The Minutiae Man: Paul Lukas and the Uni-verse

"I didn't want it be a design column that happened to be about sports. I wanted it to be a sports column that happened to be about design. I wanted to create a new sports beat." With Uni Watch, that's exactly what Paul Lukas did.

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Feb 25 2016, 2:20pm

Photo by J. Shimon and J. Lindemann

Paul Lukas has devoted his life's work to the obsessive chronicling of the inconspicuous.

"There's all this stuff that either is so obscure that we don't notice it or so right under our noses that we essentially stop noticing it," Lukas said. "The stories behind those things are what interests me a lot, why is this thing called this thing, or variants of functional specificity, who invented this thing that has this very specific function?"

"The Brannock Device is like my quintessential example of this," he said—the thing you use to measure your shoe size. "It's a universal touchstone in our culture; like there's literally nobody in America you can think of whose foot has not been in a Brannock Device at some point. But almost nobody knows what it's called. So it's simultaneously ubiquitous and anonymous, which to me is a very powerful combination." Lukas's work seeks mainly to elucidate that anonymity, to give it names and histories and cultural context. His devotion is such that he sports a Brannock Device tattoo.

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Lukas has parlayed this focus into a unique place in the sports media world under the banner of Uni Watch. First in an alt-weekly column in the Village Voice, then on ESPN.com, and finally as his own blog, he has covered the world of "athletic aesthetics" for almost two decades, providing the details of what is being worn on the field with as much journalistic integrity—and perhaps a bit more consideration—as other outlets cover the athletes wearing it and what they are doing in it. He has turned news about team uniforms, once a giggle-laden sidebar, into a full-fledged beat, inspiring media entities such as the Big Ten Network, The Sporting News, Bleacher Report, and even VICE Sports to pay similar attention. (Full disclosure: I have contributed one entry to Uni Watch myself, about my favorite jerseys in the Women's Flat Track Derby Association.)

"Sports fan are an obsessive lot," Chad Millman, Editor in Chief of ESPN and ESPN.com, said via conference call. "They want to know everything there is to know about anything in sports, and Paul, in a very thoughtful way, speaks to that obsession, because you can't look at his stuff and not be interested in what he is writing about because he is so authoritative on the subject of design ... and so thoughtful in how he approaches the subject that it is naturally engaging."

Uni Watch columns on ESPN often revolve around breaking uniform news—a new logo, a new jersey, a new identity, a new team—and interesting or little known aspects of uniform history, particularly in his Friday Flashback posts. Lukas critiques new jerseys and logos, sometimes elucidates the design processes behind them (cf. this piece on the Milwaukee Bucks rebrand), and keeps readers abreast of what their favorite teams are wearing and why. With the proliferation of throwback, Christmas, Black History Month, Chinese New Year, Mardi Gras, Breast Cancer, Military Awareness, and other "special" jerseys in sports, he is rarely wanting for content.

Readers interested in uniform minutiae perhaps a touch too obscure for ESPN—say, Japanese baseball uniforms, or minor league hockey novelty sweaters—find themselves sated daily on the Uni Watch blog, which also includes historical anecdotes, a collection of sport-sorted quick news and images links called the ticker, and guest posts from readers and journalists.

"The design around uniforms and the influence those uniforms have on how people perceive programs and team is important. It is not a frivolous thing," Millman said. "It is fun and smart, but certainly not unimportant.... There is nothing superficial about what he is doing."

Northwestern's "wounded warrior" uniform, in 2013, is right in Uni Watch's wheelhouse. Photo by David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Before Lukas, uniforms were mentioned fleetingly if at all—sidebars or joke pieces. Now, however, when Under Armour and Northwestern release a patriotic football jersey that looks an awful lot like it has been stained with blood, or the rumblings begin that advertising patches will make their way to the NBA, Lukas is there to provide journalistic diligence as well as a serious critic's eye. Sports uniforms and visual identities resonate deeply with fans; as Jerry Seinfeld famously joked, in the modern free agency era, you are really cheering for laundry when you cheer for a team, and Lukas covers what we are all truly cheering for.

"The idea for Uni Watch started some time in like 1998," Lukas said in his apartment in Brooklyn. His voice is deep and authoritative, like a professor's, sans didactics. "I thought I could do a story on stirrups, or the lower-leg of baseball uniforms."

"And then the more I thought about it, the more I thought, 'Well, maybe I can do several articles about baseball. Well, maybe I could do a column,'" he continued.

"It started to become one of those things I was thinking about but not actually doing, so on New Year's Day of 1999 I made what was the first, and still only, New Year's Resolution of my life, which was to create and place a column about uniform design."

Lukas's idea was beautifully simple: to give a fair shake, critical eye, and journalistic rigor to an aspect of sport he found inherently interesting. Lukas had already written for design publications. In October 1993, he had started a zine called Beer Frame, named for an obscure bowling term—Lukas loves the sport, and especially where the sport and beer ads dovetail. Subtitled "The Journal of Inconspicuous Consumption," it reviewed products as other zines reviewed records, and established Lukas's writing and unique point of view. By the time Lukas ended the zine, in 2000, he was making 5,000 copies, and various Beer Frame articles went on to be included in a book, which took its name from the zine's subtitle. "Inconspicuous Consumption" ran as a column in The New York Press, New York Magazine, and Spin; the theme also underpinned his work in The New York Times, Gourmet, and Fortune, among other publications.

