How Aesthetics Made The 1980s Sport’s Greatest Era

Here at The Public Apology* we unashamedly regard the 1980s as the halcyon days for professional sport (the early 1990s weren’t too bad either, mind you).

In fact, one of our core beliefs, as described in our unofficial Code of Ethics, is that “nothing will ever be as good as sport during this period because that’s when we grew up and our teams won all the time.”

Yes, it is true that our teams won a lot of the time (chiefly because as callow 6-year-olds we chose to support the team that won the most), but there is a little more to this belief than simply some nostalgic bandwagonning.

And yes, it is true that we love this period because we still hold on to the absurd idea that players back then were less interested in money and more interested in team loyalty, but there is more to it than stubborn, naïve opinions.

The reason we love the 1980s (and early 1990s) is because they represent the most beautiful period, visually speaking, for professional sports.

For many codes, the 1980s was a transition period – not just towards greater professionalisation, but more importantly towards the nationalisation and internationalisation of audience, as well as the increasing commercialisation that came with it.

Commercialisation didn’t simply mean players got paid more money, it meant the dramatic escalation of advertising in professional sports, and signaled the real start of modern-era sports’ symbiotic relationship with the world of advertising. All of a sudden teams were wearing massive corporate logos across their chests, stadiums were lined with advertising boards and star players were spruiking products (or causes) that had no apparent relation to sport.

The proliferation of advertising, technological improvements to colour television and the clean, simple design aesthetic of the era, all combined made sports viewing tremendously beautiful. In particular, sports uniforms reached a peak of beauty and simplicity which, despite the recent ‘throwback jersey’ trend, have never (and probably will never will be) seen again. When it came to team kits, block primary colours were in. Adidas and the simplicity of the three stripes reigned supreme over all other brands, although Nike and Reebok also warrant serious mention.

While modern jerseys are now constructed from recycled coke bottles and boast of special space-age technology to ‘enhance’ performance, jerseys in the ’80s and (to an extent) the ’90s didn’t need that rubbish. They were heavy, made from cotton, they didn’t breathe well and it didn’t matter.

The logos on team uniforms and team apparel, and all advertising in sports, also reached a zenith not to be seen again.

With cigarette companies pouring serious sums of money into sport, we witnessed some of the great corporate logos adorning our favourite competitions and our athlete’s uniforms and machines. Marlboro. Winfield. Rothmans. The king of 1980s motorsport, Formula 1, should be singled out for special praise for its early adoption of amazing team uniforms and its tight embrace of the tobacco dollar.

Rugby league also embraced cigarette sponsorship, naming their competition and award for best players after Winfield and Rothmans cigarettes respectively. The code also embraced alcohol with similar vigour.

When it came to the corporate logos themselves, they were clean, uncomplicated, and rarely used more than two (often primary) colours. In most cases the logo consisted of clear writing on a stark block colour background. It was simple and it was beautiful, as you will see below in this still from the 1986 World Cup.

But it wasn’t simply the advertising, or the elegant players uniforms that made sport in the 1980s beautiful. The fact that sport was primarily played during the day made it far more pleasing spectacle to watch. In the bright light of day, not only was sport easy to watch but team uniforms and colours “popped” on your television screen and on photographs.

I am no lighting specialist, but you don’t have to be Max Dupain to understand that natural light does wonders for aesthetics – something that lights at sports grounds simply cannot replicate. Of course, watching sport played in the daytime also evokes personal memories of the viewer’s amateur sporting highlights, bringing a sense of familiarity and bridging the gap between spectator sport and the Dundas under 7s rugby league side.

As television audiences became more important to sports administrators, we slowly but surely saw our most important sporting fixtures plucked from their traditional 3pm kickoff time and transplanted right into the prime time TV slots (with the exception of the AFl, to their credit). Professional sports codes may have gained more viewers sitting on their couches, but in doing so they lost an invaluable facet of the game.

And hoisting a trophy just looks better during the day, too.

Just like video killing the radio star, it seems that advertising, one of the very reasons why sport in the 1980s was so beautiful, has damn near eradicated some of sport’s most aesthetically pleasing features. Sometimes I lay awake at night and cry at the thought we will never again see the Winfield Cup final being played as the sun beats down on the cigarette company-adorned cotton jerseys of our sporting heroes.

By Ben Shine

*This article was originally published in The Sporting Regard, which was acquired by The Public Apology earlier this year for an undisclosed sum. Minor editing has taken place to give the illusion that this content was created specifically for TPA. Hopefully you haven’t bothered reading this disclaimer.

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