Sunday 30 October 2011

Revisiting The EDGE

It seems like eons ago when the new Reebok EDGE jerseys came out. We heard a lot of boasting and chest-puffing from Reebok about how their new EDGE designs were going to revolutionize the sport by making players faster and a whole lot of other mumbo-jumbo. Of course, a lot of people raised their eyebrows towards Reebok's claims - me included - but I wanted to revisit this from a more trusted source than I. I checked around, and I found a great article on the Reebok rhetoric penned by Brandon Keim on

The article's title - Good Science Can’t Save a Bad Idea: The NHL's New "Uniform System" - explains a lot about why Reebok's claims were somewhat truthful, but highly misleading in their basis. Being that we're a day away from Halloween, I thought this article might explain why Reebok was forced to abandon this terrible costume conundrum.

"Bettman negotiated a deal with Reebok to produce the league’s uniforms. These were, he said, in sore need of improvement. Not because the league needed a boost in merchandise revenues — of course not! — but because the current uniforms were inadequate to the modern game’s demands. 'It was done for performance and safety,' he said. That the players themselves had never complained about them didn’t matter."
As far as I can tell, the players only complained about the heat in the Ultrafil 6100 uniforms because they didn't breathe. When CCM started using the air-knit fabric, complaints died off quickly as the players were playing in much lighter and much cooler jerseys that wouldn't trap the heat inside. As for the improvements that were needed, I have no clue what that means. Personally, I like the looks of the vast majority of old NHL sweaters.

Of course, we got this bold claim on the Reebok website:
"'In addition to Reebok’s extensive in-house research, research and development teams at MIT and Central Michigan University performed unprecedent independent tests further validating the improved performance of the rbk edge uniform system,' the company proclaimed.
Combine that with the "science" that they put forth in which they proclaimed,
"The jerseys used 'the most innovative fabrics ever made.' Compared to the old jerseys, they weighed 14% less when dry; possessed, as shown in wind tunnel tests, 9% less drag; absorbed 76% less moisture; lasted twice as long; and were 4 to 10 degrees cooler."
All of that sounds pretty impressive, right? All of these percentages were done by experts in a laboratory setting where factors and variables were controlled... I assume. And we all knows what happens when one assumes, right?

Here comes Wired's Brandon Keim with the debunking.
"USA Today’s reporting read like a Reebok press release and featured a company executive claiming that players would "go from driving a Ford to a Ferrari," while ESPN quoted Gary Bettman calling the advances 'an evolution of our uniform, taking into account where we are in the 21st century.'"
In fact, as Mr. Keim points out, only EJ Hradek of ESPN wasn't drinking the Kool-Aid on the day that the NHL changed its look. "Maybe there were others, but I haven’t found them," writes Mr. Keim. But it was true that Reebok fed as much rhetoric as it could to the press while using the NHL as its conduit. It was hard to find any hard numbers as to what these percentages mean anywhere on this day. After all, 14% less dry means that if a sweater holds 1 litre of water, it's still holding 0.86 litres of water - not such a dramatic claim after all since you're still all wet.

Let's check out the research that Wired did to debunk these "innovations".
"14% less meant a jersey that once weighed 670 grams now tipped the scales at all of 575 grams — a whopping savings of just over three ounces. The lowered wind resistance of 9% was another number that sounded impressive until you actually thought about it: never did the company explain just how significant the wind resistance was in the first place.

"Imagine, for example, sprinting in a t-shirt, and again in a t-shirt that’s one size smaller. The latter ought to have at least 9% less drag — but are you actually 9% faster? Of course not.

"You probably don’t even notice the slightest difference. Nevertheless, Reebok’s pseudo-scientific promotional videos showed a mock race between two skaters, one in the old jersey and one in the new, with the latter finishing while the other still had 9% of the circuit to go.

