In case you missed it in yesterday’s Comments section, there was a lot of chatter about the new Reds and Diamondbacks logos. The discussion was primarily due to a Deadspin item that appeared yesterday, which in turn was prompted by a long thread last week on Chris Creamer‘s message boards, which had itself been fueled by the logos being leaked on the Fanhome boards (which I’d never even heard of before — there’s only so much of this stuff a guy can keep up with).
I have plenty to say about both logo sets, but that’s not what I want to talk about today. Instead I want to talk about the issue of leaked info, confidentiality, and how sports designs are disseminated. All this seems particularly timely because control of sensitive information is a huge topic in the world right now: Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in the early 1970s, is back in the news with a much-discussed article in which he encourages leaking as a form of dissent; Hewlett-Packard’s chairwoman resigned last week after it was revealed that the company had engaged in some highly questionable practices to discover and neutralize the sources of unauthorized media leaks; the White House continues to criticize the New York Times for having disclosed the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program last winter (and we now know that Times editors were actually summoned to the Oval Office by President Bush, who personally urged them — unsuccessfully — to withhold the story); access to classified information is also a major sticking point in the ongoing saga of how terrorism suspects should be tried; and on the sports scene, two San Francisco Chronicle reporters are facing possible jail time for refusing to name the confidential sources who leaked them the BALCO grand jury testimony. (By coincidence, several of these news items, and several other leak-related tidbits, were discussed yesterday in this article, which I didn’t even notice until I’d already written most of this post.)
Obviously, the question of whether we all get to see the Diamondbacks’ new sleeve logo a month or two ahead of time isn’t quite as earthshaking as any of those other issues. But the principles are the same, and it’s something I think about a lot, because leaked and/or confidential uni-related info comes my way pretty frequently — sometimes because I seek it out, and sometimes because it seeks me out. In fact, as you may recall, I’m the one who broke the story that the Diamondbacks would be getting a design overhaul in the first place, after a source at the team’s pro shop got in touch with me last month. (I didn’t have visuals, just a verbal description. If you want to see how I reported it, scroll down to the “Battlefield Report” section of this ESPN column.) I don’t say that to toot my own horn; indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of you knew about the Dbacks facelift long before I did. I’m just explaining that these are questions I deal with on a semi-regular basis.
First, a bit of background. Each major sports league produces a “style guide,” which shows the official logos, colors, and uniform treatments for every team. These are used primarily by merchandising licensees and media outlets. In the past, the style guides were produced as printed volumes and looked sort of like catalogs; more recently the leagues have stopped printing the guides and have instead put all the information on password-protected web sites.
In Uni Watch’s early days, the leagues were usually happy to provide me with style guides if I asked nicely, I think in part because the column was such a small enterprise in those days and I was writing for a fairly obscure media outlet, at least in terms of the sports world (the Village Voice‘s now-defunct sports section, which was buried in the back of the paper, amidst the phone sex ads). In short, I think the leagues didn’t really take me seriously, so they could basically pat me on the head and say, “Here you go, here’s your style guide, now run off and place nice.”
Nowadays, of course, Uni Watch runs on ESPN.com. You’d think the leagues would be more eager to work with me now that I’m part of the world’s biggest sports media company, right? Wrong. Most of them are much more restrictive now. In fact, I don’t currently have official access to any league’s style guide (although I have unofficial access for one league, and another league is generally happy to show me anything I ask to see). Part of this, I think, is that I’m often critical of the leagues, plus I bug them for lots of picky information — they file me under P, for pest. And part of it, I’m sure, is that the internet has made it much easier to spread uniform and logo information, and has given rise to communities that are very hungry for that information (like all of you reading this), so things can often spin out of control. That’s how the Reds and Dbacks logos were revealed: Someone downloaded the logo pages from Major League Baseball’s style guide web site, uploaded them to an image-hosting server, and then announced them on the Fanhome message board.
