The Official Uni Watch Preview of Super Bowl LIV

At a glance, the 49ers' and Chiefs' uniforms couldn’t be more classic. Look a little closer, though ...

January 29, 2020 6:18 am
uni watch preview super bowl liv
Two of the league's most iconic uniforms will face off this weekend in Miami
Scott Winters / Getty

For the past two decades, Paul Lukas been writing about sports uniforms, logos and field designs via Uni Watch, a column that has appeared on and Sports Illustrated as well as its own dedicated daily blog. Now he’s bringing his obsession — the aesthetics of athletics — to InsideHook.

Unless you’ve been living under a very large rock, you know that the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs will be facing off this Sunday in Super Bowl LIV. The Chiefs will be making their first Super Bowl appearance in 50 years, while the Niners have appeared in six Super Bowls during that span, winning five of them.

From a uniform standpoint, the party line for this game is that both teams have classic, great-looking designs that have gone largely unchanged over the years. That’s generally true, although there are loads of additional uniform-related subplots and storylines to consider if you know where to look. And the best place to look is in the column you are reading right now.

All of which is a longwinded way of saying welcome to the annual Uni Watch Super Bowl Preview, where we’ll break down everything you need to know about the aesthetics of the two teams competing this Sunday. Armed with the information presented herein, you can watch the game with a higher level of nuance and sophistication, while also annoying impressing your friends with your knowledge of assorted Super Bowl uniform arcana.

Before we dive in, it’s worth noting that your friendly uniform columnist is a lifelong 49ers fan and is more than a little excited about his favorite team returning to the big game. But he also respects the Chiefs and their uniforms, so you need not worry about any bias at work here — both teams will get equal time.

Ready? Here are 15 things to watch for and keep in mind while watching Sunday’s game.

1. A battle of undefeateds: The Chiefs are the home team for this game (that designation alternates back and forth between the two conferences, and this year is the AFC’s turn). They’ve chosen to wear their red jersey with white pants. That’s the same uni combo they wore 50 years ago when defeating the Vikings in Super Bowl IV.  Since the Chiefs are wearing red, the 49ers will wear white jerseys with their standard gold pants. That’s the same uniform they wore while beating the Bengals in Super Bowl XVI and the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV. So one of these uniforms will suffer its first Super Bowl defeat this Sunday.

2. The sincerest form of flattery: The 49ers and Chiefs both have primary logos featuring two interlocking letters — and that’s not a coincidence. When the AFL’s old Dallas Texans moved to Kansas City and became the Chiefs, they needed a new logo. According to this team history page, “[Team owner Lamar] Hunt’s inspiration for the interlocking ‘KC’ design was the ‘SF’ inside of an oval on San Francisco’s helmets.” So the two logos facing off this Sunday will be directly related — a Super Bowl first!

3. “KC” stands for “kinda confusing”: Speaking of the Chiefs’ logo, it has a surprising inconsistency. There are actually two similar but distinct iterations of it floating around (the biggest difference involves the tips or “prongs” of the C, which are open in one version and much more closed in the other), and there appears to be no rhyme or reason regarding which one the team chooses to use in which contexts (you can see a deep dive on this topic here):

4. If you squint, you can almost see it: This is the 60th year of the Chiefs’ franchise (if you count their three years when they were the Dallas Texans, which was the team’s original incarnation before moving to Kansas City in 1963), and they’ve been commemorating the occasion with a little 60th-season decal on their helmets. It’s fairly detailed and almost impossible to make out except in extreme closeup shots. Interestingly, it creates even more of the logo confusion we were just discussing — the main helmet logo uses the “open C,” but the 60th-season decal uses the “closed C”:

5. Patch-o-rama: The Super Bowl logo patch is traditionally worn on the upper-left chest. But the Chiefs already have a patch in that spot (their permanent memorial to team owner and AFL co-founder Lamar Hunt), so they’re wearing the Super Bowl patch on the other side. That’s not a big deal (a few other Super Bowl teams have had similar situations), but it creates some serious patch overcrowding for KC’s captains, whose “C” patches will have to be wedged between the Super Bowl patch and the shoulder number. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is one of the team’s captains, and he’ll obviously get a lot of camera time, so we’ll all be stuck looking at this patch logjam throughout the game.

