On April 12, 2011, the landscape of Arizona State athletics was forever altered with the proclamation of two simple words: "it's time."
With Nike implementing a sweeping makeover to the uniforms of every ASU sports team along with the introduction of a new pitchfork logo, the excitement surrounding the upcoming football season was perhaps the highest it's ever been in the program's 115-year history. Yet instead of building on the hype, the senior-laden team faltered, winning only one of their final seven games after starting 5-1.
Following the disappointing season, the heads started to roll. First was the firing of head coach Dennis Erickson in November. Exactly four months later, Vice President of Athletics Lisa Love, one of the main catalysts behind the transformation, was the next to go.
But thanks to the conclusion of Nike's one-year, exclusive apparel deal with Arizona State in mid-April, the university is on the verge of recapturing some of that fervor with an influx of additional businesses finally having the ability to incorporate the revamped pitchfork logo in their clothing.
"It's exciting to see new designs from the different vendors," said Tim Potter, ASU's marketing coordinator of trademark licensing. "Just as we've had a great bump from Nike, we'll be able to sustain it or maybe even do better with all these new designs hitting the market."
But before Sun Devils everywhere get all hot and bothered about what's around the corner, first one must understand why Arizona State's higher-ups made the decisions they did.
The evolution from Sparky to the pitchfork that now adorns each side of ASU's football helmet wasn't a swift progression; the entire procedure took approximately one year after Arizona State reached out to Nike for assistance in creating a "new, vibrant mark for Sun Devil athletics," according to Steve Hank, associate athletic director of revenue at Arizona State.
"We had three real objectives," Hank said. "We wanted to be able to create something that's relevant to a younger fan base, we wanted to find something that represents our history and tradition and then we wanted to form something that really assists us with recruiting."
With the world's largest seller of athletic apparel on board, Nike's graphic identity group sent a team to Tempe to delve through their archives and form focus groups consisting of student-athletes, coaches and fans all in the effort of "finding out what really makes Arizona State tick," Hank said. Through Nike's qualitative research, Hank and his associates came to the conclusion that their current brand was losing relevancy, therefore putting ASU at a competitive disadvantage against rival universities.
"There's no question that being relevant to the recruiting market of 18 to 21-year-old athletes is important today," Hank said. "So we developed a brand that we termed ‘contemporary classic.'"
And Hank believes that the fresh threads and pitchfork epitomize this "contemporary classic" concept. With aid of more than 600 Nike employees, Hank said Arizona State found a way to incorporate "the high performance aspect" of the uniforms with a "traditional and classic" look, ushering in a new generation of Sun Devil history.
However, this modern brand wasn't able to fully blossom until exactly one year after its introduction.
Upon the finalization of their design, Arizona State began the next stage of their plan by agreeing to a partnership with the Collegiate Licensing Company in the months leading up to the big debut of their rebranding effort according to Potter.
With the CLC working as the "middle man" between the manufacturers and the university, ASU now had the luxury of the nation's leading collegiate trademark licensing company "managing their brand while finding ways to increase exposure from a licensing standpoint," said Mike Warhank, CLC's director of partner services for the west coast.
In the early going, the CLC was essentially delegated to the role of enforcing Nike's exclusive-apparel deal. But instead of playing the waiting game, Warhank and his colleagues began to prepare for life beyond Nike.
"Once we got over a certain threshold, we turned our attention more to making sure licensees were aware of the April 12 date," Warhank said.
As the anniversary approached, more vendors began to bite, allowing Warhank and the CLC to go through their filtration process of "recommending" or "politely disapproving" a particular item.
"With each application, we ask is this product of good quality, is it acceptable to have the university's brand on it and does the company have established distribution or the potential to establish distribution?" Warhank said.
Fast-forward to the present and Arizona State has secured approximately 375 different licensees thanks to the helping hand of the CLC, according to Potter. Beginning with ASU baseball's black and copper New Era hat that premiered on April 13, one day after the Nike deal ended, Potter said fans can be expecting a wave of new merchandise that will be available in more accessible channels, such as Walmart and Target.