This was going to be different.

"I felt strongly I didn't want it be a design column that happened to be about sports," he said. "I wanted it to be a sports column that happened to be about design. I wanted to create a new sports beat; that was very explicit in my mind, that was a goal of this project."

Lukas first shopped his column to ESPN magazine, which turned it down; Sports Illustrated actually commissioned two pieces but they got spiked. Realizing that perhaps a smaller venue would be better suited to the idea, Lukas turned to the Village Voice. Voice's tiny sports section, tucked in the back near the phone sex ads, already ran a regular column reviewing hockey fights and featured stories about bike messenger culture clashes, among other eccentricities.

"We didn't have a model anywhere else; we were creating the model," said Miles Seligman, who was the Voice's sports editor at the time. "But we also had people, and I had people who came before me who showed the way, who carved a path ... where sports intersected with culture and with politics."

Seligman was already a fan of Lukas's conversational, zine-bred writing and his ability to parse the invisible culture around us.

"'Attention to detail' is such an ubiquitous turn of phrase, it doesn't do justice to what he actually does," he said. So when Lukas approached Seligman about a recurring column revolving around uniforms, he said yes. The first column ran in May 1999 and for the next four years, on a roughly monthly basis, Lukas held forth on uniform news roughly 400 words and one precious picture at a time.

The timing of Uni Watch's birth, just before the advent of digital media, was fortuitous. When the Voice did away with its sports section in 2003, Lukas found a new home at Slate, where he learned how to write for the web. Hyperlinks, for example, proved a godsend: narrowing down which photo would accompany Lukas's column in the paltry space reserved in the Voice was always a cause for concern; the internet offered unlimited room to intersperse photos of the intricacies he often makes mention of.

Desiring a bigger home for his column, Lukas set his sights on ESPN, "pestering" them, as he put it via email, until, in August 2004, he was offered a spot at Page 2, then a cacophonous section of ESPN's website home to, among other things, The Sports Guy and the nearly incoherent ramblings of the late Hunter S. Thompson.

When it became obvious that athletic aesthetics could sustain daily coverage, and with approval from ESPN, Lukas launched uniwatchblog.com on May 17, 2006. (The site has since moved to uni-watch.com; uniwatch.com is owned by a Panamanian whom Lukas has yet to be able to budge.) To Lukas, the blog and ESPN content share a symbiotic relationship, one feeding the other.

"The big topics go to ESPN, obviously. And they belong there," Lukas said. "The website is for picky little things that wouldn't matter as much to a mass audience ... or often, the website serves as a staging area for ideas that I'm working on or thinking about but haven't yet either figured out how or done enough research to blow them up into full-fledged ESPN topics. And often working them out on the website both helps to flesh out the idea in my own mind developmentally and also gives me feedback from my readers that becomes crucial in how I develop the idea."

The baseball stirrup, modeled here by Josh Outman, is a favorite of Lukas's. Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

"The rise of the world wide web in conjunction with his column is no fucking coincidence," Seligman said.

Beginning with an email address at the bottom of the very last Voice column, Lukas's early email lists and calls for reader feedback, in particular, were a prescient use of the new digital media platform.

"I could tell that it was a niche thing that was connecting with people," Lukas said. "And most of my career has been about that. About geeky, minutiae-driven niche topics that don't resonate with everybody, but the people who do get it ... not everyone is into it, but the people who are into it are really fucking into it."

These people would regularly get in touch with historical stories, what they saw on TV and in person, and even offer regular dispatches from far-flung locales and leagues like the newest in Japanese volleyball fashion or how the indigenous guernseys for the Australian Football League would look.

Lukas and these readers developed practically their own language. Take, for instance, the proliferation of black uniforms and components for teams that don't use black as an official color. The trend was later dubbed "black for black's sake," or BFBS. The Uni-verse vernacular includes acronyms like NNOB (no name on back) and FNOB (full name on back), and concepts like "the leotard effect," wherein a football team's matching pants and socks make the players look like they are wearing leotards (think the Saints in black pants/socks, or the Ravens), and "amateur pacifistic" uniforms, a joke on Nike's Pro Combat line, which ties in neatly with "GIJoevember," the time of year when sports league jingoism is at its zenith. Semi-obscure technical terms—the squatchee (the button on the baseball cap), Northwestern and UCLA stripes, radial and vertical arching, TV numbers, varsity block, blood jersey—assist in the connoisseurs' navigation.

The leotard effect in action. Photo by Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

With language specific and frequent enough to require a glossary, it is no surprise that readers of Lukas's work and members of the Uni-verse are a particularly passionate and loyal bunch. There is a membership club, replete with cards based on the member's choice of uniform (sans purple! Lukas detests the color, allowing purple designs only during Purple Amnesty Day, the site's anniversary), and a T-shirt club, featuring various Uni Watch designs. There are sporadic blog entries on what Lukas did over the weekend or last night or on vacation, regular food posts, and even art projects, along with guest posts and the constant stream of Uni-verse observations.

