Ever wonder why green, counterfeit Eagles jerseys always look a little bit… off? There are plenty of good, fake white jerseys out there with the right patches and the spacing of the name just right, lots of black jerseys in the stands that could pass the quick eyeball test. Why do the even the best green ones look like they came from a website that gets a new URL every six months? Because the NFL and the Eagles made it that way in the mid-90s when they chose the Eagles new color scheme. Combined with Nike wanting to leave its mark on NFL uniform design, it’s a problem without a $1.1 billion solution.
Disclosure: This topic is the center of my Venn diagram of a personal interest (sports uniforms) and my job (large scale manufacturing for products for which color consistency is extremely important).
“The green jerseys won’t be ready in time.” Loaded statement of the year. The NFL both sets and polices their uniform rules with an iron fist. They keep their product in line; they keep their products in line. Non-team color shoes? You’re paying. Sock shenanigans? Get your wallet. In no way is the use of the Eagles alternate jersey for an unspecified amount of time part of some sort of plan of the Eagles or Nike. Any production issue which doesn’t have a turn-on date for the corrected product means that a production process which makes the correct product doesn’t yet exist. The Eagles and Nike will have little to say until the green jerseys are available, at which point they will release a brief statement as if the whole thing went down exactly according to some plan. At this point, the language in the official statement put this pretty squarely on Nike, but the only mitigating factor is if someone from the Eagles pulled the trigger much later than feasible (“It’s only a material change. No big deal, right? Right? Uh-oh.”).
So, how are the Eagles choices in the mid-90s creating this issue, almost twenty years later? It’s just dark green, right? Nope. Color matching is HARD. Color matching a specific, matte green for which you have a swatch and your target is a piece of white paper, and you’re doing spot color or 4 color process? Not that hard. Color matching a specific green on fabric? Getting harder. Color matching a specific metallic green on fabric? Very hard. Color matching a specific metallic green (or any metallic color, really) on multiple fabrics as required by Nike’s Elite 51 template? Extremely hard. The more metallic material (or thread) you add, the shinier the end product (obviously), but also the less green it gets. Use a darker green thread to compensate for the added metallic sheen… then the jersey looks too dark unless under bright lighting (speaking of which, this is why the Eagles pants just look like a dark grey/green mess in all but the sunniest 1:00 games). But Nike managed to match metallic colors for lots of teams in the past two years. Or did they?
2011, left. 2013, right.
Look at the Patriots navy blue pants in 2011 (Reebok) and 2013 (Nike). Nike took the metallic navy color spec from the Patriots, and changed it to non-metallic, matte navy (the Patriots silver pants also went from metallic silver to non-metallic grey). This is actually a good thing, though. Matte fabric gives a more uniform (pun!) color in bright lighting, while metallic and glossy materials have a noticeable highlight in daytime lighting with bright reflected light, so the Patriots navy pants look more navy with Nike’s material. It wasn’t only the Patriots; Nike made this change for most teams in 2012 (the 49ers’ and Saints’ gold pants now look more tan or “sand” than anything), with only a few stragglers, notably the Eagles sticking with their metallic fabrics. Non-metallic, matte Midnight Green would actually be an improvement for the Eagles given their current pants situation.
Another difficulty? “Midnight Green” isn’t a standard color. You want to try to tell your shop in China to make “Midnight Green” jerseys? You’ll need to send that factory an actual garment to use as the color target because Midnight Green doesn’t come on off-the-shelf rolls of fabric, like, you know, black or white (or for other teams who didn’t switch, silver for the Raiders and Panthers pants.) It’s easy to send a “closest Pantone number,” but jerseys will need the actual material to get a sense of the sheen and the difference between the material’s highlights and shadows. (in fairness, jerseys have been available since 1996…) But Nike’s not some random factory in China. [CORRECTION from Uni-Watch commenter “Rad:” This was even more accidentally prescient than I thought. The final assembly isn’t at factories in China at all.The on-field jerseys are made in the US; the retail jerseys in Central America. It’s extremely likely that the raw materials are made in China or elsewhere in Asia. Even if not, that doesn’t make the matching simpler.] This is the third year of their contract. Why are they having problems now? Besides, Reebok was not the only company to have made the green jersey successfully. Russell, Starter, and Puma have all made on-field uniforms for the Eagles in the “Midnight Green era.” But how did Nike make it work with metallic fabrics last year and the year before?
