Your Name Here - the new MLS crest
NEW YORK -- Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the Internet. So no sooner had the new MLS rebrand/logo/system been unveiled/installed/animated (versatility is key) this morning than Twitter was rushing in to fill the space left open on the lower half of the new MLS crest.
Twitter being Twitter, and sports fans being sports fans, the immediate reaction ranged from rough to "meh." There's certainly not much that is less cool than seeing a rebrand for a product whose fiercest advocates have occasionally worn its historic obscurity in the U.S. sporting landscape as their own badge of pride, and saying, "Hey I get it -- I really see what the project was, why they did it now and how they arrived at this solution. Right guys?"
And as I sat at the Chelsea event space for the launch event this morning, and the video animation for the new crest failed to launch after Commissioner Don Garber's opening remarks, I didn't have to glance at my screen to know that a sea of snark just got a new wave.
And part of me wanted to join in. The claims that accompany events like this are always something of an opening goal -- something MLS perhaps tacitly acknowledged by stuffing the event with the great and good from the commissioner to players like David Villa, Maurice Edu, Tim Cahill, Bradley Wright-Phillips and sundry owners and executives such as Claudio Reyna.
"You're going to love it when you see it animated," they said.
But to be fair it's a little rich having sports people false nine-ing about design jargon -- it's an industry like any other, from banking to addiction recovery -- so let's do our best to set those claims to one side, along with whether the rebrand needed to happen at all (something put in excellent context by Doug McIntyre) and see what the new design actually does.
The salient point perhaps is that this is being unveiled in 2014, for the league's 20th season in 2015. We are deep into a digital era -- deeper in fact than we are into an MLS era, which is one of the league's unique selling points.
The league's targeting of millennials, from TV audience-building to the logic of downtown stadiums, is driven by interactive engagement, or should be. The idea of a single iconic badge superimposed on a hat or a poster still has a place, but has to join a visual vocabulary that's informed by "lower thirds" and smartphone video clips, as well as being flexible enough to be adaptable for delivery systems that aren't as yet conceived of.
By that measure the new crest performs well, comes in more colors than your average iPhone, and generally has the potential to swoosh up and superimpose, under-impose or decompose to the satisfaction of editors and programmers everywhere. If it loses something in its ability to be all things to all people (and platforms), it's at least true to another buzzword around the league, not mentioned today, but prominent in how MLS sees its own culture -- it's "nimble." Not striking, but nimble.
In other words, it goes beyond whether there's a ball on it or not (there isn't).
And to be honest it goes beyond the "Community, Club, Country" phrase that supposedly galvanized the brief to the designers, after Howard Handler, the MLS Chief Marketing Officer who led the project, saw those three words on the huge tifo in Portland for last summer's Gold Cup game between USA and Belize.
The emphasis on community and the character of MLS players might be interesting when thrown into relief against the, er, "community and character" of the existing hegemony of major sports leagues in the U.S., though Garber insisted to me afterwards that such opportunism wasn't what he had in mind, and that the league had merely been fortunate not to have had to deal with some of the personnel issues that have dogged the NFL and NBA in recent years, let alone weeks.
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Really though, the fact that the three stars at the top left of the crest symbolized whatever set of values, is perhaps less of interest than the design being adapted across the clubs -- it emphasizes, for better or worse, that the league itself is a system, and the clubs individual expressions of that. My first thought on seeing the backdrop showing the crest in the multiple colors of the league's teams, was "Your name here."
This is the expansion-happy MLS moment, and the mass of different colored crests on the photo backdrop looked like nothing so much as a prospectus for potential owners to choose their choice of trim on the basic model.
The league won't mind that emphasis -- principal sponsor and exclusive kit manufacturer Adidas were mentioned repeatedly, and the event itself was scheduled to preempt the new crest appearing as a licensed image in the new edition of EA Sports' FIFA 15, which launches at the same venue tonight. The single entity model may have its critics, but its participants are hardly going to shy from focusing on it through their branding.
Just for added emphasis on the theme of unity, Garber used a post-event media scrum to confirm that Bruce Arena had been fined an eye-watering $20,000 for his recent critical comments about the "children" at the league scuppering the proposed deal for Sacha Kljestan. Community, indeed.
As for the timing of the rebrand, Garber cited the cycle of the 20 years a child typically spends with their parents (student-loan-strapped millennials might suggest he round that figure up a decade):
"As we start our 20th season, we will begin the start of our second generation of growth," he said.
It's a new cycle that is paralleled by the new TV deal, the forthcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations and of course the ongoing speculation and ownership culture changes that come with the recent rapid expansion. The TV deal in particular is eight years long, almost half the existing lifespan of the league to date.
That last fact is a reminder both that the league is very, very young and compared to where other major leagues were after 20 years, thriving, but also that the 20 years of the league have taken place in the digital era where change and speed of adaptation is exponentially greater in so many ways.
Digital rights were kept separate from the TV deal, at least in part because envisaging what the digital landscape would look like in two years, let alone eight, is a fool's errand. The new brand leaves some space to be scribbled in as we go. It's not iconic, but it's nimble. Your future here.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, Grantland, The Guardian US and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @KidWeil.