Who did this? I have no idea, although I can tell you it wasn’t me. It could have been me, though, because I saw the logos a few days before they began appearing on various message boards. I also saw the full Cincinnati and Arizona uniforms, which to my knowledge haven’t hit the internet yet.
So why didn’t I write about the logos when I first saw them? Because they were provided to me under the condition that I not go public with them. I gave my word, and my word is good. (As a journalist, I’m frequently given information on an “embargoed” basis, which means I’m not allowed to talk about it until a specific date — that’s similar to what happened here.) When the logos began circulating last week, I stayed mum, because the designs were still confined to a very small subculture, and I thought it wasn’t my place to give them wider exposure. Obviously, that’s a judgment call. Similarly, when the Deadspin link appeared yesterday, I said to myself, “Okay, lots of people read Deadspin, so now the logos are really public — I can talk about them now.” That’s a judgment call, too. The full uniforms, meanwhile, haven’t been yet been leaked in any public forum I’m aware of, so I’m keeping mum about them.
But what if someone had forwarded the logos and/or uniforms to me with no strings attached? Would I have leaked them then? Maybe, maybe not — it would depend on the specific circumstances. Why? A better question might be, Why not? Here are the usual answers to that question:
• “Leaking a design before its scheduled unveiling shows no respect for the designer.” This argument, which has been promulgated primarily by the design world, doesn’t really work for me. Some of my best friends are designers, but the designer is ultimately just a contractor working for a client. The client is the one who owns the design and calls the shots, and in this case that’s the team or the league. Which brings us to…
• “Leaking a design can screw up a team’s marketing plan.” I have even less sympathy for this position. Sports marketing these days is insipid on so many different levels — if anything undercuts a team’s plan, or just raises the marketing staff’s blood pressure, I’m inclined to think that’s probably a good thing. Fans are tired of everything in sports seeming calculated and scripted, and that includes uniform programs. The level of secrecy about team designs has become offensive, since the designs ultimately belong to the fans — not legally, of course, but emotionally, because the fans are the ones who’ll be rooting for the colors, the logos, the uniforms. Teams need to remember that they’re not just business entities — they’re also civic entities (that’s why we all get so worked up about this stuff to begin with), and fans have a legitimate civic interest in seeing their teams’ designs. So in this case, I lean toward Daniel Ellsberg’s position that leaking can sometimes be a legitimate form of dissent, and a way for fans to claim some sense of empowerment in an increasingly alienating sports world — or at least a way of fucking with people who probably deserve to be fucked with. (That sound you just heard is my file being moved to E, for enemy.)
Besides, I’ve yet to hear of a single case in which leaking caused any harm other than annoying a bunch of suits. When the Sabres’ new logo was leaked back in June, it prompted fan outcry, a petition drive, political cartoons, and lots of hairpiece jokes. But did the Sabres make any changes? No. By the time they finally unveiled the new uni two weekends ago, managing partner Larry Quinn was telling reporters, “In retrospect, we couldn’t have done it any better. [The leaks have] been a great guerilla marketing campaign.”
And here’s something else to consider: As many of you know, new uniform designs can often be seen in video games well before the design’s official unveiling. And why is that? Because teams and leagues want to milk every last licensing penny out of their designs. So please don’t tell me a design is too “sensitive” to be shown ahead of time when you’re already making money off of it in the video game market. You can’t have it both ways.
• “What’s the rush? We’ll all get to see the design eventually.” As simplistic as it may sound, I think this is actually the best reason not to publish a leaked design. Does it really matter whether we see the Diamondbacks’ new logos now or in November, when they’re slated to be officially unveiled? Nah. If a league representative showed me a new uniform design and said, “Listen, you can do what you want with this, but I’d appreciate it if you could just wait and let us handle it our own way,” I’d probably oblige. It’s a certainly a more honest approach than trying to convince me that the fate of western civilization — or the Western Conference — hangs in the balance.
Your thoughts? I’m listenin’.