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Rebranding Roller Derby: Athletics Logos and Sports Design

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Some feathers may be ruffled and some feelings hurt by what I’m about to say about the need for rebranding in the world of roller derby, so before we get into all this, let me clarify a few things.

1. I am a fan of roller derby

I’ve been a regular attendee at roller derby bouts for several years. I’m not a fan of roller derby because I have lots of friends who play (I do) or because I’m dating a derby girl (I am), but because I genuinely enjoy the sport. When I still lived in north east Ohio I never missed a bout by the Burning River Roller Girls, and often made it to Rubber City Rollergirls and NEO Roller Derby bouts as well. Since moving to Asheville, NC, the only home bouts I’ve missed were when I was on tour, or out of town for another reason. I made the trip to Atlanta for championships last year. I screamed myself hoarse for Sandrine Rangeon in the bronze medal match, and teared up when she won 2012 MVP jammer.

2. I am a professional branding consultant

When I’m not being a touring singer-songwriter, my mild-mannered alter-ego is a professional graphic designer and branding consultant. I received a 5-year degree in Visual Communication Design from Kent State University. I have paid the bills for the past 7 years running my own company (yes, shocker, playing music is not yet paying the bills. Okay, it’s paying my cell phone bill. Next goal: make enough money from playing music to pay for cell phone AND motorcycle insurance). I do, however, try to keep the two sides of my life separate, I’m not trying to parlay this into additional business, and I prefer this forum over my business’s website for a personal soapbox, so I won’t link to my professional portfolio here.

3. I’m doing this because I care

This is is the friend who, when you’ve been trying for hours to get your motorcycle to run right, says “maybe you should have a mechanic check that out.” This is the teacher who grades your work and points out what you did wrong because he wants you to do better. This is an intervention. I’m not trying to be condescending, snarky, or mean, and if you belong to one of the leagues I mention here, the inclusion means that I’ve paid enough attention to have noticed, and I’ve probably cheered for your team. I would never think of trying to tell you how to skate, but this is something that I know about. I’m here to help.

Okay, let’s get started!

With all that out of the way, it must be said that roller derby as a whole has a lot of problems with branding. Take a look through the WFTDA Member League list and you’ll quickly see some of the issues. One of the biggest is that a good 50% of the logos are entirely illegible at that thumbnail size. The reasons for the branding issues are myriad, but if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s because most of them were designed in-house at the league. In my experience, roller derby leagues tend to contain a lot of talented, creative people, often including some fantastic artists. Unfortunately, there’s a world of difference between a great tattoo design (which a lot of these logos look like) and a successful branding/identity system.

Why does it matter?

In a word, credibility. Roller derby is still an emerging sport, striving for respect and recognition in the athletics world. I’ve heard many friends who play roller derby wishing that the championship bouts were covered in some way on television. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but even producers at EPSN 8 (“The Ocho”) would look at most of these logos and say, “There’s no way we can use that on air.” If roller derby as a sport wants to be taken seriously, the member leagues need to look professional – I use the term in the “having your act together” sense, not the “getting paid” sense – and when your first impression is a logo that does not look like it belongs to a serious athletic organization, then the battle’s already lost. With a small business, there’s a time when, if the business wishes to continue growing and reaching a larger market, they have to move past their in-house designed logo to something that looks like they’re ready to play in the big leagues.

For roller derby, that time has come.

Cool, so we need to redesign our logo?

This is the first preconception that needs to be squashed. A logo does not a branding system make. A logo is one piece of a branding system. Just like Froot Loops are part of your complete breakfast, you still need the apple, the glass of orange juice, the bran muffin and the milk. A branding system is a complete kit of parts that can be used in any situation the organization needs to be visually represented.

I’ll use the recent rebranding of the Erie Seawolves (The Double-A Minor League Baseball affiliate of the Detroit Tigers) as an example.

