Don't change the MLS logo!
Today's Major League Soccer is almost unrecognizable compared to the humble, 10-team circuit that kicked off almost two decades ago. Now at 19 clubs, MLS will expand to 21 next year, with most of its franchises playing in purpose-built stadiums on pristine fields in front of raucous supporters. It's a far cry from the early days, when fans and players rattled around in oversized NFL or college football venues featuring too narrow pitches vandalized by gridiron markings.
But there is one thing about MLS that has remained mostly unchanged through its 19 seasons -- perhaps the only thing: the logo.
From the day MLS played its first game in April 1996, the league's ubiquitous ball-and-boot emblem has adorned the left sleeve of every player in every game, over 4,000 matches and counting. The badge actually predates the league's debut by more than two years, originally unveiled in late 1993. Since then, barring a few minor tweaks, it has basically stayed the same.
Now, though, its days are numbered. As SI.com reported last month, the 2014 season will be the current logo's last. Actually, we're told that the new MLS insignia will debut before the current campaign ends. There are even rumblings that it could happen as early as this month.
It's a switch that has been years in the making. Sports teams and leagues don't just change their identity on a whim, and MLS has long been looking into updating what internally has been described as a "cartoonish" look. Already, it has subtly moved away from its original, 1990s-era green-and-blue color scheme. (The first MLS logo was actually red, white and blue; urban legend holds that it was changed after objections from Major League Baseball.)
Over the past two years, the MLS marketing department and its vendors have done all the requisite market research. Over 10,000 people have been polled -- some of them fans of MLS, some of other soccer leagues. Some of those surveyed just happened to fall into that coveted 18- to 34-year-old "millennial" demographic. There is no disputing that the league has done its due diligence.
Still, for those of us who have followed MLS since its inception, there's a sense that discarding the only logo it has ever had represents a piece of history being lost. And that's a shame.
One of the main challenges for MLS has been overcoming its relative lack of tradition compared not only to century-old soccer leagues around the world but also to the other pro sports behemoths at home. Whether they like it or loathe it -- or, like most people, are ambivalent about it -- there's little doubt that even casual sports fans immediately know what the current MLS logo represents by now. There's a reason the NFL, NHL and English Premier League have made only minor, relatively cosmetic changes to their trademark symbols over the decades. The logos for MLB and the NBA, both introduced in 1969, have stayed exactly the same, as has the UEFA Champions League logo, which debuted in 1992.
Meanwhile, the logos of leagues that have completely rebranded, like Italy's Serie A and Germany's Bundesliga, have tended to be underwhelming and, even worse, forgettable.
As you might expect, details of the new MLS look are being guarded like a state secret. Multiple sources have told ESPNFC.com that the new motif is a shield (how original!) of some sort but offered no specifics beyond that.
However it looks, will it really be better than what MLS has now?
That will be up for the beholder to decide. In fairness, the individual MLS teams that have rebranded -- of the nine original teams still competing in the league, only one, the New England Revolution, will feature its original logo when the 2015 season begins -- have mostly gotten it right, even if only because they got it so wrong to begin with.
Compared to some of those early team crests, MLS' ball-and-boot logo has aged remarkably gracefully. It certainly has never been offensive. And is it really any more cartoonish than, say, the Bundesliga's flying karate kick?
There's something to be said for continuity. Now that MLS finally has some history, it's hard not to think that scrapping its original logo, however well thought-out, is at least a little shortsighted. For a league that has grown so much over the past two decades largely because of the smart decisions it has made, this one feels a lot like change for change's sake.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.