Monday, October 10, 2011

Roller Derby & Branding, or, We Love the Petty Stuff

I can't believe I'm writing a blog post about this. I really can't. North Central Regionals ended YESTERDAY, and SOMEHOW, I am still involved in a conversation about TEAM COLORS.

Fighting on the internet: we're all winners, here!

So here's how this came about:
In the North Central Regional tournament final bout, Windy City (Chicago) was playing Minnesota. My home bracket is Eastern, my current bracket is Western. I'm not super familiar with the teams in North Central, besides by name only. Having attended college in Wisconsin, my choice in who to root for in this bout was based on one thing: Whoever isn't Chicago. So, let's be clear here: I WAS ROOTING FOR MINNESOTA.

When I tuned in to the bout, from my apartment here in Boulder, CO, several minutes after the bout had started, I realized that I had a problem: I had no idea which team was which. This shouldn't be an issue, I thought. Teams have different colors. So which team is which color? Looking at the pixel-y scoreboard on the WFTDA free feed, Windy City's logo appeared to be blue/black/white. Minnesota's logo was red/gold. Simple! I will root for the -- oh. Wait. There's no red/gold team on the track. There is one team, in black/white. And another in blue/black. This... this does not narrow things down. Maybe the logos will be on - no, I can't make out the logos on the uniforms of either team, they're too low-res. Furthermore, neither team's uniforms had the names of the players on the back. So while the announcers were able to identify each player by name, I had no idea who was who, or who was playing for who.

At that point, I did what any reasonable netizen would do: I asked The Googles. Pulling up Minnesota's page, I was greeted with a front page full of RED AND GOLD. Ok. Still not helping. So I looked for their team picture. Their allstar team does not have a picture in the "teams" section of the website. So I looked at their home team pictures. They have 4. Their teams skate in: orange/black, pink/black/white, green/black, and red/white. None of these are their logo colors, nor are they the allstar team colors. I remained confused.
{Update, 1/30/13: Team photos are now included on the MNRG site. There is still no team that uses Red & Gold as their colors.}

Finally, through the grace of the internet, I asked the feed announcers to clarify. Luckily, they did, and all was well. But somehow, this turned into a giant can of worms that I am STILL TALKING ABOUT.

(For the record, Windy City was skating in black/white, and Minnesota was in blue (aqua) and army green, not black. The low res feed was clearly not helping me out yesterday.)

Issues that appear to have been conflated in all of this:
- I do not hate MNRG, their fans, or anyone else associated with the team.
- I do not hate their All-Star team's colors.
- I don't think their logo is ugly. (Or stupid, or anything else.)
- I do not think their uniforms are ugly. (Or stupid, or anything else.)
- I do not want their colors to be black and white.
- I am not calling for the skaters to stop training to address this concern.
- In the face of Nationals, I do not believe this is a pressing issue for anyone associated with the team. (If it is ever addressed at all, it is an off-season discussion.)
- I don't think the MNRG All-Stars are the only members, or only "important" members of their league.
- I am not belittling their current fanbase, who clearly already know that the MNRG All-Stars skate in Aqua and Army.
- I don't expect anything to change because of me.

All that said, I have to admit: I'm confused as to why MNRG uses colors in their logo that do not correspond to any other color scheme in their league. I'm confused about why their allstar team and their logo are different colors. I don't understand what purpose it serves, on a local OR a national scale. I don't understand how it helps their branding initiative, or enables MNRG to be recognizable as an entity.

Logos are not just a cute picture that you slap on a shirt. They represent an aspect of a branding initiative that is meant to distinguish your product (in this case, a roller derby team/league) from all the other similar products out there. In the case of derby, this is critical. With 1000 leagues worldwide and growing, with (let's assume) more than triple that many teams competing (home teams, jr teams, etc), it is important for these logos and these brands to be unique. Because, let's face it, there are only so many skull/skate/derby pinup variations to go around. (I'm being facetious, internet. Not every derby league loves these things in equal measure, or at all.)

To make that uniqueness resonate with your fans, or to be accessible by potential fans, there needs be some sort of consistency within the brand. In the case of a sports team (on any level) this is usually by team colors. The team colors reach across the brand. They're the color of the field, the color of the uniforms, the color of the rally towels. (Again: I'm aware that derby does not have fields. Or rally towels. Yet.) They're a way for fans to identify not only as supporters of their chosen team, but to identify each other, as a community. You're never going to mistake a Jets fan (green and white) for an Eagles fan (forest and silver).

Now, derby is a little different. We have leagues, and within those leagues there are travel teams, home teams, junior teams, maybe even a rec team. I'm not saying that with that much diversity involved in a league, that all teams must have the same colors. (While some professional sports teams, such as the Phillies, tend to integrate a common color scheme across their farm teams as well, it is not the gold standard. Nor is it a wholly accurate comparison, since farm teams for the parent league play other farm teams, not each other. I digress.)