Before

After


The improvement is immediately obvious – one looks like a page from a bad coloring book, the other looks like a professional sports team. But the one logo wasn’t all the Seawolves got. Check out this picture from when they announced the rebranding:

And I’m sure they also have a graphic that’s just the “Erie Seawolves” text, and a set of brand guidelines on how/where the graphics are to be used, the amount of space to allow around the elements, and a complete color palette for use in promotional pieces. In addition, each of the individual elements are set up to look good on dark or light backgrounds (which is important to note – WFTDA requires that leagues competing in playoff and championship tournaments have both light and dark uniforms).  Now head over to their online store, and check out how all those different elements are used:

Erie Seawolves New 2013 Merchandise

Starting to get the picture? You may have to spend some money at the beginning to get a complete branding system, though it’s entirely possible that you could find a consultant or firm willing to do the work in trade for tickets or sponsorship. It’s money that’s well worth spending to look professional and have graphics ready to go for any application.

[Editor’s note 03/10/2016: If you want a great article about this subject that’s less likely to make you mad, check out “How to Brand a Roller Derby League” from Rainy City Roller Derby. It does an excellent job of laying out the totality of what a branding system is, and how to get there.]

Got it. So what’s wrong with the current league logos?

The same things that were wrong with the first 30 or so logos I designed in my Corporate Identity class – a class I wasn’t allowed to take until halfway through my third year in the design program at Kent State. Even with all that background in design, I still made most every mistake in this list. Well, except for putting a roller girl in all my logos.

Legibility

 

No matter how great a piece of artwork may be, if you can’t understand what it’s trying to communicate when it’s shrunk down to the size of a quarter, it’s not a good logo. You want people’s eyes to be able to rest on your flyers, posters, or t-shirts for no more than a second, and be able to understand what’s being represented. There are a lot of things that go into legibility; line weight, type size, and clarity of form are some of the big ones.

 

Kitchen Sink

 
Trying to cram too many things into a logo is one of the biggest mistakes in branding and identity design. The Charm City logo has a horseshoe (presumably referencing the Preakness), a girl, a ribbon, a spade with the Maryland flag on it, and the name of the league, all presented in a traditional tattoo style. The Rose City logo has knuckle tattoos, a skate wheel as an “o”, a clipart rose and some script fonts. By trying to say too many things at once, they end up saying nothing.

 

Where’s The Roller Girl?

 

Going back through the WFTDA member league list, 101 out of 172 logos feature a roller girl in one way or another. That means that if your league’s logo has a roller girl in it, that’s a feature you share with about 60% of all the other leagues. If you’re going for an instantly recognizable design, doing the same thing that everyone else is doing isn’t the best way to achieve that.

Historically, there is a reason for this trend; when modern roller derby was just beginning to emerge as a legitimate sport, most people didn’t know much about it. The roller-girl-in-the-logo thing served to instantly explain that this is a sport involving tough women – thus all the black eyes, tattoos, and sneers – and roller skates. At this point, however, the sport’s grown beyond the need for that explanation. Even if they haven’t been to a bout and haven’t a clue about the rules, most people have at least heard of modern roller derby. They might not realize it’s happening in their town, but they don’t need a badass pin-up-style illustration of a derby girl on every logo to know what the sport’s about.

 

Hierarchy

 

This is one that makes me shake my head every time I see it. “Rollers”, “Rollergirls”, “Derby Dames”, “Derby Dolls”, and all the other variations are not your league name. They are simply an indicator of what sport your league plays. They should not be larger than the name of your league.

Can you imagine what logos would look like in other sports if they all treated their hierarchy this way? As a Cleveland fan, I’d feel a little silly sporting this on a shirt:

 

Uniqueness

 

Though prime examples of the heirarchy issue I just mentioned, as far as visual execution these two logos are some of the better ones among the WFTDA member leagues. They’re clean, easy to read, scale down well, and would reproduce well in many different situations. Unfortunately, neither of them actually says anything about the team or where they’re from. Remove “Atlanta” or “Des Moines”, and would you have any clue where they were based? If your league name is your city, then your logo should pay homage to what’s unique about that city.

 

Rebranding Case Studies

Just for funsies, I decided to redesign some logos. I did all these in an afternoon (though one I’d had most of lying around for a while), and didn’t spend more than an hour on each. My goal was simple: take 8 existing logos that had deficiencies, and redesign each to meet the criteria of Legibility, Heirarchy, and Uniqueness. The Kitchen Sink and Where’s The Roller Girl issues would necessarily be resolved by the necessity for Legibility and Uniqueness, so I didn’t feel the need to specifically require those.

