COLUMBIA — At halftime of the Black and Gold spring football game Saturday, the new Missouri uniforms will be revealed.
The ceremony, which will also feature the new basketball, soccer and volleyball jerseys, is the main attraction of the day. Afterward, when new merchandise goes on sale, expect a Black Friday-like raid of the Tiger Team Store and less attention on the second half of the game. The anticipation for the uniforms has caused a noticeable buzz above the usual drone of online fan forums and hash-tagged Twitter feeds.
The Missouri football players answer why uniforms are important to recruits.
T.J. Moe, senior wide receiver: "If you go to a high school football game you'll see guys with bands all the way up their arms, stuff on their helmets, every little thing you can do to stick out."
Marcus Lucas, junior wide receiver: "Everyone loves change, everyone likes to look good. If you look good, you play good. It's just an exciting time for us — new conference, new uniforms, new team out there."
Corbin Berkstresser, redshirt freshman quarterback: "Kids call it swag. You want the nice uniforms, not the old ones, especially when you're wearing Nike. When you walk out of the tunnels it's an intimidating factor, I think. From what I hear about the new uniforms, the SEC might be a little scared.
Chalk that up to the work of the MU athletics department staff, which has kept the new uniform design from leaking (for the most part) while releasing about 15 online video teasers. It is a little ridiculous, but don’t doubt the zeal. Don Barnes, director of equipment operations, compared Saturday to watching his children open their Christmas presents.
Barnes and the athletics department have spent 18 months collaborating with Nike and four years studying the Missouri brand, which is what these new uniforms are really all about.
The "mind-numbing" process included a survey of 35,000 season ticket holders, the consultation of other branding experts and work with Columbia marketing and advertising companies. It has yielded a 47-page guidebook that spells out Missouri’s modernized brand and how it can be used wherever its marks might appear.
The takeaway: Narrow the brand down to logos that distinguish the school and then commit to promoting it consistently.
Saturday will mark the transition from phase 1 to phase 2. The jerseys will emphasize the logos chosen — the Mizzou nickname and the oval tiger head — as well the new font and shade of gold the athletics department will use going forward on facilities, merchandise and even business cards.
Because the uniforms are so visible, they will debut the changes. But they are only the beginning.
"In everything moving forward, we'll incorporate those things," said Emily Janssen, the athletics department's director of marketing. "You'll see those graphics on the new field turf, the basketball court and things like letterhead."
'A big deal with kids'
Kimberly Judson, a marketing professor at Illinois State who has researched branding within college athletics and universities, watched the Mizzou Network videos previewing the uniforms. She liked what she saw.
"There's a lot of opportunity for branding using technology," she said. "You have to meet your customer, in this case recruits, where they are. And young people are definitely online."
Judson said universities have always had a hard time pushing a single brand because of the many groups they represent. They instead promote multiples ones, which defeats the purpose when going for a larger audience.
The partnership with a strong brand that conveys success, such as Nike, helps, and so does having the guts to simply pick an audience to please.
It sounds as if Barnes and company have guts. The new uniforms won't be as slick as Oregon's, or as gaudy as Maryland's. But if older fans expect something like the mid-century Missouri jerseys that former player, coach and announcer John Kadlec calls "very simple, like Penn State's," they are in for a surprise.
The athletics department has tried to be sensitive toward entrenched fans, but come Saturdays in September they will still fill the tailgating lots outside Memorial Stadium. Traditions span generations with these fans — a mere uniform won't make much of a difference.
For a 17- or 18-year-old kid, though, it might. In the battle for recruits over the past five years, Missouri coaches have found that uniforms have become part of the "arms race" and that they need to keep up with the Joneses. Football coach Gary Pinkel might side with the traditionalists, but he also recognizes it doesn't matter what he thinks.
"The bottom line is that (uniforms) are a big deal with kids nowadays," Pinkel said. "That's very appealing to them. You're not going to make everybody happy, but you can do right for Missouri football. You've got to ask, 'What's our brand?'"
To recruits, options are important. Barnes said the football team will have 24 different uniform combinations this season, and if it were possible to try all of them, the players would most certainly want to. Looking good is subjective. Looking different — just as important to kids — is less subjective.
When Scott Kampmeyer — the president of Missouri’s alumni association chapter in Los Angeles and a production artist at Disney — saw the first few online teasers, he used his skills to cut up and create images of what the jerseys might look like. Barnes said Kampmeyer "took that thing apart like it was the Zapruder film," an indication of how accurate the depictions might be.
"What felt good is that a lot of the responses were positive," Barnes also said.
Barnes would like to please everybody, but he knows better. He's resolved the problem this way: Use the brand to impress top recruits like Dorial Green-Beckham, and hope signing multiple DGBs correlates to more wins. More wins satisfy alumni and lead to more tradition.
"Making that 18-year-old kid happy, that's where it starts," Barnes said.
'It's like a buzzword'
In the state of Missouri, the gold "M" insignia has value to Missouri fans. Cross the Mississippi River, though, and most people will associate it with Michigan, which has a nationally-recognized athletics tradition.
It gets more confusing from there. Eight states begin with the letter M, and it is likely the most common single letter used to represent colleges.
Barnes, who grew up in Wisconsin, still associates the M with Minnesota. He understood, then, when experts said to move away from the nondescript block M.
It made even more sense when they stopped to consider the word Mizzou.
"We have this built-in nickname that is awesome," Barnes said. "It's like a buzzword, Mizzou flows off your tongue. That 18-year-old kid in Florida or Georgia, they know what Mizzou is, and they love to use it."
The athletics department began adapting the tagline in May 2011, when it launched its One Mizzou initiative. Meanwhile, it worked with Nike to help develop a consistent graphic for the Mizzou nickname.
Arizona State worked with Nike and totally changed its logo and color scheme. From the start, Missouri said it wanted to keep its oval tiger head, which Janssen said the athletics department has used as its main logo for more than five years.
When Missouri joins the Southeastern Conference on July 1, it will become the third school in the conference to have the Tiger mascot along with LSU and Auburn. However, the Missouri tiger head logo looks different than the LSU logo, and Auburn doesn't emphasize its feline.
Don't be surprised if the Missouri oval tiger head winds up on the new helmet.
A very long engagement (with Nike)
Missouri signed its original five-year deal with Nike in 1998. The school's latest contract with Nike will continue for eight more years. Incidentally, the NFL just signed a five-year deal with Nike as its official apparel company at the beginning of April. Everyone, it seems, wants to buy into the modern look Nike is promoting.
Nike actually approached Missouri 18 months ago. At the time, Missouri didn't know it would be joining the SEC. From a marketing standpoint, the timing could not could not have worked out better.
As Missouri football coaches have hit the recruiting path in the South, the athletics department has worked with its marketing partners in Columbia to raise Missouri's profile in the region.
Remember, the uniforms are just the beginning. On Saturday, the field will look the same as last fall, but in the coming weeks the old turf will be ripped up and replaced with, according to what Barnes said on KFRU, "significant portions" of gold.