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Original Issue

Black Is Golden

That's gospel in the lucrative world of sports marketing, in which sales for pro teams featuring black in logos and uniforms are red hot

I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
Until things are brighter, I'm the man in black.

Scoobie Johnson is sporting a hip-hop version of stygian cruise wear: black baggy breeches, black Los Angeles King T-shirt, black King jacket and boots that appear to have been cobbled out of a black reptile. Perched at a jaunty angle atop his pyramid—a high-rise 'do clipped with box-hedge precision—is a King cap in bleakest black. For the boys in Johnson's L.A. 'hood, black rage has a new shade of meaning. "The fact I'm in black's got nothing to do with hockey sticks or Wayne Gretzky," he says. "It's like black is the shadow of everything that's on it. It's like black's got a nice villain approach to it. Ninjas, they wear black. Cat burglars, they wear black. It's like, black makes you look nasty and mean, and if you're already mean, you look meaner. It's a fashion thing, a black thing."

A red-hot black thing. Black is back—in the streets, in the shops, in the stadiums. The top-selling team merchandise in each major sport—that of the Los Angeles Raiders, the Chicago Bulls, the Chicago White Sox and the San Jose Sharks—features black. Black-and-silver caps, shirts and jackets adorned with the Raider emblem account for 17% of all NFL gear sales. When the White Sox turned black at the end of the 1990 season, the South Siders catapulted from 18th to first in baseball's licensed-apparel standings. Michael Jordan's Bulls do as well in the malls as they do on the floor. And while the two-year-old Sharks are floundering in the deep waters of the NHL, they've fueled a feeding frenzy among consumers, outselling every team in the league. In the licensed-apparel business, the color of money is not green.

Nowadays everyone seems to be looking for that old black magic. Following the lead of the black-and-silver Kings, the Minnesota North Stars went black in 1990, the same year Jerry Glanville's Atlanta Falcons returned to their original black regalia. This season the New Jersey Devils ditched red, white and green for red, white and black, joining the expansion Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning on the list of hockey's nine black-bearing teams. The Florida Marlins and the Colorado Rockies, both fledgling teams, put black into their color schemes and now rank eighth and fourth, respectively, in baseball merchandising.

It seems league licensees can't put out a product and paint it black fast enough. The purple-and-gold Los Angeles Laker insignia appears on black caps and jackets. Ditto that of the green-and-white Philadelphia Eagles, the red-and-white Cincinnati Reds, the Los Angeles Dodgers—Dodger black? Indeed, one wonders how long it will be before things look black for blue-white-and-silver Dallas Cowboy gear, which, the NFL says, is selling briskly in the wake of the team's 1993 Super Bowl victory.

The binge began in 1985, soon after the Raiders defected from Oakland, when members of the emerging rap group NWA—Niggers With Attitude—swaggered into the L.A. office of the team's marketing director at the time, Michael Orenstein. "I was a little nervous," recalls Orenstein. "There were six of them, and they looked like a gang." He was relieved to learn that all they wanted were team caps and jackets. "The group promised to perform in Raider gear," say? Orenstein. "So I gave them eight boxes of stuff. I didn't know what rap was. I figured they'd be onstage in front of 20 people and the exposure would be good for us."

What happened next is the stuff marketing directors have built careers on. Rap artists—young, black and vocal—became the Raiders' ultimate sales team. Thanks to all-powerful MTV, Raider fashion was beamed around the country, molding a teenage subculture. Since then the black look has asserted itself everywhere, from halfway houses to houses of haute couture.

You don't have to be a colorphobe to love black. "It's the color against which other colors are set," says Danny Noble, a Philadelphia-based designer whose clothes are sold throughout the country. "It slims you, doesn't show dirt and you can hide behind it. Plus, if your wardrobe is all black, everything matches."

No team has exploited the anger and protest symbolized by black more successfully than the Raiders. Their very insignia—a one-eyed pirate with crossed cutlasses jutting from behind his helmet—is an implied threat. "Kids wear Raider jackets because they want to have that look of control about them," says Raider defensive tackle Bob Golic. "It's part of the Raider mystique."

