Features & Columns

How Nike's Dreadful Marketing
Delayed Soccer Mania in San Jose

Members of the rebranded San Jose Clash weren't fond of the name or hideous jerseys.
CULTURE CLASH: Members of the rebranded San Jose Clash weren't fond of the name or hideous jerseys.

Saturday night, the San Jose Earthquakes game against D.C. United will officially commemorate the 20th anniversary of Major League Soccer's inaugural match, which erupted April 6, 1996 in San Jose. In that first game 20 years ago, San Jose defeated D.C. in front of 31,683 fans at Spartan Stadium. At the time, it was the largest attendance for any sporting event in San Jose history.

With that match, the San Jose soccer bloodline began its MLS era as the San Jose Clash, thanks to the marketing bozos at Nike, who also inflicted upon the team hideously embarrassing jerseys and a nonsensical logo, which had nothing to do with San Jose and made no sense to any soccer-minded person anywhere in the world. A shoe company tried to market the team to '90s emo mall rats rather than soccer fans, so the entire brand was widely ridiculed by everyone, especially folks who grew up with the original San Jose Earthquakes in the '70s. But for whatever reason, we still went to the games.

As soon as MLS began, the Clash carried on the lineage from the old days. Original Earthquakes player Laurie Calloway became San Jose's first MLS coach. Peter Bridgwater, who formerly ran the San Jose Earthquakes, became the president and general manager. John Doyle, who'd briefly played with the Quakes during their bardo state of transition between the NASL and MLS, was the first player signed. On the local television broadcasts, fans got to watch former San Jose Earthquakes Chris Dangerfield and Mark Demling. All together they comprised four different levels of the new MLS organization carrying over from the San Jose Earthquakes. At the time, any intelligent person could see the Clash as a natural progression from everything that started in 1974 in San Jose. Unfortunately, confused MLS executives held an absolutist view of the world in their thinking that God created everything in 1996 and nothing existed before that time.

In retrospect, it's easy to contemplate what would have transpired had MLS launched with a team called the San Jose Earthquakes instead of the ridiculous Clash. If Nike had any knowledge of the sport, they would have retained the original name and colors like many of us wanted. Had that occurred, thousands more fans would have immediately identified with the whole package. The Earthquakes notoriety and brand would have grown faster and more players would have expressed interest in playing and/or staying here. A stable ownership group and stadium would have emerged much earlier and the mainstream press might have even understood the culture a tiny bit more. All the success one now sees in Seattle and Portland, for example, would have happened here first.

On the flipside, in 1996, maybe the fans were simply too willing to accept the Clash name and didn't care enough to duke it out with a shoe company and fight to retain the original moniker. San Jose can be like that. If you want anything authentic or interesting to happen around here, you usually have to fight for it, and many times people just don't care enough. As a result, we are left with another curious "what if" scenario. Those often make the best stories anyway.

This is not to diminish the Clash players or their accomplishments. Many stayed around and contributed in various ways, if not moved on to other successful pursuits, on and off the pitch. But one can only imagine the "what if."

When it comes to the botched emo-mall-rat-branding fiasco, Dangerfield told me a few years ago that it represents an era that should be erased from our memories. Many teams go through forgettable periods in their history, just as an English team might get relegated from the Premiership all the way down to the third division. "In the case of the Earthquakes," Dangerfield said, "it wasn't so much going down to a lower league per se; it was just a change of name that did that. It would have been a lot easier, I think, if we'd have just kept it as the Earthquakes all the way through."

The lesson here? Don't let a shoe company decide anything.