SIRK'S NOTEBOOK: The Return of the Banana Kit

It’s back.

After only a few cameo appearances in 2016, the head-to-toe Gold uniforms that have long been Columbus Crew SC’s beautiful and instantly recognizable visual identity have returned for 2017. More than a decade and a half ago, Crew SC broadcaster Dwight Burgess dubbed the uniform to be “the banana kit” — a loving sobriquet used across Crewville to this day. Fellow broadcaster Neil Sika refers to it as “the sunshine strip.”

In 2015, while looking back on the first 20 seasons of Major League Soccer, Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl declared Crew SC’s all-gold ensemble to be the best in MLS history.

And now it’s back.

In honor of the banana kit’s glorious reappearance, here’s a whole Noteblog devoted to its awesomeness and its history.

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Back when MLS started, teams had to have a dark uniform and a white uniform. This was because most TV production trucks still used black and white monitors. Color versus color would have been an indecipherable jumble to the TV production staff. As a result, Crew SC started out with black primary jerseys and white secondary jerseys. Both jerseys still had a lot of gold on the shoulders and sleeves, plus Crew SC would frequently wear gold socks regardless of the jersey, so there was plenty of gold to be found despite the regulatory constraints.

In 1998, Crew SC took another step closer to the banana kit when they unveiled a new white uniform that featured three extremely wide gold stripes down the front, plus down the side of the shorts. The uniform was still technically white, but the gold was even more pronounced.

The idea of an all-gold kit had become such an obsession of mine, that if you have the issue of Soccer America about the opening of MAPFRE Stadium back in May of 1999, there is an interview with me in which I am asked what I would do if I were Crew SC President for a day. My reply was that I’d introduce all-gold uniforms.

That was it. If I were ruler for a day, that was item No. 1 on the agenda.

Coincidentally — although I like to pretend otherwise — the very next year, in 2000, much to my delight, Crew SC received permission to treat gold as their “light” color since it would still offer a light-enough contrast with all of the darker uniforms worn across the league. The banana kits were born.

I am happy to say that I was there in person for the birth of the banana kit. Well, except for the fact that I was on pain pills for an excruciating kidney stone and Columbus lost the season opener at Tampa Bay by the score of 5-1. Other than that, it was great. So it was a horrible start for the banana kit. It would take only a week, however, for the banana kits to conjure some magic: In the home opener against San Jose, in what is one of the most iconic images in club history, Robert Warzycha buried a golden goal free kick to win the game and was triumphantly carried off the field by since-retired mascot Crew Cat. 

After years and years of aesthetically boring black-versus-white contests, it was great to see Gold versus blue. The promise of visually interesting home games all year long got snuffed out before anyone could get too excited about it. When I asked then-GM Jim Smith about making the banana kits permanent, he revealed that league rules stated that a club could only wear their light jerseys four times at home and that those four dates had to be declared prior to the start of the season. He said the club was using the maximum four dates and we put them in the Notebook so fans knew when they were, but that was as far as it could go.

For the next few years, that’s how it went. Crew SC maxed out their banana kit opportunities and had to settle for boringly repetitive black vs. white matches for all the other home contests.

In 2004, the constraints came off and the banana kit became the predominantly featured look of the club for the next dozen seasons, with one amusing detour. When Sigi Schmid took the reins of the Black & Gold, he began mixing and matching looks. Sometimes they would wear the banana kit or the all-blacks, but he became increasingly fond of black shorts with the gold jerseys and gold shorts with the black jerseys. The former looked fine, but not “us.” It felt more like Dortmund than it felt like Columbus. The latter combo looked Steelers-ish and was therefore [redacted].

Anyway, at the fan forum prior to the start of the 2008 season, Sigi decided to take a poll. He had been aware of the grumbling that the banana kit had been taken away from us, so he asked the fans how many of them prefer when he mixes it up and wears the black shorts with the gold shirts and vice versa. Not a soul raised his or her hand. He then asked how many preferred the all-gold. Everyone (or darn close to it) raised their hands. He just shook his head in defeat and said, “All right.”

A man of his word, Sigi reinstalled the banana kits as the go-to primary look at the start of the 2008 season and the soccer gods smiled. The winner’s podium at MLS Cup that November was crowded with glorious gold.

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2015 saw the all-blacks creeping onto the banana kit’s turf and then 2016 saw the banana kit mostly pushed aside on account the special, one-year Columbus flag-themed #ForColumbus kit, which was met with such furious fan reaction that Crew SC produced a hilarious video of players reading mean tweets about it. (Admittedly, it did grow on some people and the jerseys reportedly sold very well.)

As someone who loudly clamored for the creation of the banana kit and as the head of the Banana Kit Appreciation Society, my biases are already so well-known that it would be daft to even pretend I wasn’t dismayed that the #ForColumbus kit demoted the banana kit to a tertiary cameo role in 2016. But I get why it happened.

As a community asset, Crew SC is always looking for ways to further connect the Club with the city. It’s a weird global soccer trend to ditch traditional club colors when making alternate kits, and Crew SC did so with the city of Columbus in mind. This is a club that is willing to take chances, and there was genuine thought behind it.

Also, the #ForColumbus kits were the first time an Ohio sports team had based a uniform around the city flag of its hometown. I could find no evidence that any of the 21 other top-level pro teams (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, NASL) in Ohio history dating back to the 1800s had ever worn a city flag themed jersey. The Cleveland Indians are the only one that wears city flag colors, but that was a coincidence in that almost every old school baseball team wore red and/or blue, not a conscious decision to connect club and city. And our friends over at the Columbus Blue Jackets have an excellent logo and jersey based on the state flag. Crew SC, however, was the first team in Ohio professional sports history to purposefully wrap itself in the city flag. When all is said and done, it’s an interesting piece of club history.

But now, in 2017, we get to once again bask in the glow of the sunshine strip. It immediately evokes all of the warm feelings associated with Crew SC. It’s a unique, beautiful, and long-standing visual identity that immediately lets you know who you are watching. It’s a look that is tied to many of the greatest moments in club history, which only adds gravity to its emotional pull. It’s Pavlovian bliss.

The all-blacks also have a huge place in our history, even though the all-black look has been featured by too many teams over the years to ever feel like it is truly and uniquely ours in the way that the banana kits are. (Fun fact: Even though the all-black is most commonly associated with D.C. United, Crew SC, as the team of firsts, was actually the first team to wear an all-black kit in MLS. It’s true. D.C. United wore black jerseys, red shorts, and white socks in their inaugural game, then wore white-red-white vs. Columbus’ all-black the following weekend. Kansas City had all-black kits with rainbows on them that they wore in their inaugural game, but they kicked off an hour after Columbus did.)

Kit-wise, things are once again in step with the bulk of our history. All-black and all-gold. The twin sides of our Black & Gold identity.

The all-blacks were an MLS first that took place IN Columbus.

The city flag-themed uniforms were FOR Columbus.

But the banana kits…the banana kits ARE Columbus.

Welcome home.

Questions? Comments? Worried that I am maybe a little too obsessed with the banana kit? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk

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