I didn’t take the time to separate out the additional branding components, but using the SeaWolves example above, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine how that could work with any of these.

Minnesota RollerGirls

Minnesota Rollergirls Logo - Current

Before

Minnesota Rollergirls Logo - Rebranding

After

In spite of being graphically well-executed, the Minnesota RollerGirls logo falls short in the categories of uniqueness and heirarchy. There’s nothing about it that says “we’re from Minnesota.” You’ve got your standard black-eyed rollergirl, and the text emphasizes RollerGirls over Minnesota.

My solution? Mooses make everything better!

I’ve got lots of family in Minnesota, and apart from the bitterly cold winters, the two things that come to mind when I think of the state are lakes and moose. And moose are more fun to illustrate.

Is it goofy? Sure! But it’s also memorable. And if you think serious athletes can’t play for a team whose logo makes you grin a little bit, you need to check out some of these Minor League Baseball logos.

[Note: After I published this, it was pointed out to me that the moose I created was, in fact, a boy moose. Female mooses don’t have antlers like that. Whoops! It’s also worth noting that in the time since writing this article, Minnesota has been gradually rolling out brand updates, one of which includes using the shape of the state behind the logo.]

Charm City Roller Girls

Charm City Roller Girls Logo - Current


Before

Charm City Roller Girls Logo - Rebranding

After

I already spoke a little bit about this logo’s shortcomings – in addition the kitchen-sinkiness, it  also has a generic roller girl, some heirarchy issues, and some pretty terrible gradients.

When I started thinking about what I mentally associate with Charm City, the solution to this logo became instantly clear. If you’ve ever seen them skate, you know that it’s impossible to forget their helmets – they’re one of the most unique uniform elements in all of roller derby.

And if you doubt that a clean graphical execution of a helmet can be considered a logo, try heading over to www.clevelandbrowns.com.

Boom.

 Rose City Rollers

Rose City Rollers Logo - Current

Before

Rose City Rollers Logo - Rebranding

After

You can probably pick the issues out here – legibility on “Rose City”  goes away very quickly, there are too many disparate elements, “ROLLERS” jumps way out in the heirarchy, none of the elements work together stylistically. This one’s kind of a mess.

It was also one of the more challenging ones to find a solution for, and of all of these, it’s probably the one I’m least thrilled with the final result. Coming up with anything that didn’t look like a florist’s logo was difficult, and I’m not sure I succeeded in shaking that fully. I thought focusing on the rose element was the only thing that made sense, however, and a great American poet once told me that every rose has its thorn. Thorns make you bleed, blood’s red like a rose, and the blood drop from the thorn just happened to line up with the bowl in the “O”.

Burning River Roller Girls

Burning River Roller Girls Logo - Current

Before

Burning River Roller Girls Logo - Rebranding

After

In the grand scheme of roller derby logos, the Burning River logo actually has a lot going for it. It’s unique – the two-color white/red execution is eyecatching, it relates to the history of the city (for those who don’t know, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire a few times back in the day, kickstarting a little thing called the environmental movement), and it’s instantly recognizable. Unfortunately, it falls into a special category of derby logos I call the “parody logos” – and in this case is a bit too literal in its aping of the hazmat “Flammable Liquids” placards.

This one was an easy fix – the “flammable” symbol is one that’s universally recognizable, so I just cleaned that up, layered it on top of Ohio, and separated out a type treatment for the logo.

Confession – I actually designed the main icon for this one a few years back, and screenprinted a few bootleg shirts for myself. When I wore one of those to the next bout, I had more than a few people ask me where they could purchase shirts with the new design.

Brew City Bruisers

Brew City Bruisers Logo - Current

Before

Brew City Bruisers Logo - Rebranding

After

Well, at least this one’s legible…

This is another perfect example of a “parody logo”, but this time without any discernable reason for that parody. Brew City Bruisers is such a fantastic, evocative name, but instead it receives a “parental advisory” label treatment.

