Back in the “old days” of the sports blogosphere, before social media was even a concept, you were pretty limited in how you got the word out about your blog. You could submit your links to pre-Reddit boards like Fark or pre-social media link sharing sites like Digg. You could dump links to your blog or articles on relevant message boards and hope for the best. Or, if you had a really good article, you could e-mail large sites like Sports by Brooks or Deadspin in the hopes they’d include you in their daily link dump post.
Specifically, if you just found out the team or school you cover was making a change to their uniforms, or was unveiling new uniforms altogether, you knew that you had to move heaven and earth to make sure you were the first one to email Uni Watch about it so they’d link to you. Because, as we quickly learned when Paul Lukas launched Uni Watch, sports fans LOVE talking about the minutia of uniforms, logos, and any other design aspect to their favorite teams.
Started as a column in 1999 in The Village Voice, Uni Watch moved to Slate in 2003 before ESPN snatched it up in 2004. It was no surprise that this column that talked incessantly about the piping on the sides of uniform pants and the most effective use of stirrups made it’s way onto ESPN’s radar eventually (though the blog spun-off independantly, with ESPN’s blessing, in 2006 for more in-depth stories). Uni Watch was THE online resource and go-to site for any kind of uniform news and any big announcement or a huge revamp in a team’s overall look would send sports fans scrambling in their direction.
A lot has changed since 2004. Social media became a thing, of course. Now we can easily spend all day declaring our uniform opinions and quickly sharing images of new looks and alternate unis to the entire world. The pro and college sports world has changed as well. Used to be that most teams kept a specific uniform look for multiple years, possibly even decades. Now, every pro franchise seems to change their entire uniform every two or three years. The battle between the sports apparel companies to one-up each other, as well as uniform sponsorships, have changed the game even further. In college, it’s become commonplace to see teams wear different uniforms in every single game. Schools even have Twitterfeeds dedicated almost entirely to uniform-related reveals and updates.
— Cuse Football Equip (@CuseFBEquipment) December 18, 2018
The sports media landscape has changed as well. What once seemed like a niche interest has been revealed as something we care passionately about, so it’s a discussion that happens everywhere, no longer in need of a special place where we can gather. Hell, SportsCenter even has an entire segment dedicated to uniforms during college football season (“Gear Up”) while Bleacher Report dedicates tons of coverage to the shoes NBA players wear every game.
All of which is to say that the announcement that ESPN is ending its contract with Uni Watch creator Paul Lukas is perhaps not terribly surprising. In a way, as Lukas told The Washington Post, the success of Uni Watch through ESPN ultimately helped to create the culture that ended its own necessity.
“Part of the mainstreaming in the interest in uniforms is because ESPN took a chance on me and legitimized the coverage of this beat,” Lukas said. “If ESPN is doing it, it gives it a certain validity to it.”
Lukas posted the news on his own Uni Watch blog as well, noting that while it’s sad to see the relationship end, he has no animosity towards ESPN and appreciates the relationship and what it produced.
I want to make it clear that I have no gripes whatsoever with ESPN. Having my work showcased on the world’s foremost sports media enterprise for more than 14 years has been a privilege and a thrill, and I think the increased interest in uniforms that we now see throughout the sports world is due in part to the platform that Uni Watch enjoyed on ESPN.
Lukas also noted in a Q&A section that he retains the rights to the Uni Watch name, so ESPN won’t be able to keep it going under someone else’s watch. He also said he’s officially under contract through March 14, at which time he’ll be “exploring what my next moves will be.” He mentions that, among the possibilities, is that Uni Watch could end up moving to another sports media company, such as The Athletic, Bleacher Report, or SB Nation. Uni Watch may also return to its independent roots and look to readers and subscribers to help keep it afloat.
However Uni Watch lives on (or doesn’t), it will always be one of the foundational building blocks that the sports fan internet was built on. Back when there was such a thing as niche interests that weren’t commodified and oversaturated, it figured out what one of the biggest niches was going to be just before everyone else did.