A steady rise in the sale of FIFA World Cup shirts has colored parts of Pittsburgh in red, white and blue — and inadvertently launched a match between the vendors of inauthentic jerseys and official merchandise suppliers.
Every four years, the World Cup soccer tournament creates a singular opportunity for supporters to flaunt their patriotism by proudly donning the national colors of various countries. “People come in here wearing all sorts of shirts, scarves and hats of their country,” said Alex Peightal, manager of Piper’s Pub on the South Side.
Some U.S. fans even go so far as to purchase the garb of two teams, choosing to buy a second shirt that is representative of their heritage. Italy and England are particularly popular.
According to local store owners, the demand for jerseys has been steadily on the rise since the 1994 World Cup, when the tournament was held in nine cities across the United States.
“The new generation is growing up playing soccer and following European championships,” says Nizar Sandi of Nick’s Imports in the South Side, which sold more than 100 jerseys before the U.S. team’s debut match Monday. “Soccer shirts have become more popular.”
That popularity has been reflected in Mr. Sandi’s sales. Nick’s now carries the shirts of 18 countries participating in the World Cup — an increase of 10 since the Germany World Cup of 2006.
Demand has been so high, in fact, that several local outlets sold out of team USA jerseys less than a week after the tournament kickoff Thursday.
“World Cup shirts are starting to have a very short lifespan,” concluded Ron Hitchens of the outlet Soccer Source on Perry Highway, whose considerable stock of U.S., Germany and Brazil shirts was exhausted by Monday.
A quick glance at the price tag of $90 on official jerseys, however, has driven many potential buyers to look elsewhere for their gear.
The official jerseys of the 32 countries now battling it out in Brazil are manufactured and uniformly priced by the national team sponsors, who then distribute the shirts to outlets such as Findlay-based retail chain Dick’s Sporting Goods. Nike leads the brand race by representing 10 FIFA delegations including the U.S., followed closely by German giants Adidas (nine) and Puma (eight).
A market of unofficial soccer jerseys has been thriving in Pittsburgh since 2006. Alternative jerseys are sold in the Strip District and in independent outlets for prices that range from $20 to $25.
While the legality of some of the cuts and designs of imitation FIFA merchandise may be questionable — much like counterfeit Super Bowl shirts condemned by the National Football League — the success of the marketing strategy is undeniable. One ambulant vendor in the Strip District claimed to have sold nearly 500 shirts by the second week of this year’s tournament.
“Why would someone buy a $90 shirt?” remarked Mr. Sandi. “Most shirts end up in the back of a dresser after one game.”
Pittsburgh sports fans are accustomed to investing in team apparel. Pirates aficionados may pay around $100 for a replica jersey, while the cost of a custom Steelers jersey would cover the purchase of three FIFA World Cup shirts.
Comparable investments in official soccer merchandise still tend to be confined to avid soccer communities like those gathered at Piper’s Pub. “People here get invested in this sport in a way that most Americans don’t,” said Mr. Peightal, though he added that Pittsburghers are developing a passion for soccer.
Perhaps the Russia World Cup of 2018 will see demand spread beyond such pockets of fans, and into the general populace.
Rocio Labrador: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1370.