Sports biz: Draw play

Stewart Schley //June 1, 2009//

Sports biz: Draw play

Stewart Schley //June 1, 2009//

When the Denver Broncos played for the first time in 1960, players took the field in uniforms that were (with apologies to Pat Bowlen) predominantly mustard. The Broncos, one of eight ragamuffin teams in the newly formed American Football League, suited up in mud-colored pants topped with pale yellow jerseys and brown helmets.

General manager Dean Griffing, a notorious cheapskate, bought them on the cheap from a defunct Arizona team, according to Broncos lore. The team would have looked perfectly ordinary, a nondescript collegiate team from the Midwest, if it wasn’t for the strange fashion accessory that appeared below. Inexplicably, the lower legs of the Broncos players were swaddled in garish, vertically striped stockings. When 18,700 fans showed up for the first Broncos home game at the old Denver Bears stadium, they were confronted with an epic fashion disaster that has not been repeated since in Colorado sports, with the possible exception of Doug Moe.

The team was a laughingstock for years, but at least the fashion sensibilities improved. In the summer of 1962, Broncos players ceremoniously tossed the offending leggings into a bonfire at Bears Stadium as 8,000 fans cheered wildly. By 1962, the Broncos sported Tennessee Orange jerseys and a logo featuring a bucking horse – design motifs that would endure until 1997, when the Broncos jettisoned their signature color in favor of dark-blue home uniforms and a modernized  logo designed by graphic artists from Nike Inc. (All of this is nicely chronicled by the fan website

Now, 50 years after they kicked off their first season, the Broncos and the National Football League are celebrating the silver anniversary of the renegade AFL by suiting up the eight original AFL teams in their old uniforms for several games, and introducing a “Legacy” collection of retro-themed merchandise.

Wisely, the Broncos aren’t trotting out the old striped socks to commemorate the team’s 50th birthday. Instead, a new logo has been crafted to bridge the old and the new. The artwork is the creation of Adrenalin, a sports-focused marketing communications company with offices near 11th and Broadway. Adrenalin was co-founded in 1998 by a former Denver Nuggets marketing department employee, Dan Price. Since then, the shop has been in the business of devising graphic looks and “brand identity” programs for dozens of professional teams and leagues.

Emblems for the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes, professional soccer’s Chicago Fire and the National Lacrosse League’s Colorado Mammoth are Adrenalin’s work. So are lots of promotional brochures, direct-mail campaigns and tag lines associated with the likes of the Los Angeles Dodgers and other teams.

Reflecting the Broncos’ varied uniform progressions in a single bit of artwork would be impossible, so Adrenalin didn’t even try. Art director Shane George focused instead on a design that would give off a sort of enduring football ethos, with typography suggestive of gridiron chalk-markings and a restrained, classic look. The mark is drawn in the shape of a football. Diverging arrows suggest both the team’s past and its future progression, reflecting Price’s belief that “an organization like the Broncos is timeless.”

Adrenalin’s work in sports-team branding reflects how far professional sports have come since the days when the Broncos trotted out their cheaply purchased uniforms in the fall of 1960. An explosion in the number of teams and leagues competing for fan attention also has elevated the role of marketing, Price believes. He’s seen a shift in marketing philosophy within the sports business, as teams seek to establish and maintain brand values that are independent of any particular player. That’s a better long-term positioning strategy for owners, who hope to prosper in the long run regardless of who’s on the field.

Still, some things don’t change. Fan affinity around certain teams can be intense and enduring, as the Broncos have demonstrated ever since the team cultivated a passionate following in the early 1960s. Price and his design team are aware of that legacy, which is one reason the Broncos 50th Anniversary logo looks the way it does.

“If you didn’t do something that was classic, then it wouldn’t pay respect to the past,” Price says.
Vertical socks notwithstanding.

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