The last time the Timberwolves made a dramatic change to their on-court attire was during the summer of 1996. Glen Taylor had recently purchased the franchise, saving the team from a proposed relocation to New Orleans in the process. Former University of Minnesota point guard Flip Saunders was the new head coach, fresh off an odyssey through the collegiate ranks and the CBA. The most important player on the roster was a skinny kid who wasn’t even old enough to buy himself a beer yet (Kevin Garnett). And despite some guarded optimism about the future, the reality at the time was that the Wolves had won barely a quarter of their games (152-422, .265 winning percentage) in seven years of existence.
Nearly twenty years later, the Timberwolves find themselves in an eerily familiar spot. Glen Taylor has bought out several minority owners, strengthening his stake in the team while simultaneously killing the idea of another relocation (this time, Seattle). Part-owner and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders added coaching to his long list of responsibilities prior to last season. The most important player on the roster is a skinny kid who isn’t even old enough to buy himself a beer yet (Andrew Wiggins). And while a vague, guarded optimism surrounds the current collection of young talent on the Wolves’ roster, the reality is that 2014-15 was the 11th consecutive season without playoff NBA basketball in the Twin Cities. The team’s record over the past seven campaigns (169-389, .305 winning percentage) is barely better than it was during their rough expansion years.
Taylor, Saunders, piling up losses at an exceptionally depressing rate, and the promise of a teenage superstar in the making aren’t the only connections between 2015 and the early years of the Timberwolves. Kevin Garnett is back with the team, albeit as an older, more brittle version. Rob Babcock is in the front office, where he’s worked on and off and in various capacities since 1992. Former players Sam Mitchell and Sidney Lowe are on the bench as assistant coaches. Flip’s son Ryan, a ball boy in the early 90s, is also on the staff. The offense that they have installed is essentially the same as it was two decades ago (analytics be damned).
So while the people in charge are mostly re-treads from 20 years ago, and the results on the court have been reliably awful for the past decade or so, there’s something the team can do to (literally) manufacture something resembling a fresh start…
Rebrand. Redesign the uniforms, logos, the on-court paint scheme, all of it.
The 1996 aesthetic sea change was perfectly timed. The Timberwolves’ original uniforms belonged to the birth pangs of expansion, manifested in the physical forms of Thurl Bailey, Tony Campbell, Tyrone Corbin, Gerald Glass, Sidney Lowe, Pooh Richardson, Isaiah Rider, Felton Spencer, and countless others who came and went during the franchise’s woeful early years. The cuddly pup set in soft colors wasn’t cutting it anymore. New uniforms meant a new identity, and the growling timberwolf hovering over a sea of pine trees became the insignia marking the Timberwolves’ glory years (if that’s what you’d like to call them). The darker, bolder colors became the official wardrobe of the best player in the history of the franchise, the intense, snarling Kevin Garnett.
While the tweaks made in 2008 (and again a year later) weren’t insignificant, they could hardly be classified as a rebranding effort. The script is less intense than it used to be, the logo is slightly different, and the ring of trees surrounding the court is gone, but for all intents and purposes, the Wolves haven’t undergone massive uniform changes in nearly two decades. It’s time to lay the duds of Michael Beasley, Jonny Flynn, Randy Foye, Ryan Gomes, Al Jefferson, Wes Johnson, Kevin Love, Rashad McCants, Darko Milicic, Mike Miller, and Sebastian Telfair to rest.
Examining recent rebranding efforts across professional sports provides a bit of context on what such an endeavor might entail. While exact figures are hard to come by, it was reported that Charlotte’s recent transition from being the Bobcats to being the Hornets cost between $3 and $4 million, a good chunk of which was recouped by increased merchandise sales following the switch. More important than the dollars and cents of that campaign (easy for me to say, as it wasn’t millions of dollars of my own money being spent to do it, but still) was the buzz created by the excitement of a fresh, new look. For example, the Minnesota Vikings turned their 2013 uniform tweaks into a four week event, complete with 12 teaser images unleashed via social media before the big reveal on the night of the NFL draft. If that seems over the top, that’s because it probably is, but the fact remains that people lapped it up by obsessing over what the new jerseys would look like, and then rushing out to buy updated versions once the merchandise was available.
The latest trend in rebranding appears to be recycling older logos and/or color schemes, feeding off the nostalgia of fan bases. After spending the late 90s in these dreadful threads, the Detroit Pistons slowly reintroduced something resembling their original color and uniform designs throughout the early 2000s. The Utah Jazz did away with their comically over-the-top late 90s design, as well as their bland mid-2000s overcorrection, in favor of logos and jersey designs inspired by their early years in Salt Lake City. At the same time, the Golden State Warriors (seriously, was every jersey designer from 1995 through 2004 on LSD?!?) were doing exactly what Utah had done, shedding cartoon figures in favor of a more classic look. The Atlanta Hawks made a particularly savvy move prior to the 2014-15 season, putting their old-school “Pac-Man” logo at center court, receiving glowing reviews in the process.
Franchises in other professional sports leagues are engaging in similar rebranding tactics, further pointing toward a relative consensus in both market research and fan input validating the reincorporation of older trademarks and hues. The Toronto Blue Jays corrected their massive 1997-2011 optical trainwreck by reintroducing their splendid early 90s uniforms. In the midst of a string of 100-loss seasons, the Houston Astros softened the blow of their mediocre play by returning to a simpler, cleaner, classic look. The Buffalo Sabres ended their dalliance with a cartoon buffalo (and a darker color scheme) by returning to their roots in 2010. Even the New York Islanders caved in to the garish trends of the late 90s, but quickly abandoned ship after two seasons by scrapping the idea altogether and reverting to their timeless look.
As far as the Timberwolves are concerned, there are a few intriguing concepts floating around which integrate old elements into a new design. Personally, my favorite theoretical rebrand comes from Jonah Steinmeyer at Howlin’ T-Wolf, which combines the original blue and green color scheme, the tree motif, and the parquet floor of the late 90s into the equation. There seems to be a thirst for merchandise featuring the team’s first logo, which I can attest to in an anecdotal sense. (For instance, almost every time I wear this hat, someone comments on it, and it’s usually more than just “Hey, man, the Wolves suck, aren’t you embarrassed to be wearing that in public?”) While moving away from the friendly house pet was the right move in 1996, going back to it may be the right call in 2015.
A new set of threads for Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, and the team’s next high draft pick to play in would represent a shift away from the stale uniforms of the past decade and the abysmal play that’s accompanied them. New symbols and clothing won’t affect the fortunes of the team, but they can do a lot to reinvigorate the moribund fanbase while simultaneously generating new streams of revenue.
Given the presence of so many figures from the early days of the team, using the original uniforms as inspiration may seem like a no-brainer. But in reality, it doesn’t necessarily matter what the new logos and uniforms would look like, even though daydreaming about the details of new Timberwolves uniforms can be a fun pastime. What’s important is that they actually come into being, signifying a shift away from the current set. This would be more than an aesthetic move – it’d be philosophical as well.
Will a rebrand happen any time soon? It’s tough to say. Such a decision is in the hands of the team’s marketing analysts and public relations teams, and it’s difficult to project if or when they’ll feel it is a prudent move. But when you consider the length of time the team has spent with their current uniforms, their lack of success in them, and the general trends of franchise rebranding efforts across major American sports, it’s easy to make the case that harkening back to an earlier color scheme, if not a complete reintroduction of the original logo and uniforms, would be beneficial as both a public relations move and for the team’s bottom line.