‘To put it in economic terms, Maryland has a comparative advantage in ridiculous uniforms.’
I wore orange pants in elementary school. They were about the brightest, most vibrant shade of orange you could possibly imagine. When I look at old pictures of me wearing pants that might have emitted UV rays, I wonder why my parents allowed me to leave the house in them. At that age, I wasn’t cognitively aware of why I wore them. It was my first year in a new school, and I suppose I needed to compensate for not being particularly outgoing.
If you follow sports, then you have probably seen the nauseating jerseys the University of Maryland Presented by Under Armour wore on Labor Day. The Maryland jerseys were disturbingly similar in flare and shock value as my orange pants. As my college roommate summarized, “It’s like McDonalds sponsored a Tron team.” The uniforms created quite the stir: LeBron James, a Nike poster-child, tweeted about them, Deadspin wrote about them, and virtually every ESPN talking head mentioned them at some time or another.
As a Maryland alum, I don’t have to do much convincing when I explain how little people care about Maryland football. Despite the infamous Wedding Crashers line—“Crab cakes and football, that’s what Maryland does!”—Maryland’s a basketball school, through and through. We would be slightly upbeat when Maryland football didn’t lose, and completely agnostic when they did. It didn’t make much of a difference to us. Like most college students, we got drunk on Saturdays, football game or not.
The complexion of Maryland football took a turn when the Athletic Department built a luxury-box addition to Byrd Stadium. The stadium was renamed Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium, and Tyser Tower added 63 luxury suites and new press box to the stadium. Maryland football was improving the stadium before they improved the program.
Most of Tyser Tower’s suites went unsold. Newly-appointed athletic director Kevin Anderson needed to create a spark in the program, so he fired head coach Ralph Friedgen—who was regarded on campus similarly to how Bob Bradley was amongst US Soccer fans—and was replaced with former UConn head coach Randy Edsall. With Edsall fresh off a Fiesta Bowl appearance with Connecticut, it was a classic publicity hire. The only problem for Maryland was no one cared about UConn football, either. The publicity hire failed to create any buzz.
Maryland had perennially struggled to compete in the ACC with a few exceptional seasons. Getting a better football team to increase revenue had proven difficult. Instead, Kevin Anderson decided there was a much quicker and more sustainable route: get an unofficial corporate sponsor. Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, a Maryland alum, knew all about the importance of the jersey on your back, since being a special teams player, he had no individual marketing cache. He was only as valuable as the jersey on his torso or the helmet on his head. His plan is clearly to replicate this anonymity with every Maryland player.
If you watched the Maryland-Miami game, you might know the Maryland quarterback’s name, or maybe their running back. That’s probably it. But you definitely know about their uniforms. You probably remember there are 32 different combinations, all featuring some variation of the Maryland flag design and color scheme.
In college football, players come and go. Maryland’s quarterback, Danny O’Brien, started as a true freshman, so at best he will be on the team for four years. If they can’t find a solid replacement (and since its Maryland, they probably won’t) then the team will go back to being bottom-feeders of the ACC, a weak football conference to begin with.
If players and on-field success offer temporary reprieves of failure, outrageous uniforms can be a constant draw. It sounds silly, because it is. Come and see our team wear really ugly and flashy clothing! But, if the first game is any indication, it’s going to work. More people—celebrities and coworkers alike—talked about Maryland football this week than my entire four years of undergrad. (That includes the game we crushed Matt Ryan and #3 Boston College at home.) The discourse about Maryland jerseys resembled a shocking wardrobe at the Oscars or VMA’s. At least no Maryland player ran onto the field in drag.
Is the drastic increase in Maryland football awareness really that shocking, though? By definition, there are good teams every year, and some of those teams will be surprises. If Maryland were as successful on the field as logically possible, they would win the Orange Bowl (playing in the ACC, their schedule isn’t difficult enough to make the BCS Championship). Kevin Anderson would roll around in a modest pile of cash, and then they would have to start all over the next season, necessarily failing to reach the heights of the previous campaign. For Maryland football, success is a guarantee for future failure.
Conversely, there are almost infinite jersey and color combinations. Surely, with the marketing army of Under Armour imagining the designs, Maryland has a superior advantage in uniforms than any on-field skill set. To put it in economic terms, Maryland has a comparative advantage in ridiculous uniforms. If there was a Ridiculous Uniforms Bowl, Maryland would play Oregon every year. Also, if that bowl game did exist, would you watch it?
I now realize why I wore my orange pants in elementary school. Nobody knew me, I didn’t have any spectacular skills or draws, and I didn’t eat worms or play sports very well. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about me that would make me fast friends. So I wore my orange pants. If I wore the orange pants, other kids were more likely to talk to me.
One of those kids is still my friend to this day, and periodically asks what could have possibly possessed me to wear them. I say I don’t know, but of course I do. If I didn’t wear those orange pants, would he ever have talked to me to begin with?