Established in 1906, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a member-led, nonprofit organization “dedicated to the well-being and lifelong success of college athletes”. It regulates and organizes the athletic programs in 24 sports across three divisions (with Division I being most popular and competitive) and manages the 89 different championship tournaments where more than 54,000 of the 460,000 student-athletes compete. Last year, the NCAA unveiled the logo for the 2016 Final Four (basketball tournament) and this year is implementing a comprehensive identity system that applies to all championships designed by Pottsville, PA-based Joe Bosack & Co who recruited number of sports identity specialists to collaborate on the project: Todd Radom, Fraser Davidson, Skye Dillon, and T.J. Harley.
The NCAA applied its new championship logo system to all 90 championships across 24 sports in Division I, Division II and Division III during the 2015-16 season. The organization’s agencies and partners have already integrated the new brand identity assets to court designs, advertising, event signage and decor, tickets, websites, programs and apparel for all championship sports.
The NCAA championships logo system features a consistent logo architecture anchored by the iconic championship trophy; new athlete iconography for each of the 24 sports; and a distinctive typeface that reflects the speed, strength, and skills of each sport.
The project begins with the sports themselves — and we will work our way up to the championships logos — through a set of icons for the various sports under the NCAA’s regulations. It’s not quite the Olympics but it’s still a handful of a challenge and the two-tone figures rise to it. In some cases the detached head feels a little weird but it’s a visual element that helps tie all of them together in an unexpected way. Placing the icons inside the banner shape gives the icons some tension to work with — the gymnastics one is particularly good — and I like how sometimes the icons are larger and cropped inside the banner. The idea to rotate the banners from regular season to championships is thoughtful but I doubt anyone will ever notice.
Another element is a custom font that is pretty much what you would expect but, thankfully, it has no slabs, no spikes, no notches… it’s just a strong, italic, condensed sans serif with some angular sculpting.
From the icons and the font, the logo system starts to take shape. Starting easy with an icon, font, and NCAA logo lock-up that is simple and effective and where the angles of the banner and font work nicely together. The top-level championship logo gets a little more elaborate with multiple levels of typography but still works well. It all culminates in the flashier signature championships logos for the most popular sports, including the insanely huge basketball tournament, aka March Madness.
More than 20,000 online surveys were distributed to fans, student athletes, corporate partners, licensees, school administrators and equipment suppliers, asking them to judge old and new logos. Another 1,000 in-depth interviews were conducted, including 400 with student athletes from all three divisions.
Upon completion of the project, [Mark Lewis, the NCAA’s executive vice president for championships and partnerships] said he was proud that 72 percent of the thousands polled thought the new logos provided a better image of the championships. Within that group, 62 percent of student athletes and school administrators thought the new championship logos were more celebratory.
Final Four logos are built with flexibility in mind. Allowing for each host city to shine through relevant imagery and color. This allows the system to build equity in a perpetual look while still providing a strong sense of time and place.
The 2014 and 2015 Final Four logos managed to capture all that is bad about sports logos and identity: gaudy typography, spikes, speed, gradients, borders, strokes, beveling, etc. The new logos are the complete opposite and are a best case scenario for taking the driving principles of sports logos — Speed! Excitement! Location! — and representing them in an elegant, dynamic, and perfectly executed way. There is no unnecessary shading, no gratuitous notches and spikes, no endless layering of strokes. My favorite element is the shading effect inside the “FINAL FOUR” type; for some reason, that just looks lovely. The Final Four logos and all other championship logos now include a representation of the physical NCAA trophy which is a very clever way of including the obligatory NCAA logo in the logos, now done in a meaningful way.
All NCAA championships share a common thread that roots them in a foundational look. This helps all championships build equity as a collection rather than disparate events with distinctly different looks.
The range of signature championship logos is really great. There is a clear and obvious visual system to them but they each feel special. The color palettes built around the difficult blue and tan key colors of the trophy are surprisingly good-looking. It’s hard to imagine this system holding on for more than three or five years before it devolves into the tackier aesthetics of sports identity and that’s not the fault of the designers but the nature of design and deprecation of minimal aesthetics. It’s the equivalent of soda packaging gone minimal that suddenly starts sprouting bubbles in the background then increases to giant swooshes and other inane graphics. But I digress. This is a fantastic system from the icons to the highly televised championship logos, giving us non-March-Madness-non-fans something to cheer for this college championship season.