6. Capping it off: 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan favors an unusual piece of headwear that he had custom-designed for himself: a red trucker’s cap with a small black 49ers logo. By any rational aesthetic standard, it’s a lousy design — the logo is too small and the all-black logo looks cheap — but because Shanahan wears it, it’s become a coveted item among Niners fans. So coveted, in fact, that it has sold out at the usual retail channels and is now going for $100+ on eBay. (You can read a bit more on Shanahan’s sideline sartorial stylings here.)

7. Sideline splendor: Speaking of coach attire, back in 1970 — the last time the Chiefs were in a Super Bowl — coaches routinely wore jackets and ties on the sidelines, not casual Friday gear. But Chiefs coach Hank Stram went further, wearing a blazer with a gold-trimmed version of the team’s logo. A very sharp look! (He sometimes wore a Chiefs helmet necktie to boot, although not in the Super Bowl.)

8. Throwing in the towel: Many NFL players wear a towel tucked into the waistband of their pants. But 49ers defensive back Richard Sherman hangs his towel from a little loop of fabric that’s been added to the upper-left thigh of his uniform pants — an endearingly quirky eccentricity, and probably the league’s most unusual uniform modification (additional info here):

9. This space for rent: Most NFL teams put a team logo or wordmark on their nose bumper (that’s the industry term for the little white panel on the helmet’s forehead area). But three teams — the Chiefs, Saints and Washington — leave the bumper blank because they prefer an uncluttered look. With the Chiefs making it to the big game this year, Uni Watch photo research indicates that they will apparently be the first blank-bumpered Super Bowl team since since the Vikings in Super Bowl IX, way back in 1974.

10. Sleeve shenanigans: For more than half a century — from 1951 through 2008 — the 49ers’ sleeves had three stripes. In 2009 they switched to a bizarre format of one full stripe and either one or two partial or truncated stripes (except for three players whose sleeves were long enough to accommodate three full wraparound stripes), which was ridiculed so heavily by the fan base that the team finally gave up and switched to two stripes in 2017. The two-stripe format feels unsatisfying and un-Niners-like. Bring back the third stripe!

11. And speaking of sleeves … People often say that the Chiefs’ uniform hasn’t changed at all over the years, but that’s not quite true. In 2012, they moved their TV numbers (the little numbers on the jersey sleeve or shoulders, so named because they help TV broadcasters and spotters identify players when they’re not facing directly toward or away from the camera) from their sleeves to their shoulders, which had the effect of making their decorative sleeve stripes more prominent.

12. Less is more: People tend to think of the uniforms from the 49ers’ Joe Montana and Jerry Rice glory days as classics, but they had one major flaw: The pants piping was absurdly wide, creating an almost clownish effect. When that pant design was revived in 2009, the team wisely chose to narrow the piping — a major upgrade.

13. Numbers game: The Chiefs are one of only two NFL teams that go so far as to print the players’ uniform numbers on their chin straps (the Chargers are the other team that does this). And why would they do that, you might ask? Because it makes it easier for the equipment staff to keep track of which strap goes with which player’s helmet. These guys leave nothing to chance!

14. Is there a doctor in the house?: After Chiefs offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif received a medical degree in the spring of 2018, he wanted to have “M.D.” added to his name on the back of his jersey, but the famously stodgy NFL turned down that request. Eh, maybe it’s just as well, considering how many letters are already squeezed onto his nameplate.

15. Smoke ’em if you got ’em: In 1967, the Chiefs appeared in the very first Super Bowl (which was then known as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, although some people were already referring to it as the Super Bowl, which would become the official name two years later). Their quarterback at the time, Len Dawson, was a smoker, and photos show him taking some deep drags while in full uniform prior to the game and at halftime (additional info here) — something that’s unthinkable for a contemporary athlete, and wouldn’t even be permitted in any current stadium.