Sometimes, when I begin designing something, I get a flash of inspiration. It’s rare when that inspiration makes me laugh out loud. This logo is one of those rare cases. The moment I had the visual of an anthropomorphized pilsner glass in a roller skate, I cracked up. From there it was just a matter of transforming that mental image into a logo.

As with the Minnesota design – yes, it’s a little goofy. But it’s unique and certainly memorable.

 

Silicon Valley Roller Girls

Silicon Valley Roller Girls Logo - Current

Before

Silicon Valley Roller Girls Logo - Rebranding

After

When I first started bouncing around the idea of writing this blog and doing this project, I was given a few suggestions of logos I should tackle for a re-design. This was one of those, and it’s not hard to see why – it’s lacking in any discernable character whatsoever. Unless people already know who you are, an acronym like SVRG is not going to set off lightbulbs over anyone’s head, so all you’re left with is some black text to tell you what this represents.

My solution on this one may be a little trite – a circuit-board rollerskate and some 8-bit text (in the same greens as the commodore 64 monitor I spent my early formative years learning BASIC on) – but it meets the criteria I set out for myself. Onward!

Blue Ridge Roller Girls

Blue Ridge Roller Girls Logo - Current

Before

Blue Ridge Roller Girls Logo - Rebranding

After

I debated whether to tackle this one, as it’s the team I most actively follow and root for (they’re based in Asheville, NC where I live), but I decided that it hardly seemed fair to criticize the logos of teams whose members I don’t personally know, and not do the same to my home team.

This is a case where I actually like having a roller girl in the logo – she’s recently been redesigned, and it’s a very well executed illustration, but still falls short in the areas of legibility (the Blue Ridge text all but disappears as it scales down – script fonts in general are difficult in that regard), the heirarchy’s off, and while the girl-with-the-braids has the potential to be iconic, it’s not quite there yet.

I decided this one just needed a sprucing up, not a full-on redesign, so I cleaned it up, tweaked the browline, put a gleam in her eye and some blue ridge mountains in the background. That’ll do!

[Note: Since the publication of this article, Blue Ridge hired me to update their logo. You can take a look at how that ended up on their website. No mountains, but a huge leap forward in legibility, and I also put together a complete branding package for them. I may add that to the article at some point.]

Bay Area Derby Girls

Bay Area Derby Girls Logo - Current

Before

Bay Area Derby Girls Logo - Rebranding

After

This was another request, suggested by a former San Francisco resident, who thought the “heels and wheels” logo said nothing about the bay area. That, and the fact that it becomes entirely illegible from any distance (I watched them skate at the championships and had no idea what the logo was supposed to be until I saw a larger version on their website), pushed this one onto the list.

The B.A.D. thing, while clever, doesn’t really work. When the crowd is singing “BAAAY AAAREEEAAAAAA” in support of your team, that’s what your logo should be showcasing. That and, you know, something about the bay.

Thus, the Golden Gate Bridge on rollerskate wheels. I tried using the bay bridge, but the towers of the Golden Gate are far more iconic, and since gold is the primary Bay Area uniform color, that subtle tie-in seemed to make sense as well.

There you have it!

Roller Derby Logos

I’m not trying to say that this is the direction these leagues should definitely go with a rebranding, or even that any of these logos is very good; conceiving of and executing a logo in the course of an hour isn’t likely to yield world-class results. Every one of these rebrandings, however, fits the self-assigned criteria of Legibility, Hierarchy, and Uniqueness, and every one could be used as the basis for a comprehensive branding system. More than anything, I’m trying to get people in the derby world thinking about their brand. I’ve got my fingers crossed that in the next few years we’ll see some major rebrandings of roller derby organizations.

It’s time to join the big leagues.

————————————

Edit: I just stumbled across another great blog on this same subject, that touches on a lot of additional nuances of team colors, the different sub-teams on leagues, and other issues that I didn’t get around to including in this. Check it out:
Roller Derby & Branding, or, We Love the Petty Stuff

Another edit: Since writing this article, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several leagues on developing their brands, including Blue Ridge Roller Derby, Cast Iron Skaters, and several other along the way. I did spend more than an hour on those logos!




