.
That's what selling beer at Mountaineer Field is about. Generating revenue. Revenue that can be used to buy better stuff for the stadium and to hire and retain better coaches, like Dana Holgorsen. Because stuff and coaching matter when you're trying to attract great players.
That's what playing games like JMU and BYU at FedEx field is about. Getting more attention from more people. Because, you know, the millions of people living in Washington, DC, might just sit up and take notice of the Mountaineers if there's a game going on in their hometown that weekend and the Washington Post is covering the game on the front page a few days leading up to the game.
Exposure. Attention. Brand.
You might not like the look of the new uniforms. You might not like the idea of selling beer at Mountaineer Field. And you might not like the idea of playing games at FedEx field in Washington. But. I bet you like winning. And in this new "attention economy," you win by getting better players. You get better players by getting their attention. And you get their attention by cultivating your brand.
And hey, if you still disagree with me, take heart. It could be worse:
You could root for Maryland.