By and large – and largely by design – NFL merchandise is pretty terrible, a hodge-podge of camo caps, harrowing halter tops and branded "Frost Boss Can Chillers," all aimed at the hardcore fan with questionable taste and plenty of disposable cash.
So it should come as no surprise that the best NFL merch is currently being made by a group of folks that have nothing to do with the league whatsoever: Football as Football, a six-man (OK, five-man-and-one-woman) team of designers from Minneapolis who set out to combine their love of football with, well, football – the kind that's actually played with the feet.
Since beginning life as a simple graphic-design experiment, Football as Football has expanded to include a line of hyper-stylized T-shirts, prints and stationary, which reimagines NFL franchises as clubs in the English Premier League, Germany's Bundesliga, Italy's Serie A and Spain's La Liga. That expansion has helped raise their profile – their logos were used during Fox's broadcast of last month's Lions/Falcons game in London – and, more importantly, proved that there are NFL fans out there who want something more than just an oversized jersey.
"We knew that audience existed, just because we are that audience," designer Garrick Willhite says. "We're all avid sports fans – we love the NFL and the Premier League and European football, we talk about sports in the office; there's a lot of crossover, and we thought this would be a cool way to take what we love to do and apply it to what we love to watch."
Of course, to date, the Football as Football team – Willhite, Alec Lindsey, Eric Drommerhausen, Bill Gunter, Nicole Meyer and Josh Vadnais – have also managed to avoid the long (and litigious) arm of the NFL. That's mainly because they've refrained from using any trademarked material (team names, logos, etc.) but they know their business model could change in an instant. Because the league has been watching.
"Officially, we haven't heard from them. But we look at analytics and we see different football clubs who have looked at the site, and people at Nike who have looked at the site," Willhite says. "We think it would be awesome to work with the NFL on licensing, but we also know they could shut us down tomorrow. We would love for people to wear these shirts to games, but we don't want to get a cease-and-desist letter."
But right now, it's business as usual. Football as Football logos will once again be seen this Sunday, when Fox broadcasts the Cowboys/Jaguars from London, and Willhite says that he's been contacted by several universities about designing logos for their soccer teams. Sales of T-shirts have been ramping up, and local fans have come to appreciate the attention to detail of each crest.
"There's a lot of research that goes into the city or the state – if you look at city or state flags, we reference them a lot in the badges," Willhite says. "Seattle incorporates the city's flag, Cleveland uses a shape that's on the shield of their city flag. Tampa Bay's German one, the shape of that badge is the shape of their flag.
And if the NFL were to come calling, Willhite says that Football as Football would be happy to partner up – if the long-rumored London franchise ever becomes a reality, they're ready to deliver some designs for a uniform. And closer to home, there might be one franchise that could be in the market for a new logo very soon.
"We would love to do something," Willhite laughs. "It's been awesome to see it out in the world."