That mystique draws heavily on the allure of black, the color that cancels out all others. "Black has always been—and may always be—associated with the diabolical, the supremely sinister, that which is most greatly feared," says black activist Harry Edwards, a special consultant to the San Francisco 49ers. "On one hand there's the white dove of peace; on the other, the black raven of Poe. Black compels and it terrorizes."

And when it comes to inducing terror, no team mascot beats San Jose's shark. Massive, toothy and jet black, it explodes out of a black triangle to chomp on a hockey stick. The implication is that a hockey player is next in the food chain. "You look at that shark and sense it's not a happy camper," says Shark defenseman Doug Wilson. "It's very menacing, and the black intensifies the menace."

The Shark management wasn't interested in the sort of carefree, well-fed creature you might see swimming about the languid pools of Sea World. "We had in mind a phantasmagorical shark that conveyed speed, danger, relentlessness," says Matt Levine, the Sharks' marketing whiz. "A predator that would remind you of Jaws and attacks on surfers." (But not so fearsome that parents wouldn't buy it.)

In a sport that traditionally lags far behind football, baseball and basketball in merchandising, retail sales of Sharkabilia in 1992 topped $150 million. That's about a third of the NHL's total merchandising sales. Much of it was through mail orders—the team puts out a color catalog featuring 155 items, from stuffed sharks to a toilet-seat-shaped foam hat called Puckhead. "From a marketing standpoint our problem was that we were an expansion team, an unknown commodity with little chance of winning," Levine says. "We had to count on our merchandise to sell the team."

So in the winter of 1990, a full five months before San Jose was officially awarded an NHL franchise, Levine began market research. Over the next 17 months he considered hundreds of ideas, consulted fashion experts and held focus groups. He surveyed 1,400 hockey fans and weighed their responses to artwork, color combinations and lettering.

A contest was run to select the name of the team. Nearly 6,000 entries came in from as far away as Genoa, Italy (the Genoese suggested the Barracudas and the Blade Runners). Other suggestions included Yodeling Yams, Aftershocks, Technopolitans, Screaming Squids and San Jose Cansecos. The most popular name, the Blades, was discarded because it was closely identified with gangs. Ironically, Sharks is the name of one of the gangs in West Side Story. When the Winnipeg Jets are in town, you half expect to see players face off in choreographed violence as the goalies belt out Maria.

Team colors took a year to sort out. The question was never what colors to use in the logo, but what colors to use with black. The Sharks tried black, turquoise, orange and white, but people said the color combination looked too much like that of the Miami Dolphins. Similarly, black, royal blue, silver and white conjured up the Detroit Lions. "Fans were saying, 'Give us our own colors,' " says Levine. "So we decided to use a watercolor to deliver a shark." Pacific teal was appropriated from the Charlotte Hornets, who are second overall in NBA product sales. "Teal appeals strongly to women and doesn't turn off men when combined with black," says Levine. "Grandmothers are buying Shark gear because it's cute, and teenagers buy it because it's tough."

The three young Dutchmen cruising the aisles of the X store, a sporting-goods store in Amsterdam's New Market district, look like outlaw bikers just in from Marin County on their Harleys. They're wearing steel-tipped boots, black leather jackets and elaborate tattoos. The big guy has a belly that reaches far enough out over his belt to qualify him for the presidency of the Hell's Angels.

They shuffle past the rack of Los Angeles Raider jackets. They pass under the huge San Jose Shark pennant hanging from the ceiling. They stop at the wall of black baseball caps. The big guy tries on one with a White Sox insignia.

"Before I buy, there is something I must know," he tells a visitor from America. "What is Sox, and how does it look?"

That all depends on which Sox he means. The White Sox have changed uniform designs 57 times since 1900, five times in the last 15 years. The Bermuda shorts that Sox players donned briefly in 1976 were not one of the fashion industry's sublime achievements. Still, the team's greatest stylistic outrage may have been the retina-scaring red-white-and-blue ensemble it adopted in 1983. Children wept when they saw it. Dogs howled. Sox outfielder Greg Luzinski complained that he felt like a box of cereal.

