Why sports teams, apparel companies and universities opt to crowdsource design
November 2, 2014 12:00 AM
Business folder? It will run with crowdsourcing1102. Caption information: This jersey design, created by Dallas Mavericks fan Geoff Case, will be worn by the NBA team during the 2015-16 season. The Mavericks are one of many teams to use crowdsourcing to create a new look.
By Michael Sanserino / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Dallas Mavericks’ newest jersey design came from a former marketing executive with no graphic design experience who dreamed up the concept in high school.
Geoff Case, now 32, has always been a big fan of the National Basketball Association team owned by Mt. Lebanon native Mark Cuban. As a high schooler in suburban Dallas, Mr. Case sketched an idea for a Mavericks jersey in his notebook, based on the Texas city’s unmistakable skyline.
Years later, the Mavericks launched a fan contest to design an alternate jersey that the team would wear in the 2015-16 season.
After browsing early entries during a lunch break — and seeing nothing he liked — Mr. Case was inspired to resurrect that idea from high school. He took a couple days off from work to craft his entry, watching old Mavericks games on YouTube and listening to thumping Kanye West songs for motivation.
When fellow Mavericks fans voted Mr. Case’s design the best, the outcome changed his life. He quit his job as a digital marketing manager for a sport supplements company and launched his own design firm, 1 Man Agency.
He didn't get rich off the jersey design — or anywhere near it. Mr. Case received a $1,000 prize and 2015-16 season tickets. But the contest gave his new firm a “signature moment” and exposed him to potential clients.
In many ways, this was a win-win arrangement. Mr. Case got exposure and a lot of business leads, and the Mavericks received a low-cost jersey design and a lot of buzz for their organization.
Those are the best parts about crowdsourcing, which democratizes the creative process to give amateurs, novices or anybody with a good idea an outlet. The concept has grown significantly in the past five years as social media has evolved and more businesses have embraced the idea.
Doritos has used a “Crash the Super Bowl” commercial contest since 2007 that gives people a chance to win $1 million by creating commercials for the brand, a division of Texas-based Frito-Lay.The Golden State Warriors, another NBA team, had a contest to design T-shirts for fan night, where four finalists and a winner each received a pair of tickets to a game. The Milwaukee Brewers had a fan contest to design a jersey the team will wear during a spring training game.
Crowdsourcing ideas that capture the interest of sports fans can be effective because the most important thing about the process is that the crowd is engaged, said Jeff Howe, an assistant journalism professor and coordinator of the media innovations program at Northeastern University in Boston.
“When you have that level of motivation, that’s what crowdsourcing is about,” Mr. Howe said. “It taps all these alternate currencies.”
Mr. Howe coined the term “crowdsourcing” in 2005 when he was working on a piece for Wired magazine. The idea means to outsource ideas to the crowd, and he was fascinated how businesses used the Internet to find amateurs for hire.
The movement has had drastic, sometimes devastating, effects on the professional creative community.
Stock photography used to be a lucrative avenue for professional photographers selling images, Mr. Howe said. But crowdsourcing has changed the market so that photos that once sold for $300 are now available for 99 cents.
“Crowdsourcing eradicated an entire business in the space of a couple years,” Mr. Howe said. “It was like locusts.”
There is a similar concern in the professional design community, where advocates have spoken out against crowdsourcing.
Richard Grefé, executive director and CEO of the New York-based AIGA, formerly the American Institute of Graphic Arts, said crowdsourcing devalues the most important part of graphic design. The real value, he said, is having artists talk to clients to better understand their business and their problem.
“It’s really like Clip Art,” he said, referring to the computer-based stock image service. “You go through Clip Art and pick the one you want.”
The industry has long fought against what it calls “spec work,” or artists submitting design ideas speculatively without compensation. Mr. Grefé estimated about 90 percent of the work that a graphic artist does is communicating with clients to understand their needs and generate ideas.
In the past five years, crowdsourcing has encouraged amateur artists to submit designs without compensation in hopes of being paid in the end. That has made it more difficult for design firms to work with clients and be paid for all their work, Mr. Grefé said.
“It became a populist concept,” he said. “If you didn't do it, you were elitist rather than populist, which certainly went against the ethos of the Web.”
Adrienne Massanari, an assistant professor in the department of communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, published a paper in 2012 that concluded crowdsourcing hurt the design community because it “encourages clients to view design work as merely a commodity and not a very valuable one at that.”
For the most part, large businesses don’t turn to the masses to fill their design needs, Ms. Massanari said in an email. They usually have in-house art departments.
Small businesses don’t have the same resources, which is why the tactic is used there more frequently.
“You would think that both parties would view the other as being equals — as they are both small businesses — and that this would create some parity,” she said. “But it seems like the business … views the designers with whom they're contracting as a kind of resource to be mined.”
Mr. Howe said he understands both sides of the issue. He has friends whose jobs have been harmed by crowdsourcing, but also knows that business practices evolves.
This reminds him of the way the online music serviceNapster found a “really significant inefficiency” in the music industry — that fans couldn't buy individual songs, only entire albums — and exploited it.
“Sure you felt bad for the buggy whip guys,” he said. “But what are you going to do?”
Ross Kimbarovsky, founder of the Chicago-based crowdsourcing website crowdSPRING.com, said businesses like his are set up to help connect independent designers with opportunities. He estimated that more than one-third of all graphic designers work in a freelance capacity.
CrowdSPRING and similar websites — 99designs and DesignCrowd — serve as platforms that allow businesses to pitch design ideas to graphic artists and then pick their favorite from the responses.
CrowdSPRING was built for small businesses, nonprofits and government agencies, Mr. Kimbarovsky said, and it has grown to include more than 162,000 artists from around the world. Businesses pay crowdSPRING to post design requests and list the price they will pay for that work.
The minimum award is $200, though the company also has a “Give Back” program for nonprofits that seek compensation-free design work.
Some projects generate hundreds of entries in the span of a few days. Others get just a handful of entries over the course of several weeks. And some artists can submit design after design and never win any job. Each situation depends on the quality of the information the business provides and the amount it is willing to pay.
“Freelancers would love to have the opportunity to work with lots of different clients,” Mr. Kimbarovsky said. “CrowdSPRING was created to have an opportunity to work with companies all over the world. Ultimately, it is designed broadly for anyone who has the talent to create great designs.”
The company’s own logo was created by someone who was working as a janitor.
The Mavericks basketball team used CrowdSPRING to help with its fan design contest, and 772 of the more than 1,000 contest entries were submitted on the platform.
Mr. Kimbarovsky said the Mavericks would have spent “hundreds of thousands” of dollars creating a jersey had they used traditional methods, working either with a design firm or Adidas, the NBA’s exclusive apparel manufacturer.
NBA teams generated an estimated $1 billion in jersey sales in 2013, according to Matt Powell, who was recently named vice president of industry analysis for the NPD Group’s sports and leisure trends business. The NPD Group is based in Port Washington, N.Y.
The skyline jersey Mr. Case designed will generate millions of dollars in revenue for the Dallas basketball team, and potentially more with similarly branded apparel.
But the marketer-turned-designer is more than pleased with his $1,000 and season ticket winnings.
“This is one of those projects that I wouldn't have gotten an opportunity to do if it wasn't structured the way it was,” he said. “The real value for me is really just becoming a part of my team’s legacy.
“I’ll always be the guy that designed the Dallas Mavericks jersey. That, in a sense, is reward enough.”
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1969 and Twitter @msanserino.
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