By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

Unless an arbitrator rules otherwise, it looks like Terrell Owens won't be celebrating any touchdowns for a while. So our lasting image of his end-zone stylings, at least for now, will probably be the celebration from three weeks ago, when he pulled out a towel he'd hidden under his shirt and went into his "Hi, I'm Terrell and I'll be your waiter this evening" routine.

The thing is, there was no need to hide the towel, because football is the one sport where players routinely wear towels as part of their uniform -- which is kind of weird when you stop and think about it. And that's exactly what Uni Watch has been doing lately.

Uni Watch knows what you're thinking. Admit it: You are thinking, "He can't write an entire article about towels, can he?" Au contraire, mon frere! Towels are good for more than just snapping your teammate's backside in the locker room. They've quietly worked their way into the fabric of the game over the years, and they play a bigger role in football's visual history than you might think. As Uni Watch briefly noted a few weeks ago, Desmond Howard used to put strips of black tape on his towel (which became such a signature look for him that it's even included on figurine depictions of him). And if you're old enough, you no doubt remember the once-common sight of a quarterback breaking the huddle, walking up to the line, and flipping up the towel that was tucked into the center's rear waistband and draped over his butt. And then there's the whole Terrible Towel thing (whose full story is told here).

And consider this: While most other components of an NFL uni are Reebok-branded, the towel carries the Wilson "W" (along with, of course, the annoyingly ubiquitous NFL Equipment logo). How did that happen?

"If you look at old photos, players just wore plain white towels," says a contact at Wilson who prefers to remain anonymous, so we'll refer to him as the Wilsonian. "But we make the official NFL footballs, and when we re-upped the ball contract in the early '90s, the NFL asked us, 'Hey, you want the towels, too?' It was kind of a no-brainer, and I think it's just been included every time we've re-upped our contract with the league. It allows us to get a little exposure and keep our logo in the camera view, especially now that the NFL uniform is all Reebok."

This is, of course, the essence of Uni Watch's longtime bete noire, logo creep. But for some reason, the towel branding doesn't seem so odious. Maybe it's because Wilson is more of an old-school company that isn't out to devour the entire world. Or maybe it's because there's something endearingly quaint, or even a little sad, about this particular marketing effort. Like, seriously, how much brand equity can there be in a towel?

Speaking of which, ever wonder how the towel stays so perfectly tucked, with the logos positioned just so? Turns out there are little strips of Velcro sewn into the towel, to keep it securely anchored. And the towel isn't just folded -- the upper half of the towel is sewn shut, so it can't blouse out too far. "We used to have the NFL shield and our logo on just one side of the fold," explains the Wilsonian. "So guys were flipping the towel around and you couldn't see the graphics. But in 2003 we started putting the logos on both sides, so now you're more likely to see them."

But get this: For all of Wilson's branding efforts, they don't actually make the towels. They outsource out the manufacturing to McArthur Towel, a 120-year-old Wisconsin company that specializes in licensed towel products. "We make the Gatorade towels," says Don Carroll, McArthur's shipping and production manager. "And we've been making the Steelers' Terrible Towels for as long as I can remember. We move between 250,000 and 400,000 of those every year."

The basic NFL waistband towel isn't available for sale (imagine -- a licensed piece of equipment that isn't being merchandised!), but the Wilsonian was kind enough to send Uni Watch a few samples. The big surprise is that the towel is, frankly, rather unpleasant to the touch. In a league that makes such a big deal about high-performance this and that, wouldn't you expect a supersoft, ultra-plush towel? Forget it -- this towel, despite being 100%-cotton, feels stiff and coarse, like a really cheap dishtowel, or a washcloth at a low-end motel. "I agree with that assessment, actually," says the Wilsonian. "I know McArthur has come to us with higher-grade versions, but the thinking here has been that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. It's not like we're getting complaints about it."

"It's basically a cheap promotional towel," confirms Don Carroll at McArthur. "Frankly, I think a lot of the players just wear it for looks, not for function. But we have another version made of microfiber, which Peyton Manning has been using for three years. It's super-absorbent, and it's a little larger. We sent some samples to the teams, and Manning must have liked it -- he's the only one who uses it." Sure enough, Manning's towel does look a bit bigger than everyone else's. And, Uni Watch notes with a raised eyebrow, it appears to be consistently logo-free.

Other towel tidbits:

• "Each team gets 528 towels for the season," says the Wilsonian. "We get them in boxes of 176, and each team gets three boxes."

• During the Super Bowl, the towel becomes part of the annual Super Bowl logo blitz.

• Trent Green doubled his pleasure, and Wilson's brand presence, by wearing two towels on October 21 -- a look that has some historical precedent.

• The Terrible Towel, which started as a one-game promotion 30 years ago, has become such a phenomenon that it's now essentially a brand unto itself, which explains the plethora of Terrible non-towel products like this and this.

• The Hall of Fame's collection of game-used uniforms and equipment doesn't include any towels -- yet.

OK, so we've got branding, fashion statements, touchdown celebrations, promotions -- what else are towels good for?

"Well," says Don Carroll, measuring his words carefully, as if this might be a trick question, "they're good for dryin' ya up." Ah, yes -- of course.

Paul Lukas keeps forest-green towels in his bathroom (and now has two NFL waistband towels hanging next to his kitchen sink). Archives of his "Uni Watch" columns are available here, here and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list? Contact him here.




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