The White Sox faded to black and silver at the end of the 1990 season. New colors and a new stadium helped boost in-park product sales from $200,000 in '89 to $4.5 million in '91, when the new gear was introduced. The black sea of hats that now floods Comiskey Park's bleachers suggests a convocation of Greek widows. "Black uniforms were the key to reenfranchising the disenfranchised Sox fans," says Rob Gallas, White Sox marketing director. "For years people hadn't been proud to wear our merchandise."

Sales of White Sox caps were so brisk that two summers ago New Era, the official milliner of baseball, ran out of stock. "New Era had to shut down normal operations for three weeks and just make White Sox caps," Gallas says. "And after the three weeks were up, they still had a backlog of 200,000 orders."

Of course, it didn't hurt that the Sox started winning game after game—and that they had enlisted the services of an ex-Raider named Bo. "I wonder if Bo chose us because of the colors," says Gallas.

Street gangs seem to have. Black team caps and jackets have spread like wildfire in the inner cities. "Black and silver are not just popular gang colors," Gallas protests. "They're a popular combination, period." Yet black-clad teams are being accused of contributing to gang violence. "It's not like we're arming people!" says Golic. "I mean, it takes a sick mind to watch a guy in a Raider cap and jacket getting fried in the electric chair on a show like America's Most Wanted and then say, 'Gee, his clothes were nice; I think I'll buy the same outfit.' "

The word on the streets of Inglewood, Calif., is Don't look black. A Raider or a King jacket may identify the wearer—wittingly or not—as a gang member. Two years ago, concern for student safety prompted Oak Street Elementary principal Yolanda Mendoza to bar all clothes with Raider and King logos from the school. "Is it helping?" she says. "Probably not very much. But I've got 1,200 kids toeing the mark. I know it sounds stupid, but by eliminating the symbols, we no longer have so many discipline problems. And I no longer worry about my kids getting jumped for their jackets after school."

Raider executive assistant Al LoCasale thinks that instead of playing clothes cop, schools should address the social and economic pressures that lead kids to see gangs as their only families in a bleak and uncaring world. "Banning Raider jackets is like putting a Band-Aid on a crack in the Hoover Dam," he says. "It's a simplistic shortcut. These are deep-seated problems that have nothing to do with sports. You're not going to solve them by taking a kid's hat or jacket and putting him in a strawberry patch T-shirt. Besides, of the 90,000 gang members in Los Angeles, there can't be one percent that wears Raider clothes."

Nevertheless, whatever the percentage is, it is particularly noticeable. A 19-year-old laborer and gang member was blown away by rival gang members last winter at a Culver City, Calif., gas station. Police say that the Raider jacket he was wearing may have marked him for death. "I was totally devastated," says Marie Marden, a friend of the slain youth. One week later Marden's young nephew was shot at while wearing his Dodger jacket; he was not a member of a gang. "I never would have believed team clothing could get you killed. I finally felt I had to do something." Marden and a friend formed a company called Peace In Time, which puts out an embroidered emblem that proclaims I'M A SPORTS FAN. GANGS AREN'T MY GAME. They have sold more than 10,000 iron-on patches to schools and youth programs throughout California.

Even LoCasale is disturbed by TV-news footage of kids in Raider gear getting busted. "All that does is reaffirm an image we're trying to dispel," he says. "By the same token, I remember once staring at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre when this guy stepped in front of me wearing a Raider sweatshirt. I tell you, our fans are everywhere."

So who's to blame? White marketers who cannily package fan loyalty with urban black rage? "What's sad," says Mendoza, a consummate Raider fan, "is that we have taken teams that we honor and respect and turned their emblems into something negative."

Edwards believes that the Black Rush reflects both the rising anarchy of neighborhoods and the volatile climate of the day. "Hard times generate hard responses in the population," he says. "People wear black if for no other reason than to perpetuate the illusion of coping and surviving. As circumstances in society begin to turn up economically and the tension between races lessens, you'll see movement away from this black imagery. Understand: We're living in some very, very dark times."