Nameless Jerseys Revisited

A little over three years ago I bemoaned the fact that Tennessee had elected to not have their player’s names on their jerseys.  Since then, the policy has spread like an epidemic nameless-260from school to school. I still think that this dubious practice is bad for women’s basketball and quite possibly for team sports in general.

When I was growing up, few NFL teams had the player’s last names on their jerseys. Needless to say, at that time names on college jerseys were even more elusive than the fabled ivory-billed woodpecker. It was a great relief to me when that changed. At last, I could identify players without having a program, a number-to-name cheat sheet, a pathological reliance on the announcers, or my memorization skills. This trend spread to many other professional and college sports. Oh sure, there were always a few hold-outs…some schools maintaining “tradition”, and other teams not wanting the small expense of personalization.

In 2004, when I saw the Tennessee Women’s Basketball Team take to the court with no jersey personalization after years with names on player’s uniforms, I was deeply saddened. That year, for me, is a year when women’s sports took a small step backward.

The argument for this practice almost seems reasonable: It’s a team sport. We want our players to think of themselves as one part of a team, and not as a group of individuals.

Hogwash.

Except for the first issuing of jerseys to new players, no one on the team really notices. What omitting the names does do is make the sport less accessible to the casual and special-event fans—precisely the people who have to be won over in order to help the sport to thrive. Even for us die-hard old-timers…teams that we don’t religiously follow, and teams that don’t get as much media time as others, are done a disservice. Why? Because the fact of the matter is we root both for teams AND players. We want to know who the stars are. If we aren’t able to watch a team regularly, we can’t identify most of the players (even the marquee players) on sight. We don’t even know their numbers since those of us watching TV at home don’t have programs available.

Who cares? The athletic departments should. While winning records are fantastic locally—they put butts in the seats and garner some local media attention—it’s the stars that bring in the national audience (i.e. TV ratings). And television coverage means money for the school and money for the school’s conference. It doesn’t matter if it’s men’s or women’s sports. Marginalizing the importance of stars is bad marketing.

Look at the ratings of championship games/series. Rivalries are the best, of course, but the audience is very selective about which pairs of teams are generally recognized as important enough to warrant “rivalry” status. Winning records? Pretty much all the teams at this part of a season have winning records. So what makes the difference between year-to-year ratings? Personalities. You need the stars. And, by extension, you need the non-fanatics to be able to recognize the stars…not just in these season-end games, but throughout the season in order to build the interest in the first place.

Then again, maybe the teams are marketing their stars. It’s just that the stars being presented aren’t wearing shorts and jerseys. When you don’t know who the players are, who are you left to cheer for? Who is there year after year? Yep, you guessed it—the coaches. Perhaps some of this marginalizing of the players has more to do with the egos of the coaches than that of the players.

My public plea to all of those teams who stopped personalizing their jerseys: please rethink this policy.  Many sports are in desperate need of growing the fan base. This is in the long-term interests of everyone. foudyhamm-260Would the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team have been so successful with the public coming out of the 1990s if the newly-acquired interest was squelched because it was difficult to know which player was Julie Foudy, which was Michelle Akers, and which was Mia Hamm? The team’s record doesn’t need me to bolster it (I hope), but I wonder if it would have been as popular if these gifted player’s names weren’t plastered on the backs of their jerseys. Did it make them play less like a team?

Some would argue that they’d earned the right to having their names on their jerseys. I think that protest is extremely weak because then you are saying that the likes of Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi didn’t earn the right to their jersey-fied names. And since you can’t go around just putting your star’s names on their jersey while leaving off everyone elses (talk about breaking down team cohesion), everyone should be given the same respect.

So…what’s next? When schools honor/retire a player’s jersey and hang a banner up in the rafters, will they start just showing a number and leave the name off? After all, it might give them a swelled hear or something. Ridiculous, you say? So is the pernicious practice of anonymizing the student athletes. Sure, the greats will be recognized regardless, but what about all of those players who are all working their butts off for whom college is the pinnacle of their career? Don’t they deserve better than to just be #5, or #31, or whatever?

This is an issue I hope sports marketing departments seriously consider…and then do it the way I want :-) . If your school is going to use students to market their athletic program, then the students should be given their rightful due. Is it really so much to ask?

(Oh…and kudos to my alma mater, Maryland, whose jerseys still proudly identify the students who are representing their school to the nation and the world.)

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