Performance Technology the Driver Behind New NFL Uniforms

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Mike Lawrie / Getty Images

The new Jacksonville Jaguars jersey is displayed during the unveiling by Nike as they begin their partnership with the NFL at Steiner Studios on April 3, 2012 in New York City.

We’ve long known that elite athletes aren’t simply tossing on cotton T-shirts for competition, but most of us never considered that an NFL uniform with nine different materials woven together would make up the latest offering. Nike unwrapped its new five-year partnership with the NFL this week, as I reported on for Sports Illustrated, and the official launch party in a Brooklyn film studio was Apple-esque in style and driven in substance by a goal of greater athlete performance.

While some expected the debut of a bounty of crazy-colored uniform concoctions, the NFL’s 2012 mark will be made more by performance than glitz (the Seattle Seahawks may serve as the lone standout in the non-traditional uniform world as they added in more modern design elements). The shrink-fit jerseys were designed specifically to increase mobility, decrease weight and provide strength while doing it.

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The jersey itself—dubbed the Elite 51—contains nine different materials to help combine everything from thermal cooling to rip-protection. Todd Van Horne, Nike’s global creative director, says that as more teams embrace all the performance options afforded them, more might open up to an aesthetic change, too. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell echoed that sentiment, saying he expects to see more visual changes coming.

The Elite 51 NFL uniform actually starts with Nike’s Pro Combat base layer, a system that comes in three forms, 5 percent drier, 8 percent lighter and 22 percent cooler than the NFL previously used. Athletes can choose a warm-weather choice (Hypercool) that wicks sweat away from the body for rapid evaporation; a cold-weather option (Hyperwarm) that wicks sweat away, but traps heat in by keeping the cold out (Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher says he is especially looking forward to using this option); or a protective-centered choice (Hyperstrong) that adds lightweight, flexible deflex padding into “critical hit zones” and comes with an optional carbon-fiber plate for added lightweight protection.

The nine materials on the uniform’s top layer enter the fray to combine cooling, flexibility and strength into one cohesive garment. Based on data derived from the Nike Sports Research Lab in Beaverton, Ore., uniform designers pinpoint the exact locations on the body that athletes need venting. Differing types of mesh ventilation form zones on the uniform, based on that research. Other areas require stronger impact protection (the pant has the deflex padding woven in, eliminating the requirement of two layers, another player-favorite feature). The Nike lab research also showed where jerseys are most likely to rip, requiring stronger material to not only keep the jersey from tearing, but to also help it remain in place on padding.

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Nike’s Flywire neckline removes the need to clumsily “interface” three to four layers of fabric for strength, instead using a tensioning system technology Nike has pioneered in its shoes. Flywire uses that narrow rod-like tension system to provide a lightweight solution to provide strength, but also a “lock-down fit” that keeps players from grabbing a hold of the jersey as easily, Van Horne says.

In another effort to reduce grab points, as New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz calls them, the hydrophobic fabric moves water away from the uniform, allowing the tight fit to retain its original shape and allowing the player free movement throughout the game. Cut for mobility, Van Horne says the four-way stretch fabric even includes four-way stretch twill numbers.

The NFL players donning the uniforms at the launch event boasted about the fit and breathability. “The range of motion is the biggest thing for me,” says Ndamukong Suh of the Detroit Lions. “I can have my arms go to the side and then be able to reach. The custom, form fit is adjustable and that is great, especially for a guy like me.”

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From Urlacher to Cruz or Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals to Legarrette Blount of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the NFL players loved the fact that they could move unencumbered by the uniform, all while reducing the grabbing opportunities for opponents. Of course, doing it all with extreme breathability and a light weight helps too, says Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Not one to leave any product untouched, Nike has also altered the sock, adding in arch and heel support and zoned cushioning. The new “logo-locking” gloves include a patented and proprietary technology designed to improve grip on the ball and airline-grade aluminum offers a lighter D-ring on the belt.

The new NFL uniform isn’t just about cotton anymore.

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