16 Comments

  1. Suzanne Samples
    Posted January 30, 2013 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    Great points, and I love the redesigns! They are awesome.

    • Michael McFarland
      Posted January 30, 2013 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

      Thanks so much! I had a lot of fun with them.

  2. Eva Lucien
    Posted January 30, 2013 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    Heeeey, I recognize one of those logos! :) Very thought-provoking article. We’re talking internally about some of the points you raised. Of course, there’s never enough time or money to want to think about a rebranding campaign, and tbh we’d really just prefer to skate. But I agree that brand strength is generally underestimated in derby. It’s always interesting to hear outside perspectives of what roller derby leagues should/shouldn’t be doing with their resources. Thanks!

    • Michael McFarland
      Posted January 30, 2013 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

      Eva-

      First, big fan! I loved watching you skate at Burning River bouts, and don’t tell anyone, but I always rooted for the Pin-Ups…

      In the end, the real goal of this article was to spark discussion about the issue, so if that’s happening it was worth my time to write it. I included Burning River not because there are major problems with the BRRG brand (in the world of derby branding as a whole, you’re definitely near the front of the pack) but because you are that close to having a fantastic brand, and I already had that redesign (from two years ago) sitting on my hard drive, so it was low-hanging fruit. I don’t think Burning River needs a complete rebrand as much as a brand evolution… no pun intended.

      I can definitely understand the perspective of preferring to just skate, but there are of course innumerable things that happen at a roller derby league off the track. Working on your brand with an outside professional could allow your promotions department to work more efficiently, present a stronger appearance to potential fans, and turn the people who are willing to pay money for your merch and be walking billboards because they love your league into more effective emissaries, thus better promoting the league. Better promotion = more butts in seats.

      Anyway, I really appreciate you taking the time to slog through all 3000 words of this article, and I hope one of my trips back to Ohio will line up with the Burning River bout schedule!

      Take care,
      Michael

      • Wayne Girard
        Posted January 11, 2014 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

        Would it be possible to discuss our leagues needs with you?? My name is Wayne Girard. Thank you very much for any of your time in advance.

  3. Posted March 27, 2013 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    As a roller derby ref, AND professional graphic designer, I have to agree with the points you make. They are very valid. And almost EVERY logo I see has the same flaws you pointed out. I’ve noticed all of these myself and I’m glad you posted this. Maybe leagues across the country will take note and it can help propel them into the light. Thanks again.

    • Michael McFarland
      Posted March 27, 2013 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

      Thanks so much, Jason, I glad I’m not alone in this one!

  4. Andrew Hacker
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Hey, just read your article on the “Rebranding of Derby”. I am in agreement about alot of the logos. I am an art director/ graphic designer/ branding type myself. I have been designing some of the individual team logos and bout posters for the North Texas Derby Revolution here in Denton, TX (www.houseofquad.com) If you go to the site, I designed the Elm St. Nightmares logo and Trauma Queens. I alos believe that some of their other logos are in serious need of help to, but to try and tell them that is another story all together. Unfortunatly, that is the major problem you run in to. People can be very territorial about their logos. I did enjoy several of your logos like Charm City, Bay Area and Rose City. I am trying to branch out as well, I have recently gotten in touch with the Connecticut Roller Girls (a buddy shoots some of their bout photos) to see if I can lend a hand with their graphic work.
    I am still relatively new to the sport but I love seeing all the bout poster art work on Pinterest and searching out individual teams. (Houston Roller Derby has some great team logos “Psych Ward Sirens” is the best). It is some of the most fun work I have done recently. I’d like to do more for other teams.
    So I guess we shall see what happens.
    Good article.
    Andy

  5. DanniDanger
    Posted July 13, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    So how would one go about getting you to design a logo for a team?

    • Michael McFarland
      Posted July 14, 2013 at 4:44 am | Permalink

      Shoot me an e-mail at [email protected]. I leave on tour this week, so my dance card may be a little full for the next month, but I’d love to chat with you about what you’re looking for!

  6. Posted November 13, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    A skater friend just linked me the reprint of your article on Derbylife. I’m the author of a derby scoreboard program that bundles logos with it. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to communicate information quickly to spectators, and cleaning up logos for use in the software.

