Sports

Soccer Samples Streetwear and Loves the Fit

The lights at the Allianz Stadium cut out, and the music swelled. In the darkness, a small patch in the middle of the field seemed to glow. The center circle started to pulse and ripple. And then the grass itself appeared to get pulled away, as if it were nothing more than a tablecloth. Three words ran around the electronic advertising boards: “History. Passion. Lols.”

The extravagant buildup did not seem to match the occasion. Juventus was at home to Genoa that night, a run-of-the-mill Serie A game. It was late October 2019, much too early in the season for the title to be decided or a trophy to be won. What mattered, though, was not what Juventus was playing for, but what the team was playing in.

That night, Cristiano Ronaldo and his teammates would showcase a special edition jersey, designed in collaboration with its apparel partner, Adidas, and Palace, the maverick British skate and streetwear brand.

The design toyed with the history and passion of Juventus, incorporating the team’s traditional bianconero stripes and the disruptive touches that had made Palace a streetwear phenomenon. The team’s logos and the player’s numbers were displayed in an acidic green. Toward the bottom, the stripes started to pixelate.

The jersey was greeted as a masterpiece, but Juventus would never wear it again. By the time Ronaldo and his teammates took to the field against Torino a few days later, they were back in their regular uniforms. It did not matter. Later that week, the Palace jersey came online — or, as the streetwear world would put it, dropped.

It sold out in 12 hours.

A couple of years earlier, Juventus had held a lavish reception at the Museum of Science and Technology in Milan. The guest list included players past and present, but also pop-culture fixtures like Giorgio Moroder, the pioneering music producer, and the model and actress Emily Ratajkowski.

The party was arranged to herald the dawn of a new era for the club. Its team was in the middle of an unmatched period of success on the field, establishing a run of dominance in Serie A, however, it risked being left behind by its Continental rivals. To remain competitive, it needed to close the revenue gap on clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United, its chairman, Andrea Agnelli said. To do that, he was convinced, Juventus had to become “more pop.”

He is not the only executive in European soccer to have that thought. In 2018, fans lined up around the block outside the Parc des Princes to get their hands on the first drop of a collaboration between Paris St.-Germain and Jordan Brand, a subsidiary of its primary apparel partner, Nike. Earlier this year, Arsenal unveiled a collaboration with 424, a streetwear brand based in Los Angeles.

As with the audience for Juventus’s collection with Palace, the core market for these collaborations is not the club’s fans. It is not even, necessarily, fans of the sport. The collections are not intended to be worn as soccer products or as declarations of loyalty to a team; the tie-ins are not, as they are often presented, attempts by Europe’s insatiable superclubs to sell more tickets or to pick up more fans.

“A lot of the people buying those P.S.G. Jordan shirts will not care about the team’s league position,” said Jordan Wise, a founder of Gaffer magazine and the creative agency False 9. “Many of them may not even like football.” That is precisely their value to clubs: an entirely untapped market, one not subject to the vicissitudes and tribalism that affect soccer fans.

“Working with streetwear brands gives the clubs access to a completely different space,” Wise said. “But to do that, they have to think and look different: less like clubs, and more like sportswear brands.”

No team has embraced that shift quite like Juventus. In 2016, at Agnelli’s instigation, the club decided to embark on a comprehensive rebrand. Every aspect of the team’s identity would be in play, including, most controversially, its iconic crest, a symbol that had roots stretching back more than a century.

“It was more than just a change in the badge,” said Giorgio Ricci, Juventus’s chief financial officer. “It was a new visual identity, one which would enable us to be seen as innovative, one step ahead.”

The club put the rebrand idea out to a number of marketing agencies, and eventually selected a pitch from Interbrand, a longstanding partner. Its approach had been risky: After consulting the company’s global network of creatives, Lidi Grimaldi, the managing director of Interbrand’s Milan bureau, decided against presenting the club with a suite of options, spreading their bets in the hopes that one caught the imagination.

Instead, she said, Interbrand decided to go in with one design. Though the company had previously helped tweak the Juventus crest, making it a little less ornate, altering the color scheme a touch, this time Interbrand would suggest something more revolutionary. “Something really bold,” she said.

