Wednesday, 18 April 2012

What happned to rugby shirts?

The decision to enter the professional sports world was undoubtedly one of the most crucial moments in the history of rugby. On the 26th of August 1995 IRB declared the start of new professional era and from this moment there is no way back. Analysis of the consequences of this event is a subject for extensive research work - transformation of amateur rugby into the professional sport has already been described in some interesting books. Today, I will focus on a very specific issue resulting from this change and clearly visible today, namely, the appearance of rugby jerseys. Although the rugby players outfit, as the discipline itself, constantly evolved, changes that occur in the recent years seem to be very radical.

A few years ago a rugby shirt was easily recognizable. Traditional style with a collar and a few buttons became an icon of this sport, associated almost equally with the oval ball and goal posts in the shape of the letter H. Patterns and colors of both clubs and national teams jerseys remained almost completely unchanged over the years. Fans could recognize teams at first glance. The situation has radically changed recently. Many teams opted for a very bold decisions about the players outfit. The leader of the controversial design is a French team Stade Francais which is known for very avant-garde shirts. National teams are also experimenting - a good example is England. RFU decided to appear in black (rugby15) and orange or purple (rugby7).

This revolution is related to two things. First of all, the development of technology enabled the production of match clothing with improved properties. The use of synthetic materials like polyester, which replaced cotton, made products more durable lighter and more resistant to water and sweat absorption. Additionally, new shirts are harder to get hold of in a tackle situation because they are slippery and closely adhere to the body. New production methods have also enabled creation of the shirts in any design and colors.

The second issue involves the financial aspect. Revenue from the sale of  merchandise, replica shirts and any other products purchased by fans are one of the major sources of income in professional clubs. People responsible for marketing and promotions know very well how to build interest in this kind of products. The main strategy is to launch the new product range with the start of every season. Then there are different sets of  rugby shirts for league matches and international tournaments (such as the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup).

Although the modernization of equipment coupled with technological developments can be considered a natural process, which accompanies sports for years and usually affects it favorably, a modern attitude to the appearance of the shirt is not so clear. The fact, that teams change the design of the shirts after every season and constantly surprise fans with new ideas for the jerseys, is becoming more common. The fans, despite the initial shock, started to get used to this situation. In my opinion, however, the tradition is too easily sacrificed in favor of marketing. Instead of constant change, I would rather see a more conservative approach. Even at the highest level it is possible to stick to tradition. The best example is a wide group of U.S. clubs playing football, hockey, basketball or baseball. Their image has stayed very consistent for years. Shirts and logos of teams such as Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers or New York Yankees are recognizable around the world, not only by fans but also by people completely unrelated to sports. Building a professional sports team brand should be strongly based on its history and traditions.
Free approach to the continuous change of colors and patterns is not good for strengthening identity. I hope that those responsible for the appearance of professional rugby teams will soon come to similar conclusions. I hope that rugby shirt will be restored to its due respect, and that it will become something more than just a space for designers’' artistic expression.

Below are some pictures of the most avant-garde outfits which professional rugby players are "forced" to play in.