A base this passionate also breeds polarity. Various mini-schisms have opened through the years, notably around indigenous nicknames (D.C.'s especially), the rising tide of logo creep, the relationship between sport and the military, and—the grandest split of all—traditional versus modern designs. In the latter, Lukas is a traditionalist, preferring the august aesthetics of teams like the St. Louis Cardinals, Green Bay Packers, and Montreal Canadiens. Elsewhere, his stances are far from conservative: take, for example, his premise that the "uniform-industrial complex" may be proliferating to death, or an ESPN column on Cleveland fans leaving stitch-ringed spaces on their Indians gear after removing the team's rictus-grinned racist caricature.

The most vicious fighting in the Uni-verse often happens when aesthetics gets bound to social and political issues, like when the subject of race is broached (perhaps unsurprisingly, the Uni-verse seems mainly composed of white men), or when the T-shirt club's July 4th NOB read "Pandering," in a dig at the cheap (albeit paid for) patriotism of the NFL. That the Uni-verse is multifarious in and unafraid of its opinions, though, and that it now has a place to air them, could be considered the key to the column's, and Lukas's, continued success.

Reader feedback also directly plays into one of Lukas's favorite aspects of his bespoke beat: filling in the irregular history of uniforms, whose details have been lost or buried thanks to the combination of traditionally scant coverage, black-and-white photos, and the fungibility of human memory.

For example, ever wonder why the Dodgers numbers are red? Lukas doesn't. Todd Radom, the designer behind the identities of the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Angels, recently discovered the answer in the course of research. The red numbers were meant to be a special addition to the Dodger's uniforms for the 1951 World Series; when Bobby Thomson let fly with the Shot Heard 'Round the World, sending the Giants to the championship instead, the idea, rather than being shelved, was simply rolled out for the regular season the next year. Radom posted the find on his own blog, where Lukas saw it and which he then aggregated. For sports uniform geeks, Uni Watch is like the Treasure Coast, with revelations constantly floating ashore.

Lukas's devoted core of readers are now instrumental in the running of Uni Watch; he estimates that he receives roughly 200 emails and tweets a day, which he combs for site-worthy observations. Many of these make it into The Ticker, a rundown of the day's uniform news that closes each post, and which Lukas constantly updates until it's published—often handling last minute additions, emails, lede changes, and overnight breaking news right from his bed. Readers have also contributed full features. Lukas also pays two employees to assist with running the site. Intern Mike Chamernik also handles Ticker duty, and Phil Hecken, who began as a frequent and eloquent Uni Watch commenter, is the weekend editor.

Lukas himself. Photo by Heather McCabe

The Institute of Inconspicuous Consumption, the Center of the Uni-verse, is in Lukas's home, located in Brooklyn, of course, south a few blocks from the Barclays Center and just west enough that one's hamstrings can feel the gentle pull of the neighborhood's titular park's slope on approaching the building. Inside, the apartment is filled like a museum with neatly arranged, aesthetically pleasing displays of stuff: mid-century modern advertisements line the walls; baseball stirrups hang from the fireplace; an array of pencil sharpeners line a hallway arch, flipping at the keystone spot so as to keep the handles better arrayed and the sharpeners upright. There is a barber's chair by the front window, a voluminous bird feeder like a flattened cake pan outside, shelves of vinyl, salesman's samples displays—dinettes, American Tourister colors/materials, sunglasses, jockstraps, knives—chrome and enamel ball-shaped tap knobs, coin-operated devices (Coke, gumballs).

Lukas was on the couch, which took over for his desk when the bird feeder came in. Caitlin, one of his two immense cats, was atop the coffee table, rubbing against the laptop, the tape recorder, the pen, Lukas's legs, kneading his jonquil button-down, which he paired with half-frame TV set Rayban glasses, fingerless gloves, and his permanent Chuck Taylor All Stars. The Vikings and Seahawks were underway in Minnesota, a brutally cold game—foul weather being one of Lukas's favorite aspects of the sport—and he could not help but notice, and keep a running catalog of, which players were in gloves and which were not, and that at least one official was not, something we decided he would most likely regret. Strange, seeing how cold—but then a tweet comes over the transom: the University of Denver playing against Team USA in a men's lacrosse exposition, color-on-color, a favorite Uni-verse event. It gets tossed into the Ticker, written up in HTML. Back on television, the center is only wearing one glove! Is the punter wearing any gloves? And again, over the transom, Robert Carter Jr., a basketball player for Maryland, has a "Jr." NOB but with a small-cap "R"—credit for noticing such a fun little thing, Michael Guffy! Coded up, into the Ticker!

Lukas hummed away, at the interview, the game, Twitter, email, the swirling center of the Uni-verse and high priest of inconspicuous consumption on a couch in Brooklyn, with a Brannock Device hung like an icon on the wall.