Scrub through the early days of the National Women’s Soccer League YouTube archives, and you’ll find a treasure trove of games from the inaugural season in 2013. Without some supporting metadata from the videos, you might have trouble identifying teams.
The poor quality of the team-produced broadcasts in those days didn’t help, but among the NWSL’s early visual issues was the fact that many teams looked exactly the same. Each of the eight teams from that first season wore one of a few Nike templates in a team-specified color. So lacking in variety were the jerseys that it was easy to confuse which team was which in multiple matchups on a given day. Just try distinguishing the Portland Thorns from the Washington Spirit at a distance, each with the same red jersey with a white stripe across the chest. The same issue existed for Sky Blue FC (which, despite its name, wore navy) and the Seattle Reign.
All of this was understandable enough in the early years. The NWSL came together in a hurry, by the standards of a professional sports league, evolving from a hasty press release hours before the 2012 Olympic final into a league backed by U.S. Soccer by year’s end. Budgets were still minuscule.
How is it, though, that 10 years later, there is such a lack of diversity and identity among team kits and brands? As many as half the NWSL’s 12 teams this season will wear black primary jerseys, even though for several of those clubs it is not a primary color in the crest (or jersey, historically). The result is a league that still feels very bland when it comes to team identities, something that is important in establishing local fandom and standing out on a national and global scale.
Nike and the NWSL are in a new phase of their partnership, one that has people around the league excited about the promise of greater kit customization and flexibility starting in 2024. Among the rules that are changing, as The Equalizer previously reported, is the loosening of the requirement to have a white alternate jersey.
Plain white jerseys have long been a problem for the NWSL. In theory, the rule change should mean more color in the league. The Orlando Pride have already said they will not be wearing a white jersey for the foreseeable future, beginning next year. But in an effort from teams to be cool and follow the trend (and yes, sell jerseys, which is important), black kits have become the new white: overdone and too often without reason.
The latest in this trend came last week, when the Washington Spirit unveiled an all-black primary along with a new black-and-white crest, replacing the red-white-and-blue color scheme the team has used since its inception. Owner Michele Kang told reporters that the change represents a “rebrand in progress” for the Spirit. The black and white is something of a transition.
The Equalizer has confirmed that 2024 NWSL kits have already been finalized with Nike and the league, according to multiple sources, so the Spirit at least internally know what they will look like next year. The process of alerting the NWSL of a potential rebrand, and then getting approval for the final change, takes time, as NJ/NY Gotham FC learned in its recent transformation from Sky Blue FC.
At the top level, beyond the kits, there is the entire brand identities of teams. This is the crest, the color palette, and yes, the ethos of the brand. Given the checkered history of the Spirit franchise — from preventing Megan Rapinoe from kneeling in 2016, to Richie Burke’s tenure as head coach and Steve Baldwin’s tumultuous exit as majority owner — it is understandable why Kang would want to move on from any association with the past. That was Gotham’s goal two years ago, to leave behind a Sky Blue name that was synonymous with failure and mistreatment of players. Logically, the Spirit franchise is also somewhat of an extension of the old Washington Freedom brand, which was eviscerated by its tragic rebrand to magicJack in late 2010. Some might view that as added baggage.
The Spirit, however, also represent one of the only three remaining original team brands from the NWSL’s launch in 2013, and the team is only two years removed from winning a championship.
American soccer has a major problem with its general willingness to erase the fleeting history it has in search of something fresh (“timeless,” the executives say). It is too often a thirsty quest that values change for the sake of it rather than change with meaning and purpose. Failed MLS rebrands in Chicago, Columbus and Montreal should be cautionary tales about this process.
This problem of disrespecting history is so pervasive that the current clubs of the league fail to even recognize three of the league’s nine past champions because of the legal technicalities of teams relocating. There were other losses for the league along the way.
Seattle Reign eventually changed OL Reign under its new French ownership, which brought with it a totally different look and color palette meant to match sister club Lyon. It kept the team in Seattle, which was an understandable but still slightly cringeworthy sacrifice for what was arguably the best original NWSL brand, combining the name and visual identity.
The current Spirit branding was created by former majority owner Bill Lynch, who felt “the name is the objective of inspiring, creating inspiration.” The crest is supposed to be shaped like a torch and the ball at the bottom is “fueling the spirit” of the team.
So, sure, there could be a lot more meaning to the name. Maybe that makes it easier to start anew. Ten years in, however, is it worth starting from scratch? Surely there will be market research to back up the decision. Plenty of clubs globally, with decades more history, have gone through legal or financial trouble, bad ownership, relegation and losing streaks — all sorts of baggage. Plenty of them have also stuck with the same similar name and branding.
Most immediate for the Spirit is the move to black-and-white. If this were to stick long-term, it would be both unremarkable and unoriginal. Look at the recent rendering released by EA Sports, upon the positive news that the NWSL will be featured in the video game going forward, to see how the Spirit kit fits into the grand scheme of the league.
Angel City launched with black as a primary color, and sure, that made sense for the market. LAFC already wore black and was a quasi-brother team in the same stadium, and LA is a market where cool and sellable is a must. What the all-black kit lacks in design and personality, the pink-and-white alternate makes up for.
Gotham ditched its sky-blue colorway for mostly black in 2021 in a similar effort to be cool and modern in the country’s biggest market. Portland Thorns FC abandoned red years ago in favor of black branding on and off the field. The Orlando Pride shifted away from solid purple to a heavily black base in 2021 with the Ad Astra kit, and the Chicago Red Stars recently began to favor all-black kits over the traditional light blue. Add in the dark violet that Racing Louisville wears, and the disappointingly plain navy kits of San Diego Wave FC, and the NWSL desperately lacks a modicum of color variety, let alone strong kit design. That is a sad statement to make after some impressive previous kit drops from some teams, but it’s the reality of a copycat world. (If this rumored Portland alternative kit is real… well, I guess there’s something unique about it, at least!)
What comes next? Variety, hopefully. That is a bare minimum. Brand identities that have some kind of continuity year-over-year would be nice, too, rather than chasing fads.
The new phase of the Nike relationship is supposed to help with this on a kit front. All of this is also happening to the backdrop of the league hiring its first creative director, who is overseeing a rebrand of the entire NWSL.
One of commissioner Jessica Berman’s objectives this year is to establish a network of sharing best practices among clubs. If that initiative can overlap with input from creative director Maureen Raisch on a team level — to make sure that not only the league has the right branding, but that it trickles down to each individual team — that would be welcomed. Right now, there is too much of the same when it comes to team branding.
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