"As for the reduced absorption, the company didn’t give any figures for how much additional sweat weight the average hockey jersey actually gained during a game. Nor, apparently, did they ask where water that was once absorbed by jerseys would go. But more on that later.

"Reebok did at least produce a specific figure to illustrate their uniform’s doubled durability: a jersey that once wore out in 20 games would last for forty. How they decided on that number is hard to know, since the jerseys weren’t actually tested by players in games, but only in a handful of practices."
Clearly, Reebok was pushing to get this new "innovative fabric" into the NHL as quickly as they could in order to push the EDGE fabrics on other sports. That's a great idea, except that the science going into the fabric was nothing more than smoke-and-mirrors.
"Actual game testing was reserved for this season, when it was already too late to call the jerseys back. And that’s when players pointed out something that Reebok might be forgiven for failing to anticipate, but can’t be excused for not learning through real-life testing: just because jerseys don’t absorb sweat doesn't mean the sweat disappears. Instead of being absorbed by jerseys and socks and evaporating, the sweat gathered underneath them."
And it wasn't just Wired that found out that Reebok's "science" was more myth than reality. The players spoke out about how they disliked the new uniforms which had to have the guillotine hanging over someone's head at Reebok.
"By the end of pre-season training, players around the league vocally denounced the uniforms. Sweat, they said, now soaked their equipment, literally pouring into their gloves and skates, filling them like buckets and making it hard to play with the skill that Bettman and Reebok promised to 'enhance.' Unsurprisingly, players said the unbreathable uniforms were uncomfortably not. So much for 4 to 10 degrees cooler.

"It also turned out that much of the savings in weight and drag came from making the uniforms more form-fitting than before, which in turn required the jerseys to be much more elastic. That makes it possible for players to pull jerseys over each other’s heads during fights — a very dangerous situation. But that’s only when the fighters can actually get a grasp on the slippery fabric. When they can’t, fights continue longer than before, rather than ending in a wrestling match — again, a dangerous situation. Even if one feels that fighting doesn’t belong in the game, it's there now, and isn't about to go away. For these players, the jersey puts them at increased risk of injury."
It wasn't until Sidney Crosby began grumbling that the NHL and Reebok decided to rethink this new jersey concept. And wouldn't you know it, the NHL and Reebok came out with a new EDGE - the EDGE 2.0 - that really was a new name for air-knit fabric with some very minor tweaks. All in all, the EDGE jersey was a complete and total failure, and all the science boasted by Reebok couldn't save a poor design.

It just goes to show you that no matter how much spin one can put on a topic, the results speak volumes about the topic. The one that immediately caught my attention when the NHL unveiled these fabulous new jerseys was the price. And it caught Mr. Keim's attention as well: "Reebok’s assorted scientific comparisons also left out the most important number of all: the new jerseys sell for twice as much as the old ones."

If I can use a line that Mr. Bettman brought out, it doesn't matter if these jerseys make it seem that one goes "from driving a Ford to a Ferrari". No one wants your myth-laced lemonade if you're just selling lemons, and Mr. Keim made that abundantly clear in his well-written article.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Jim BC said...

I've never been a fan of the EDGE system. I read the Hradek article and totally forgot that Reebok had initially considered tucking in the jerseys... can you imagine?

JeffB said...

I dislike the feeling for the fabric, dislike the odd proportions of the jerseys, as when you find one that fits your torso, the arms are way too long, and I have never been fan of how the price of a replica went from $80 to $120 overnight for what I feel is an inferior product, as the shoulder patches are horrible stiff, screen printed cheap as hell pieces of junk. They treat the names and numbers the same way. Of the very few of these Reebok jerseys I have begrudgingly acquired, I have purchased blank ones and have have paid to have them customized with properly sewn twill and swapped out fake shoulder patches for embroidered versions when possible. I can't wait for someone, anyone, else to get the next NHL jersey contract in hopes of either a return to the old style and cut of jerseys, or at least an improvement in the quality of the retail jerseys.