    The logos I’ve been asked to add so far range from pencil sketches to vector art. You can see them in my logos gallery if you’re interested. Some of them work better than others when projected onto a big screen that can be over 200 feet away from the viewer.

    If leagues would try to stick to the rules you set out here (plus trying to match colors, as mentioned in the other blog post), I can assure you that, at least on the scoreboard, fans would be way less confused.

    Team logos are used in all kinds of situations that might not have been considerations during design. Michael’s guidelines are a great way to make sure that your logo does well in all the places it will eventually be called upon to fill.

  7. Yeah Idrathernotsay
    Posted June 30, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I am in total agreeance with you but GOOD LUCK trying to make sense to people who don’t want to make sense… and I know they’re still out there! Several years back, when the first league I skated with was very young, I remember suggesting a reworking of our VERY busy logo, not knowing the girl who designed it was skating with the league AND head of the art committee. I just assumed someone else not affiliated with our league designed it. Well, I thought I was going to get thrown out the way the steering committee swiftly descended upon me. Now they have shirts with just their 4 initials, as if people outside the derby world are supposed to know what “**RG” means. I wish you luck in your quest to help propel roller derby to legitimacy in the sports world by simplifying their logos and making them clearer but you should know that there are some skaters/artists (and I’ve skated with a couple of leagues) with egos the size of Jupiter.

    • Michael McFarland
      Posted June 30, 2014 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for taking the time to read & reply!

      That’s actually one of the reasons I strongly recommend that leagues work with an outside consultant on the development of their logo – objectivity. One of the pitfalls of any creative endeavor is of a work becoming too “precious” to the creator, to the point of irrationality. Any time a logo is designed in-house at a league, there’s the risk that the creator will take any suggestions/requests for changes personally. I’ve seen this happen on multiple occasions.

      Conversely, an outside professional, who’s only skin in the game is their professional reputation and whatever compesation is agreed upon, has the motivation to create something that will be useful and effective for their client.

      Sometimes the only way for change to happen when the trap of Gollum-like preciousness occurs is for the creator to retire. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “Yeah, we all hate the logo, but Skater X designed it. So long as she’s around, it stays.”

      The best I can hope to do is provide a set of guidelines for when those redesigns happen, so the same mistakes aren’t repeated.

      Take care,
      Michael

      • Yeah Idrathernotsay
        Posted June 30, 2014 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

        I do appreciate the advice you’re putting out there!!! I hope that leagues will see this and take your advice to heart. People tend to forget that leagues are, for the most part, self-sustaining & self-governed BUSINESSES. Thanks for caring about the future of roller derby and the branding of leagues! :)

  8. Blue Stalking
    Posted February 24, 2015 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    As John Maddening pointed out on the version of this article that appeared on DerbyLife, Minnesota RollerGirls was one of the first derby leagues out there, so they have the rollergirl in the logo because they were one of the trendsetters.

    MNRG did a rebranding before the 2013 season that gave the four home team logos a unified visual language with the main logo and incorporated, as you noticed, the outline of the state of Minnesota into the team logos (the aqua-and-army team logo is the logo of the MNRG All-Stars). The new home team logos reuse the team colors and one essential visual element from the originals (the Rockits’ rocketship, the Atomic Bombshells’ bomb, the Garda Belts’ crown and the Dagger Dolls’ dagger), but unify the line weights and color gradients with the main logo. In the case of the Gardas’ logo it also reduced the number of essential elements from two (a crown and a police star) to one (just the crown). The new home team logos, therefore, look less like tattoo designs and more like sports branding. It’s not that I don’t like the logo that you did – it’s just that there’s nothing in it to show visual continuity with existing MNRG logos and merchandise (all of the other logo reworks have at least one essential visual element in common with the previous design), so it’s not just that the change is shocking, but that the proposed rebranding looks like it belongs to an entirely different organization from the first. It’s not a bad effort, but it’s a move that looks more like it would belong to a failing organization (take for example the 1996 Minnesota Timberwolves rebranding) rather than one of the first and most successful roller derby leagues in the world.

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