How do you know when your voice is being heard? Actions backing it up usually helps.
That was the case for six lucky Bengals fans on Sunday, April 18th, just a mere 15 hours before the Cincinnati Bengals’ new uniforms would be officially released to the world.
I say officially because, well, we already knew what two of the jerseys looked like.
When the Bengals saw a random eBay user unknowingly put up unreleased Bengals jerseys for sale in early March, six weeks before their planned release, the offices of Paul Brown Stadium entered panic mode. No one really knew what to do. All they could do is investigate from a distance. Some Twitter surveillance was conducted as well.
Sean Herron of Warehouse Collaborative was the de facto leader of that search team. The goal was simple: Identify optimistic feedback of the jerseys. Herron said he keyword searched ‘Bengals jerseys’ for 12 hours and landed on six accounts promoting the jerseys from a positive standpoint.
For starters, what better person to comment on aesthetics than a graphic designer? Seth Reese is one of Bengals Twitter’s go-to jersey swap aficionados, and his photoshop work alone generated positive buzz about what the jerseys would look like on shoulder pads instead of laundry hangers.
Willie Lutz, a Columbus-based musician and Bengals writer for LastWordOnSports.com, understood the uniqueness of Paul Brown’s signature sown into the inner collars of the new threads. Brown’s name stitched in cursive became an identifier of authenticity for the leaked kits.
Though her Twitter account is less than a year old, Bengals Whitney is a staple of the Bengals online community. Her life-long fandom of the orange and black recognized that those literal new stripes will be seen from all the way at the top of Paul Brown Stadium.
You can probably see those stripes all the way from California where Yasmin Quintana is based. Yas, or Commissioner Yas on Twitter, is the supreme leader of positive Bengals content. You think the Tik-Tok boss of Bengals fashion wasn’t going to be hyped for the new threads? Child please.
When he’s not transporting force-sensitive green children across the galaxy, the Bengalorian is a Cincinnati resident and attends every home game. Those pads aren’t just for protecting against blaster lasers, they make an on-field jersey fit perfectly. And yes, it actually is Pedro Pascal beneath the helmet.
And finally, what can we say about our very own Zim WhoDey? There’s no better hype man in this entire fan base. Zim sees the forest through the trees in every aspect of life. That includes jersey concepts.
Oh, and then there was me. The guy that was there to write about this whole thing.
So what was the thing? I did not know at first. The timing made the jerseys seem like a safe bet. Cincinnati’s director of communications, Emily Parker, asked me a few days prior if I’d like to come down to the stadium for something extremely ambiguous. She asked me if I wanted to be considered a fan or media. I told her media, like a grownup idiot. And when Parker asked the seven of us to place our phones in locked lockers and sign non-disclosure agreements, we could all put two and two together.
But it wasn’t just the new jerseys. That came last.
First, there was a 20-minute mess-around session on the field of PBS. Zim grabbed a football and Yas grabbed an old-fashioned Riddell helmet. My two eyes saw the Bengalorian catch a 15-yard out, and he didn’t have to use his jetpack. He later did a turf snow angel about 10 yards from where Vonn Bell stripped JuJu Smith-Schuster of his dignity on national television.
The six of them got to show off their own touchdown dances in the south end zone. Lutz, with his Fabio-esque hair, let his locks flow in the wind after unleashing his own Gronk-spike. That got a well-deserved applause from the group. Also, Reese can sling it. If Ryan Finley were in attendance, he’d be jealous of his velocity.
Now it’s time for the main event right? Almost.
After taking the elevator up to the Club Suite Level on the west side of the stadium, we were met by giant black curtains. Were the new jerseys behind those curtains? Nope. But a certain member of the front office sure was.
None other than Elizabeth Blackburn herself greeted all seven of us with pure elation and hugs. She was standing in a room that essentially depicted the entire multi-year process to get to this point. There were classified renderings of potential jersey concepts, old jerseys for reference, sketches of stripe outlines, and everything in between. This project had Blackburn’s fingerprints all over it, and she wanted to share the journey with us.
After getting on her hands and knees to serve the group drinks from coolers on the ground, Blackburn listened with genuine curiosity as to why they were all Bengals fans, because that’s what she truly is at heart. She explained that her life was destined to be encompassed by the team, so hearing the origins from others, some not even from Cincinnati, and where their passionate support for her family’s franchise comes from looked like authentic music to her ears.
