May 16, 2016

Dunk: New adidas threads come 18 months in the making

Eighteen months. That’s how long it took to make all the new Canadian Football League uniforms from initial designs to final stitch.

Each CFL team rolled out fresh threads on May 12 after a long and tedious process. adidas worked closely and collaboratively with every franchise to produce the final product. The transition from Reebok to adidas timed up for the league and the direction each individual brand was trending in.

Reebok had been the official on-field supplier for the CFL over the last 10 years, but recently shifted towards a focus in striving to be the No. 1 fitness brand. Meanwhile adidas is working to be the No. 1 sports brand in the world. And with the two being owned by the same company, it made for an easy transition for the CFL to make the move to adidas.

“Under Reebok we put the CFL collection together from scratch. So we weren’t leveraging all the great technologies that can be used with adidas – it’s an authentic football brand,” Chris Pittman, adidas product line manager, says.

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“As far as timing goes it worked out well for the CFL with the direction they’re taking,” adds Jeff McDonell, director of sports marketing at adidas. “It was a better alignment with the brands within the group.”

That decision for the CFL to switch from Reebok to adidas was made about two years ago. And soon after, adidas and CFL teams started the process of making new uniforms. In an era of instant gratification, some were shocked to learn it would take 18 months.

“It always has taken that long,” McDonell says. “People just don’t comprehend how much work goes into it.”

Generally, to begin, the adidas design team gets some direction from the teams: where do they want and not want to go? For example, the Bombers said right away they wanted to go back to royal blue. From there adidas comes up with three separate uniform concepts for each team and sends them off for feedback.

There were teams who picked elements from option one, two and three and wanted them combined. Others instantly liked a given mock-up while presenting tweaks. While some asked for three completely different choices than what adidas initially sent.

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An example of a ‘board’, used as part of the design process

After that first round of feedback comes in, adidas does a second set of boards that’s usually narrowed down to one main uniform with different options for numbers, fonts and logo placement. Once the next set of observations are gathered from each team, prototype jerseys are made.

“Teams come back and say we like this part, don’t like that part, change this out,” Pittman says. “Teams work really hard to create their brand and identities, so every little element is really important to them.”

Based on the comments from teams after seeing a real, physical jersey, second prototypes are done up. There are always last minute tweaks and changes, but from there it’s getting down to the final design.

Designing uniforms over 18 months can see trends change. adidas has to do a lot of forward thinking along with trend analysis to figure out what was going to be popular by the time the product actually got released. The goal is to stay ahead of that curve.

“When you say 18 months it seems insane,” Pittman says. “People think you should be able to design one, make it and that should be it, but there are many stages and it really does take quite a bit of time to get them made.

“We’re here to use our expertise, design inspiration — what adidas is about — and present that to the teams.”

One team actually created its own uniform model and it got used. Every single element – big, small or tiny – gets green-lighted by each team. There isn’t one part of the uniform that makes the cut that the team hasn’t given the thumbs up on.

If signature and road uniforms are included, Pittman says 25 uniforms were being put together simultaneously. Helmet designs were suggested, but since adidas doesn’t make them that was left up to the teams and Riddell.

“To make that many jerseys over an 18-month stretch with no leaks is an accomplishment unto itself. That’s why we kept them in boxes taped up,” Pittman says with a laugh.

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Clockwise, from top left: Chris Pittman, product line manager; adidas team logos; Jeff McDonell, director of sports marketing

Each jersey passed two important tests: officials and television commentators. All the names and numbers were legible and able to be seen. That was an important focus for adidas.

But what happens to the prototypes that didn’t make the grade? A common practice for that kind of merchandise is sending it overseas and donating to charities, but with social media nothing can be hidden in that way anymore.

“We’ll keep the prototypes here for a pretty long period of time. We should get a vault,” Pittman jokes. “They’re in our back rooms here locked away.”

Fans might be curious about which potential uniforms were scrapped, but even though we’ll never know what those designs looked like, you can be certain Pittman and the adidas team listened to the teams’ most passionate followers.

“The retro royal blue for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers is definitely the best example of where we heard the fans loud and clear – adidas, the league and the Bombers,” Pittman says. “They don’t want a gold away jersey, they don’t want navy blue. They want royal blue, gold and a white away jersey.”

When Pittman attends a CFL game he spends a lot of his time taking notice of what people are wearing and listening to what fans are saying about the uniforms.

“That’s how you’re better going forward in building new collections,” Pittman says.

Everyone involved with producing the new threads believes they came out with a clean set of uniforms – modern and streamlined – for the new-look CFL.

» The new adidas CFL collection has landed!
» New season, new look at the adidas launch party
» The Snap: Twitter reacts to the new threads