They did not have much time. Because Juventus and Adidas needed to start work on the club’s jerseys for the next season, Interbrand had less than a month to get its ideas together. Rather than something that looked like a soccer crest, it designed a logo that had “more in common with Google or Apple or Nike,” Grimaldi said.

There would be no depiction of a charging bull, as there had been on every version of the crest for more than a century. There would not even be a crest, as such: just a sleek and stylized J, a design that would form the centerpiece of and inspiration for an updated visual identity. That was no accident. “The whole strategy was to widen the spectrum of activities without abandoning the club’s core, which is football,” she said.

To present the idea to the Juventus board, Interbrand made a short film, one that offered a glimpse into what this bold new future might look like: that stylized J emblazoned on cafes and hotels, adorning events, used in collaborations with cutting-edge fashion brands. The Juventus executives, including Agnelli, were thrilled, Grimaldi said. This was precisely the sort of sea change they had been seeking. The main response, she said, was: “Wow.”

The club, of course, knew such a drastic change would not be universally welcomed. When the new logo was revealed, the reaction from fans was — at best — mixed. Juventus felt it had no choice but to ride out the storm.

“We needed a new identity that could change the perception of Juventus among different stakeholders,” Ricci said. “One that could enlarge the scope and potential targets of our business. We needed a new identity that was suitable not just for core customers, but for new audiences, something that could be a trigger for creators.”

Perhaps the best measure of its success came on Tuesday. After a similarly intensive design period, Inter Milan — Juventus’s fierce domestic rival — presented its own new crest, a simplified version of the badge that has graced the club’s jerseys for decades. Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery.

For years, Manchester United has been held up as soccer’s gold standard in converting the sport’s unparalleled popularity into cold, hard cash.

The partnership model it pioneered, combining 25 official club partners with a jumble of regional partners around the world, might have made it an easy target for satire — all those tractor and noodle endorsements — but it has also turned the club into a financial powerhouse, capable of earning a profit even during the coronavirus pandemic.

Increasingly, though, the consumption habits of younger people are making that approach seem outdated. “We’re seeing a move away from the licensing model,” Wise said. “We know that Generation Z and millennials hate being sold to. That means it’s no longer enough to plaster a club’s badge on something and assume fans will buy it out of loyalty.”

Instead, he said, partnerships must feel “authentic,” and the content used to promote them must “tell stories.” That authenticity was the logic behind the Juventus rebrand, not only of its crest but of the club’s whole visual persona, from its social media — using a bespoke font — to its branding.

“It was about placing soccer in the broader entertainment framework,” Ricci said. “We see our competition not just as clubs, but things like the gaming industry.”

For partners, the appeal is obvious. Soccer has a reach that no other aspect of culture can match. Cristiano Ronaldo has more followers on Instagram than anyone else on the planet. Lionel Messi might trail his rival there, but it will be some solace that he is, at least, ahead of Beyoncé.

Likewise, Juventus has a name recognition that can supercharge a brand like Palace. The difference is that, increasingly, soccer has to give a little, too. It has to accept the principles of what Grimaldi called “strategic design,” the idea that design itself can change consumer behavior and expectations.

“The rebrand was not a way of being cooler or more contemporary,” Grimaldi said. “It was a chance to show you understand the verbal and visual codes you have to adopt if you want to be understood in other spaces. To do work with Palace, for example, you have to adopt the design codes of their world.”

It is, though, a slow burn. Four years since its rebrand, Juventus is not in a position to pinpoint any immediate financial boost, which has traditionally been the primary motivation and metric for anything any soccer club does. When looking at the club’s books, Ricci said, it is hard to isolate what is a consequence of the rebrand, and what is a result of winning trophies or signing Cristiano Ronaldo.

He is, though, “absolutely convinced” that it was worth it. Internally, the new identity gave the club a sense of direction, he said. Externally, the outrage over the new badge subsided fairly quickly: Signing Ronaldo and picking up another handful of Serie A titles meant the club’s traditional fans did not feel alienated.

But at the same time, it meant that Juventus had become something more than a team, something more like a sportswear brand, too.

It is still occasionally possible to buy one of those original pixelated, acid green, special-edition Palace jerseys in streetwear’s thriving resale market. Prices start at several hundred dollars, far more than even the newest Juventus jersey. And how the team is doing on the field makes not the slightest bit of difference.


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