"Nike had some real great designs but there's 100 reasons why [a customer] might not want to buy Nike," Potter said. "Now they have the opportunity to get a Champion or a JanSport or some other brand they might like better."
Along with the more affordable brands, Potter set out on the goal of branching out the new pitchfork logo to more premium-clothing companies. During this process, Potter came into contact with Mike Metter, the collegiate sales director for the high-end formal wear outlet Thomas Dean Co., who agreed to include Arizona State in their west coast expansion for fall 2012.
"[Potter] is unbelievably passionate about the school," Metter said. "I deal with 23 colleges, but I'm going to put Tim up there in the top couple in terms of passion and desire to improve ASU's overall vibe."
While they're still in the production phase, Thomas Dean Co. has already secured distribution in a number of stores in the Scottsdale, Phoenix and Tempe areas due largely in part to the design of the overhauled pitchfork logo according to Metter.
"Obviously Sparky has his place of course," Metter said. "But I think that once you start getting into premium priced men's apparel, the pitchfork is just a better look."
In fact, the pitchfork and everything that accompanies it may be appealing on more than just that level.
In making the leap back to trendiness, Arizona State's football uniforms have transitioned from an afterthought to a legitimate recruiting tool. According to Tim Cassidy, ASU's athletic director of football, prospective signees are now shown a display containing all the different jersey and helmet combinations when they visit campus.
"Kids this age, they're our clients," Cassidy said. "There's a lot to be impressed about with ASU from A to Z but this certainly, in the minds and eyes of 18-year-olds, is an attention getter."
With that in mind, it's easy to draw comparisons to the vast success of a fellow Pac-12 school who took a similar route in elevating their athletics.
After the Oregon Ducks lost the 1996 Cotton Bowl, Nike co-founder and Oregon alum Phil Knight announced the commencement of a 15-year project to make their football program a powerhouse through marketing their unique brand. In 1999, the team's uniforms went under a radical metamorphosis in which Nike also redesigned their logo, much like what ASU went through.
But despite the success of five conference titles, two Heisman finalists and one national championship appearance for Oregon since that time, ASU officials are quick to point out that they aren't trying to follow in their footsteps.
"You're not going to see us wearing neon green uniforms with peach pants," Hank said. "This is not a response to Oregon. Their brand is who they are and our brand is who we are."
And actually, with ASU's rebranding came the introduction of a phenomenon entirely incomparable to anything Oregon owns.
Included in the new designs was the introduction of black uniforms as a salute to ASU football teams of the 1950s who wore black helmets. As a part of this revolution, Sun Devil fans were encouraged to attend the Sept. 9 nationally-televised game against Missouri for the first ever blackout game.
The idea was a huge success with the university attracting celebrities such as Phil Mickelson, Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Nash to go along with the first sellout crowd Sun Devil Stadium has seen since 2008. Additionally, the official blackout shirt became the highest-selling shirt in the history of Nike's campus concept program with more than 40,000 sold, according to Potter.
"It was the black, it was the new pitchfork and it was the excitement for football," Potter said. "It was just everything coming together."
Now permanently engrained in the ASU lexicon of athletics, blackout games have transformed into a must-attend event for both students and alumni alike. However, Hank did share that there are plans to let students vote on which games will be blacked-out for this upcoming season.
Yet with the university expecting sales to be up between 50 and 60 percent compared to a year ago, ASU is taking a don't-fix-it-if-it-isn't-broken approach by adding only "a few minor tweaks here and there" like the voting system, according to Hank.
If there's one thing for certain though, it's that Arizona State will never again allow itself to fall behind the times in the dog-eat-dog world of collegiate athletics.
"We're not going to stay stagnant," Hank said. "We're going to continue to evolve ... not necessarily in large steps like last year but with smaller steps along the way."