And just to tie past to present, current Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes saluted Dawson last winter by wearing a hoodie with one of the smoking photos on the back:

OK, those are our major points. But if you think the info presented so far in this column qualifies as minutiae, you haven’t seen anything yet. Longtime Uni Watch reader Jay Braiman specializes in breaking down uni-related Super Bowl info at a micro-granular level. Each year he checks in with a seemingly bottomless supply of info about the big game. Here’s his report for this Sunday’s matchup:

  • This is only the third time that both Super Bowl teams have had letters of the alphabet in their helmet logos while both starting quarterbacks wore double-digit numbers. The previous two times were Super Bowl XIX (49ers, Joe Montana, No. 16 vs. Dolphins, Dan Marino, No. 13) and Super Bowl I (Packers, Bart Starr, No. 15 vs. Chiefs, Len Dawson, No. 16). 

  • This year marks the first time both teams’ primary colored jerseys are red (although the 49ers will be wearing white in the game, of course). There have been 12 previous Super Bowls between teams whose primary jersey colors were the same, or in the same color family, but all of those involved teams that wear blue.

  • Teams wearing red jerseys are 5-5 in Super Bowls; teams whose primary dark jersey is red, irrespective of whether they actually wore red or white in the game, are 10-7. Either way, such teams are on a three-game losing streak (Cardinals in XLII, 49ers in XLVIII and Falcons in LI). That streak will be broken this year, no matter who wins. 

  • The 49ers and Chiefs both have black in their helmet designs despite not having black anywhere else on their uniforms. This marks the fourth Super Bowl between teams whose helmet logo contains a color found nowhere else on the uniform. The last was Super Bowl XLIII between the Steelers (blue, red and silver) and Cardinals (yellow). The team wearing white jerseys, as Pittsburgh did in that game, has won all three of the previous matchups.

  • Overall, including those games, teams with a color in their helmet logo that appears nowhere else on the uniform are 14-14, and are on a four-game losing streak. Again, that streak will be broken this year, no matter who wins.

  • Along those same lines, the Chiefs are one of three franchises to appear in the Super Bowl with a trim color on the jersey (yellow) that does not appear on the helmet. The other two are the Cowboys, who’ve had thin black trim on their sleeve stripes in all of their Super Bowl appearances, and the Rams, who had white nameplate lettering last year. These teams are a combined 6-5.

  • Conversely, the 49ers are among three Super Bowl franchises whose helmet shell color and pants color appear nowhere on the jersey. The others are the Cowboys and Giants (in their last three appearances). These teams are a combined 11-5.

  • The 49ers have worn two-color jerseys (i.e., one color plus white, with no additional trim color, excluding patches) in each of their previous six Super Bowl appearances, except XXIX, when they wore black-trimmed throwbacks. Other teams to wear two-color jerseys in the Super Bowl are the Jets (III), Colts (III, V, XLI, XLIV), Raiders (II, XVIII), and Giants (XXXV, XLII, XLVI). Not counting Super Bowl III, which is the only head-to-head matchup of two-color jerseys, these two-color teams are 9-4.

  • The 49ers have only one pants color in their uniform set (not counting throwbacks or alternates); the Chiefs have two. Not counting the Cowboys’ mismatched shades or Super Bowl XXIX (where the 49ers wore throwbacks), teams with multiple pants colors in their wardrobe are 9-6 against teams with only one.

  • This is the third Super Bowl since the first 30 in which both teams use standard block numerals on their jerseys. Only one team in all of the first 30 Super Bowls wore a non-block numeral font (Bears, XX). Since then, non-block fonts are 9-6 against block numerals, and six games had both teams going non-block. 

  • The 49ers have one-color numerals on both their red and white Jerseys; the Chiefs have two-color (i.e., yellow-outlined) numerals on their red and white jerseys. Teams with one-color numerals are 17-9 against teams with multi-color numerals.

Believe it or not, that’s an abridged version of what Jay submitted. And here’s a bonus nugget that he somehow overlooked: This is the seventh Super Bowl in which both teams represent cities with two-word names — San Francisco and Kansas City. Of the previous six instances, the Chiefs were involved in one of them (I, losing to Green Bay) and so were the 49ers (XXIX, defeating San Diego).

And that, my friends, should be more than enough to keep you occupied until Sunday. Enjoy the game!

Paul Lukas will be rooting hard for the 49ers this Sunday. If you like this article, you’ll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, and you can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.

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