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Hey designers, leave the kits alone


CHECKS WRITTEN OFF: Traders sport Manchester United jerseys on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange as the club went public on August 10, 2012

For Manchester United fans across the world, the uneasy feeling had already begun before the end of last season. Prior to the club's crosstown rivals snatching their English Premier League title away, a sense of angst among supporters spilled over on social networking websites at the team's new kit for the 2012/13 season. It was as if fans knew a title loss combined with the new chequered, 'gingham' kit would be too much fuel for taunt.

"United's new jersey is a table cloth, " says Bangalorean Arpan Peter. Then he corrects himself : "No, it's more like a lungi. "

Clearly, Peter, a co-owner at a local event management company, is anything but happy. "Considering United's army of wannabe fans I'm sure the jersey will sell well and these fans will be ripped apart when they wear it, " he says.

On a more serious note, the hardcore Chelsea fan feels it has become tradition for teams to change kits and fans need not feel cheated when the jersey they paid thousands of rupees for is as outdated as yesterday's newspaper. "I will not buy a shitty-looking kit just to keep up. I don't have to take what is shoved down my throat and would rather invest money on other merchandise, " he says adding: "Luckily, Chelsea have always made good kits. "

For United fans, it's the fact that the Manchester powerhouse has now joined European giants like Real Madrid and Barcelona that make some changes to their kit every season and justify it with what fans have termed marketing drivel which has stood out more than questionable designs. "The striking gingham print is a tribute to the world-famous fabric that powered Manchester's growth from a small market town to a global centre of cotton textiles, " the kit makers said during the launch, acknowledging the nod to the city's cotton industry which was thriving when the club was formed in 1878. With United recently signing a new shirt sponsor for next season, fans can expect another change.

Mixed feelings poured out of Arsenal supporters after the London club's kit-makers, the same ones responsible for United's, added blue hoops to their traditional red and white kit. "It looks like there's a French flag on their arms. I wonder if it was coach Arsene Wenger's design, " says Arsenal loyalist Brijesh Ellickan. The added detail is believed to have been based on the hoops sewn into socks worn in the 1930s under Arsenal's iconic manager Herbert Chapman. While not as dignified as the club's 2006 Highbury tribute shirt, fans feel it's easier on the eye than the ones Alex Ferguson's men will sport.

Anand Leonard, a Bayern Munich fan who works with a travel agency, echoed Peter's views adding true fans had the maturity to resist marketing campaigns aimed at boosting sales. "Kit changes add freshness and are fine if they aren't too frequent. But marketing gimmicks behind then are to rip-off people by selling new shirts every year with minor changes in quality. While it can work, a true fan understands football is essentially a poor man's sport and those who cannot buy into the nonsense, will not. Kit manufacturers will try but they cannot become bigger than the sport, " he says.

Closer home, Indian Premier League teams too have used every opportunity to change their colours. Hyderabad immediately comes to mind. The team has already had three different kit in five years and considering their form in the league, could another change be in the offing for better luck? Royal Challengers Bangalore's efforts at going green, quite literally, are looked at as another tedious exercise to sell replica green shirts. "Most of the time, it's the fans who feel cheated by changes and this creates dissidence, " says brand expert Harish Bijoor. "It's important that brands exercise a certain amount of caution when dealing with these matters and to a greater degree, understand fan sentiment. Supporters of a team are more intelligent than assumed and they can see through such campaigns, " he adds.

Bijoor says that while he does support green campaigns and social inclusion, it is important for brands to dabble in these issues without heaping costs on fans. "A consumer will not connect with issue if he or she sees some commercial intent. The key is to have emotional positive strokes and not financial positive strokes, " he says.

In India, with official team jerseys costing between Rs 2500 and Rs 3000 and genuine merchandise more accessible, it's the parents who are hit hardest when kids want to emulate the Messis and the Ronaldos. "Thanks to frequent updates, replica kits are out of the question and it's hard to explain that to kids. That's when we sometimes look to the grey markets and the world of cheap "authentic fakes, '" says software engineer Gaurav Bhat, whose eight-year-old son Rahul is a big fan of Bayern Munich's Bastian Schweinsteiger. "In design terms, if you thought some kit majors make bad decisions, you should see how things get lost in translation in these markets, leading to hilarious variations, " he laughs.

Last season, fan power triumphed when Welsh club Cardiff City's new Malaysian owners were discouraged from tampering with tradition and changing the club's colours from blue to red for luck. Opposition from some Cardiff's supporters also meant the club's crest remained that of a bluebird and not changed to a dragon. The message was clear. Spare us the marketing gimmicks, leave the kits alone.

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