As Kyle mentioned, the Eagles were one of five teams to not switch to any of the elements (collar, jersey materials, template, stripe material) of the “Elite 51” template (also included: Packers, Panthers, Falcons, Raiders – though some of these teams have since switched away from the metallic fabrics, unlike the Eagles) when Nike had their big unveiling before the 2012 season. Murmurings back then were that Nike was either putting their logo on Reebok’s product or that Nike bought the templates (stitching programs?) from Reebok as well as their material stock. The Eagles made an effort to point out that their 2014 jerseys now have the “flywire” collar (just like Nike sneakers! Because a collar that implies it locks down somehow makes sense on a football jersey. Synergy!), so they’re on-board with Nike for this change, but the conference calls among Nike, the Eagles, and the NFL must be AMAZING right now. Nike had two years to do something difficult; now, Nike retail jerseys have been available since 2012, but it’s important to note that the retail jerseys are made from different materials (obviously for the ~$100 price point, but the $200+ price point for an “on-field” jersey doesn’t get you an honest-to-god on-field jersey because football jerseys are customized by position and even player preference – think of the shoulder quilting you see on close-ups, nowhere to be found on “on-field” product available for sale). Based on the new jerseys (black and white) showing the panel construction of Nike’s Elite 51 template, I’m confident the issue comes down to getting the various fabrics which make up those panels to look like a garment with a single tone when all is said and done. Oh, yeah. Those panels are called “sweatboxes” by some people in the uniform community. This is what we’ve been missing, and the green jerseys, should they ever appear this year, will show this off, too.
And the best part of all of this? With each all-new uniform design Nike and the NFL release, Nike’s doing the same thing as what caused this green jersey issue for them. They use the dye sublimated patterns inside the numbers of the Seahawks, the retro-reflective numbers of the Buccaneers’ 2014 uniforms (and pretty much any gee-whiz features on their college uniforms). These are designed around their unique processes which, yes, makes it very difficult for counterfeiters to copy them, but it will be a huge bullet on the “Why the NFL should stay with Nike” the next time the on-field apparel contract is being negotiated (for the 2022 season) when Under Armor won’t give a clear answer the question as to whether their manufacturing partners can produce products which match Nike’s. Look for each successive Nike-era redesign to incorporate more and more Nike-specific “technology” – I use scare quotes around that because it’s not football performance-related technology. It’s Nike including as many components of the Nike design language into the NFL’s product, co-opting it as a Nike product: “flywire” as a brand regardless of functionality, matte colors, grey as a primary tone, volt highlights (that neon color on the Seahawks uniforms); all components of Nike’s consumer design language which transferred to the NCAA, then the NFL. The NFL does push back a little bit, see the trend of teams either removing flywire collars altogether or making the collar a subtler, single tone between 2012 and 2013, but for the most part, expect Nike to ask for everything in their redesigns so the compromise point is pushed farther from the true center. The Seahawks have an alternate jersey that’s grey. Somehow Nike convinced the team and the league that grey, the least colorful color, should be used as primary color. Also, of course, it’s a key part of Nike’s brand with respect to collegiate uniforms.
With all of that (way, way) out of the way, I’d be remiss to not mention that the new jerseys with the flywire look stupid, but I do realize that the absence of the feature will be one of the elements that makes pictures from this era look dated in 2030. I don’t like it, but I accept it. Check out this picture of Brian Dawkins from 2002. It looks just like a football uniform (heck, it’s practically the same as the current Eagles uniform – they really need to re-incorporate the green socks), but it very much looks like a football uniform from a bygone era. I’ve never liked the black alternate, but I’ve appreciated that it was rare, which made it somewhat special when they’ve worn it (at most, twice per season, and they sometimes chose to never wear it at all). Of course, being concerned they’ll wear it “all the time” this year is hand wringing and complaining about a potential problem before it has come to pass. The Eagles sometimes choose to wear white at home for September, so combined with wearing white for most away games, if Nike figures out how to match Metallic Midnight Green with their fabrics by Week 8, I expect we won’t see the black jerseys more than the usual twice.