NFL

The San Francisco 49ers Once Went Through a Redesign So Disastrous It Lasted Less Than a Week

This season, the Los Angeles Rams looked…well, different. Their new logos and uniforms were not received well upon their announcement, to put it mildly. They didn’t look much better when they took the field.

Perhaps the Rams could have taken a cue from their division rivals, the San Francisco 49ers. In February 1991, they stealthily announced a major logo change, only to pull the plug on it after massive fan backlash.

Changing times in San Francisco

San Francisco 49ers Helmets
A details shot of the San Francisco 49ers helmets in January 1991 | Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Most sports team rebrands come during long periods of losing. This was not the case with the San Francisco 49ers’ attempted rebranding.

By February 1991, the 49ers were still one of the premier teams in football. The previous month, they had just come off a heartbreaking loss in the NFC Championship Game to the New York Giants. That defeat derailed their attempt to become the first team to win three consecutive Super Bowls, a feat which has still yet to be accomplished.

Changes were in store for the 49ers for 1991 both on and off the field. Franchise quarterback Joe Montana suffered a brutal injury during the NFC Championship Game that would put him out of action for all of the following season. In the front office, Carmen Policy ascended to the position of team president.

Perhaps sensing a new era, the 49ers contracted Stevens Wright, who had already done work for several NFL teams. In particular, he designed the Buffalo Bills’ “charging buffalo” logo, which is still in use to this day.

A terrible first impression

Wright’s “masterpiece” made its first public showing at a press conference on Feb. 13, 1991. The 49ers’ new logo and helmet were not the focus of this event. Much of the time was spent discussing Policy’s ascension to team president, as well as a contract dispute involving Pro Bowl defensive back Ronnie Lott.

After the press conference, however, fans immediately latched onto the new logo and made their opinions heard. They flooded the 49ers’ offices with phone calls expressing their unanimous disapproval of the change. The San Francisco Chronicle received letter after letter from disgusted fans, including this one from a local advertising executive.

It’s so goofy looking, like a sign advertising onions, “49 cents a pound” at Safeway or something. It doesn’t have the character or tradition of the old logo. All of my friends are horrified, too.

Rik Gloff, Bay Area advertising executive, as quoted by the San Francisco Chronicle

Some even took issue with the fact that the helmet read “49ers” instead of “SF”, theorizing that the 49ers were considering relocation. This was not an unjustified fear. After all, in the previous decade, the Raiders, Colts, and Cardinals had all left their previous homes. It certainly didn’t help that during the press conference, someone placed the new “49ERS” helmet right next to an old “SF” helmet. This had to make the transition even more jarring.

The 49ers make an about-face

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Six days after the press conference, 49ers management bowed to fan reaction and announced that the previous “SF” logo would remain intact for 1991. The aborted design would go down in history as the “One-Day Logo”. Technically, this is not accurate. It actually took six days from the logo’s reveal until the reversal.

“[This] action has not been viewed with favor by the very people we were trying to please…our fans,” wrote a one-page fax announcing the about-face. Out of all of the fans who called the 49ers office, only one approved of the change, according to a team spokesperson.

According to ESPN, a few scattered pieces of official merchandise hit store shelves with the unused “49ERS” logo and helmet design. This proves that the 49ers and the NFL were dead-serious about implementing the new design until fate — and angry phone calls — intervened.