College unis outshine the pros. Why?

Oregon changes its uniforms regularly, while the Steelers have worn the same uniform style for decades. Icon SMI, AP Photo

Last week was a busy time here at Uni Watch HQ, as we came out with our annual season preview columns running down all the uniform changes for college football and the NFL.

It's interesting to compare the two uniform scenes being documented in those two columns. Let's start with the pros: Among the 32 NFL teams, only one -- the Buccaneers -- got a new uniform this season. There aren't even any new alternate or throwback designs in the NFL this year. Aside from the Bucs, everyone will be wearing uni designs that we've seen before (although there are plenty of new patches and other uni-notable developments).

Now let's compare that with the 128 FBS schools, several dozen of which have unveiled new uniforms and/or helmets this year. Based on recent experience, it's safe to assume that more schools will come out with additional uni designs (camouflage, stars and stripes, blackout, rivalry, etc.) during the course of the season.

Because there are four times as many FBS schools as there are NFL teams, there will always be more new uniforms each year in the college ranks. Still, the radically distinct rates of change indicate that pro and college football have two distinct uniform cultures. What accounts for these differences? Here are some of the factors:

1. The five-year rule. NFL rules allow teams to change their uniforms only once in a five-year period (and of course some teams have opted to stick with the same look for much longer than that), which imposes at least a modicum of visual stability on the league. The NCAA has no such rule, which allows for an ever-changing cavalcade of uni designs.

2. The "only one alternate" rule. NFL rules allow a team to wear only one alternate or throwback uniform per season, so a team is effectively limited to a maximum of three jerseys in a given year. There are plenty of college teams that will have worn more jerseys than that by the first week of October, because the NCAA has no cap on uniform designs.

3. The helmet rule. Even if an NFL team has an alternate or throwback uniform, current league rules require players to wear the same helmet shell all season long whenever possible, which effectively eliminates the option of using alternate helmet colors. League officials say this is a safety precaution, although many observers think it has more to do with precluding any additional concussion-related litigation. (For more on this rule, look here.) In any case, the NCAA headwear scene is a veritable free-for-all by comparison, with many schools featuring as many as four, five, or even six different helmet designs. (You can read more about the practicalities and implications of that here.)

4. The arms race. NCAA schools are outfitted by three primary uniform manufacturers -- Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas (plus a few schools still have deals with Russell Athletic). Those companies are constantly trying to outdo each other, creating a de facto design competition that keeps pushing the creative envelope further and further. By contrast, all 32 NFL teams are currently outfitted by Nike -- and before that they were all outfitted by Reebok -- so the league's uniform designs aren't subjected to competitive market forces as the NCAA's are.

5. Kids love shiny objects (or at least that's the party line). Colleges and coaches have come to view ever-changing and increasingly outrageous uniforms as a recruiting tool to attract 17-year-old high school players, who are assumed to have short attention spans and shallow aesthetic tastes. There's some question as to whether this is actually the case (reporting by ESPN.com's Jeremy Crabtree suggests that uniforms aren't high on the list of what most recruits consider when choosing a school), but it nonetheless seems to be driving a lot of the designs these days. Meanwhile, NFL rosters are determined largely by draft picks and contract offers, so the league doesn't need to use uniforms as player bait.

6. Think about who's calling the shots. NFL owners, several of whom are scions of family dynasties, are some of the most conservative businessmen in America, and many of them are deeply wedded to their teams' visual heritages. It's no surprise that the Mara family has kept the Giants looking largely the same for many years, for example, or that the Rooney family has done likewise with the Steelers. Don't expect that to change anytime soon.

There are probably additional factors at work here, but those are the primary ones. The question now is whether these distinct uniform scenes will deviate from the courses they're currently charting. Will the pace of change at the college level slow down? Will the NFL amend its regulations to allow for more alternate looks or at least a faster rate of change?

The hunch here is that revolving door of college uni designs may slow down a little bit in the near future, but not by much. And Uni Watch hereby predicts that the NFL will start allowing alternate helmets within two or three years. Ultimately, though, time will tell.

Paul Lukas thinks we may soon see the day when a college football team changes into a different-colored jersey during halftime. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.