However, it seems logical that the travel team, the allstar team, whatever you call it, should be the core of the league's branding effort, at least on a national stage. They are, after all, the team that observers in other cities (states, divisions, countries, whatever) think of when they think of the league. When my dad calls me from Philly and talks about Rocky Mountain, he's talking about the 5280 Fight Club, not the Red Ridin' Hoods or the Sugar Kill Gang.

And to that end, it makes sense, to me, to have your league branding effort and your allstar branding effort synch up. Have the logos match. Have the colors match. You can call them the 5280 Fight Club, or the All-Stars, or the Liberty Belles, or whatever you want - but to everyone in your non-local market - anyone that isn't a rabid fan (and let's be honest - that's most fans. The conversion rate from "new fan" to "megaloyal fan" is pretty high, but every new fan has that initial entry point.), they're simply Rocky Mountain. Minnesota. Philly. They're synonymous, and they're the largest public face your league has. What advantage is it to have them represented by different things? By having a disparity in your league/allstar branding effort, you're simply making it that much more difficult for a new/potential fan to identify your product.

So, after a really, really embarrassing amount of back and forth on this with people I've never met on the internet, it has come to light that the reason for the logo/uni differential is... tradition.

MNRG were one of the first flat track derby leagues during the derby resurgence of 2004. The logo, designed then, was never conceived as a marketing tool for a broad audience. As for the evolution of the uniforms, away from the logo colors, I have no info. But basically, the reason for the split is "that's how we started, we're not gonna change it now!"

Which, to me, is preposterous. You're not the same team that you were 8 years ago. Not only are you a different team, but derby is a different sport. To hang on to this old logo, sentimental as it might be, is looking backwards, not forwards. While some might see it as a nod to history, to tradition, the fact is, it causes confusion and breaks up brand consistency. Refusing to evolve your brand is not a cute, kitschy kickback. It's a stubborn, shortsighted means of denying growth to your product's development.

At this point, I'm half tempted to start pulling up various timelines depicting the brand-growth of professional sports teams, from conception to how we know and love them today. Things that include changes in team location, name, color, logo, font, uniform style, hell, even socks. The thing that make these changes necessary is time. Repositioning your brand helps to distinguish it from other similar brands available on the market. The thing that makes these changes stick is consistency. Sports teams change their branding initiatives all the time. But when that happens, it's a systematic, across the board change. Their new uniforms match their new website match their new hats, match the new colors of the dugout and the new logo on their stationary. They don't change the team uniform colors, then keep the old colored logo because it reminds them of their history. That's inconsistent, and doesn't send a coherent message to their consumers. (They do, however, keep an archive of the old branding, and continue to release "retro" styled products. That's also a completely different positioning of the old logos.)

I'm quickly losing steam here, so I'll sum up:
I don't hate the MNRG logo. I just think that it's inconsistent with their brand. If they had someone take 5 minutes in photoshop with it, to update it to their All-Star teams colors of aqua and army (and changed the website color scheme accordingly), everything would be hunky-dory. In synch. Not confusing to new fans - and, yes, there will be new fans, who will be just as confused as I was by their current lack of consistency.

Next month, MNRG (who sadly fell to Windy City) will face Charm City (Baltimore) in the first round of the National Championship tournament. Both teams will be playing live in front of a non-local, to either team, crowd. The broadcast will be viewed not just by fans of the teams, or the divisions they play in, but by all roller derby fans. But Charm City's colors are actually red and gold. Short of the announcers announcing, over and over, that MNRG is in the aqua and army (because fans do not all tune in to the feed at the start of a bout - and the vast majority of fans will be watching this from home, not from the Broomfield Even Center.), it will be up to the fans at home to figure out who is who. And a 10 minute Google search that solves the problem only by process of elimination is not good marketing. Not for MNRG, not for WFTDA, and not for roller derby.

{Update, 1/30/13: Michael McFarland has written an awesome article about the specific artistic flaws of derby logos, that compliments my issues here almost perfectly. Check it out: Rebranding Roller Derby: Athletic Logos and Sports Design


  1. I find your post interesting in that just two days ago, I was researching Minnesota's all-star team's colors, for my crafty project. The funny part? You could have just asked me. Buh-ha-ha-ha.

    No, seriously, I think I was the only non-MN fan who knew at the time you needed it. And I only knew because I was preparing my crafty idea for nationals.

    And I agree with you--they should change their logo if branding their team is what they want.

  2. I do believe you are the winner from the Poirier's blog! Please email me at: so we can go over details!! :O) Susan