And that’s when they found out why they were there. Because when the organization was scrambling from their nearly three-year process unraveling by the hands of some bozo in Florida, these were the ones who stood up for their process. And that support did not go unheard.
Minutes later, another curtain was pulled back and the mannequins where there with brand-new jerseys and pants sporting them. For Lutz, the best part of Sunday was that dramatic reveal with Guns N’ Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle playing in the background.
“I just say walking in the room and seeing the jerseys for the first time and seeing everyone else’s reaction to them,” Lutz said. “There was long speculation about ‘when are they coming out? What are they gonna look like?’ You had the bad leak and then you walk in and see those gorgeous new jerseys, like that was really cool.”
Next to Lutz was Reese, a fan who spent hours upon hours outfitting digital Bengals players in the new uniforms. The reveal exceed his expert-based expectations.
“I think the stripes on the shoulders, that’s the first thing you see,” Reese said. “Which is great because that’s what the Bengals are. The stripes really are what matched the brand, that’s how you know they’re the Bengals. The numbers not having the drop shadow on them just look so sleek and clean, and really don’t distract [you from] the other parts of the jerseys. Basically, you are able to focus on the stripes, and the helmet, and just really know that’s the Bengals.”
The jerseys were displayed on mannequins, but the mannequins weren’t the only ones who got to wear them that day. There was a rack of jerseys (all appropriately on hangers) ready for the group to try on. When the six of them started picking out their jerseys, that’s when my journalistic integrity was tossed to the side. When else am I going to get this exclusive opportunity? I grabbed that orange Burrow jersey and just went with it.
Around another wall of curtains stood a custom-built Bengals throne in the midst of foliage and turf. That throne would later be shown in the team’s uniform reveal content, and we all got to sit in it wearing the new jerseys. The Tiger Kings of our domain, which was Paul Brown Stadium for an afternoon.
The next hour featured catered Bibibop for dinner in a club suite next to the curtained-off area. Blackburn could’ve went off to do other things, but she stayed with all of us; just shooting the breeze, and talking Bengals. That resonated with Whitney.
“She’s definitely an authentic fan,” Whitney said. “First and foremost. It’s so genuine and you can tell she’s not putting it on. But she also took a lot of time with us. To talk to us, to talk us through the entire process, all the behind the scenes, every step that went into the new uniforms and beyond, so she was a great host.”
Blackburn has been the face of this new era of Bengals management and culture. And while she’s been nearly every where in Bengals media recently, she’s still a relatively new name amongst fans. This was the first time this group had met Blackburn, and there’s one moment I’ll never forget during our time with her.
Zim had noticed the unique sweatshirt Blackburn was wearing. Jokingly, he asked to try it on, and without hesitation, Blackburn started taking it off for him to hold it (she had an undershirt on, of course). The new—but not so new—face of the Bengals front office, surrounded by super fans, is literally willing to give you the shirt off her back. If that’s not being fan-centric, I don’t know what is.
She also swatted a fly out of the air. I know because I tried to do so 30 seconds beforehand.
“It’s obvious that they’re committed to the fans and the fan experience,” Whitney said. “Even if you just look at the details of the jersey, it’s obvious they were listening to the fans over the last three years this has been in progress. And now it’s really a new era where I think fan-first and fan-forward.”
If you were trying to rebrand as a fan-first franchise, why not recognize a fan everyone knows? The Bengalorian is now officially canon in the eyes of the Bengals’ brass, thanks to Blackburn. His passion for the orange and black certainly did not go unnoticed.
“It’s incredible,” The Bengalorian said Monday after the reveal. “To think a couple of years ago I was just another guy in a jersey drinking beer in the stands with a goofy idea to build a set of armor, and now I just rubbed elbow with Bengals royalty. Elizabeth, Emily, heck I shook Anthony Munoz’s hand today. I created this character to just be an infectious beacon of positivity and that is my mission going forward. I am fully engaged with what the vision is for this team now, I am grabbing on and it would take an army to make me let go.”
The Bengals don’t have a brand as giant as the Dallas Cowboys or Pittsburgh Steelers. They don’t have the market size of the New York Jets or Chicago Bears. They don’t have recent postseason success to market.
But they aren’t poor. They’re rich in passion. They’re rich in loyalty. They’re rich in fandom. And to see the fandom of six very deserving people pay off so exquisitely can make a sometimes skeptical pseudo-journalist stop and think for a long minute.
The New Stripes are transcending beyond just the fabric of the jerseys.