Ideas

How football programs have changed—and what it means

A designer compares the AFL’s quirky early visuals to today’s slick branding

Images courtesy Chris Holmes of grayflannelsuit.net

When the New England Patriots and the San Diego Chargers meet Sunday night, they’ll be continuing a rivalry that extends back to the inaugural season of the American Football League.

That first game between the then-Boston Patriots and Los Angeles Chargers was on Oct. 8, 1960, at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Patriots won handily, 35-0. There were some now familiar names present: The Pats’ two field goals came from kicker Gino Cappelletti, later the team’s radio color commentator; Chargers quarterback Jack Kemp, who was intercepted twice, would later serve nine terms in Congress and run for vice president of the United States.

Of course, a lot has changed in football since then, and one way to appreciate those changes is by comparing the covers of the game-day programs. Early AFL programs had a homegrown feel that suited a scrappy new league trying to compete with the established NFL. Each team game program had its own bespoke design, using area artists; the covers were comic, usually depicting the local team doing something bad to the visitors. The Patriots were pictured grilling Buffalo Bills burgers, taming a Charger (or a Bronco), or, in an era before political correctness, giving a Kansas City Chief an exploding cigar.

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The Patriots/Chargers program cover shown above, at left,is a perfect example. It comes from 1964, after the teams had been established for a few years, but there’s nothing “establishment” about it. Many of the early Patriots covers featured hand-drawn cover type; this one has the word PATRIOTS set in the Hobo typeface, an art nouveau style that was used often in the ’60s to connote hipness and youthful stylings.

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In those pre-Jumbotron days, the football program was an important interactive tool. Fans needed one to identify the players; programs served as seat warmers and cushions, and were used to collect autographs before and after the game. Today the old designs evoke a rich sense of nostalgia and identity with the team, in part because they were so clearly passionate messages from one set of fans to another.

The cover art on this program is by Phil Bissell, who at the time was the daily sports cartoonist for The Boston Globe. (Bissell also created the original Patriots logo, nicknamed Pat Patriot, based on a cartoon he drew in the Globe in 1960.) Bissell’s cover cartoons, roughly drawn and often crudely colored, were huge fan favorites throughout the 1960s. The personified Pat Patriot here appears as a crafty, bold, resourceful fellow foiling the hapless opponent—in this case, handily taming a pair of dismayed Chargers, and riding off on their backs. (The situation didn’t quite turn out as planned: It was the Chargers who tamed the Patriots that day, 26-17.)

It’s a sports cliché, but with the merging of the AFL and NFL at the end of the 1960s came the corporatization of the league and its teams—a shift that was reflected visually as well. In 1970 the league introduced a more homogeneous weekly program, with shared content from city to city and only a small section of pages devoted to the local team’s lineup and news. Over the years, the funky, iconoclastic Patriots program has taken on a slicker look that pushes a carefully tuned message about the league—speed, polish, more than a hint of video-game aggression—without saying anything in particular about the team or the locality. The Patriots logo, these days, is dropped on the cover almost as an afterthought.

With the NFL under fire as a mega-business that looks the other way when its players get injured or get into trouble, the vintage programs evoke what seems like a simpler time. Of course those “simpler” times were anything but: Players were paid a pittance, with minimal benefits; the league didn’t fully racially integrate until 1962.

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Graphic design can hide as much as it reveals. And if today’s program comes with so much gloss it’s hard to tell there are even human beings inside those uniforms, those old ones are so thick with charm that it’s easy to forget the game was already planting the seeds of what it would become over the ensuing decades. Fans may well prefer the homey wit of the Patriots’ programs of the 1960s, but would do well to remember that the bottom line hasn’t necessarily changed. As John “The Tooz” Matuszak said in his classic line from the 1979 football movie “North Dallas Forty”: “Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game.”

Robert Newman is a creative director and editorial consultant. Follow him on Twitter @newmanology or read his blog at www.robertnewman.com.

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