NBA's new fashion statement

League hopes to cash in on sleeved jerseys when they debut during Christmas games

November 21, 2013 12:04 AM
By Michael Sanserino / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Professional basketball players are some of the best athletes on the planet and have no qualms showing off their biceps in a traditional tank top basketball jersey. Most fans who pay to watch them can't quite muster the same sculpted look.

No problem. The National Basketball Association is rolling out short-sleeve jerseys meant, in part, to help sell more shirts to the crowd drinking soda and beer in the stands or on the couch.

"The tank top look just isn't very appealing," said Matt Powell, a Scarborough, Maine-based analyst with SportsOneSource, a company that tracks the sporting goods industry. "Well, maybe it's appealing if you're 6 foot 5 and chiseled, but if you're 5 foot 5 and not so chiseled, you're not going to look so good."

The NBA already generates $900 million annually in jersey sale revenue, second only to the National Football League, which generates $1.2 billion annually, Mr. Powell said. Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League each pull in about $400 million.

So a lot of people are buying the NBA jerseys, even if they have to put on a T-shirt underneath.

But Mr. Powell and Christopher Arena -- vice president of identity, outfitting and equipment for the NBA Global Merchandising Group -- believe there is room for growth.

The most important driver of sales is, of course, success.

"Above all else, you're going to find that teams that win and teams that have that superstar player are going to drive sales," Mr. Arena said. "But we think this provides a little more wearability for fans."

Ten teams will wear sleeved jerseys on Christmas, joining three other teams who already incorporated them into their wardrobes this season. The Christmas Day jerseys went on sale last week at Dick's Sporting Goods, the Findlay sporting goods retailer, for $50 each.

"We know fans want to wear what the players wear, and short-sleeve jerseys are a wearable alternative for fans who would prefer not to wear a tank top," Chris Grancio, head of global basketball sports marketing at Adidas, said in an email.

Mr. Arena said most sleeved jerseys in the future will follow the same pricing model as the traditional tank top jerseys: $65 for replica jerseys, up to $300 for authentic jerseys.

Though the authentic jerseys will be form-fitting -- like those the players wear in games -- the replica jerseys and "Swingman" models will provide a little more breathing room -- after all, the same fans who aren't too proud of their guns might want to hide their guts, too.

The NBA has used its Christmas lineup to showcase new jersey designs in the past, but the sleeved jerseys might be more than just a one-game -- or one-year -- trend. Teams are scheduled to wear the jerseys on at least 50 occasions this season, including a few other league-wide initiatives. The NBA anticipates 13 teams in total will don a sleeved jersey this season.

Pat Cavanaugh, president and CEO of Crons, a sports apparel and sports nutrition manufacturer based in West View, said the fad could have staying power if they sell well and the players don't mind the new look.

"This is something, with the third jersey and all these alternative jerseys, the players like because from a fashion perspective, it's something different," said Mr. Cavanaugh, who played basketball at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1980s. Crons used to manufacture jerseys for Robert Morris University, but the company is focusing most of its efforts now on off-court apparel and sports nutrition bars.

There is some history of short-sleeve outfits in basketball. The 1946-47 Boston Celtics wore sleeved jerseys for one season while playing in the Basketball Association of America, a precursor to the NBA. The University of Evansville played for more than 50 years with sleeved jerseys before mostly ditching the look early last decade.

Last season, three NCAA basketball teams wore sleeved jerseys, including the champion University of Louisville, which wore sleeves in the national title game in April.

In the past, the NBA actually outlawed players from wearing T-shirts under their tank-top jerseys, which had become a popular form of fashion among college players since Patrick Ewing sported the look in the 1980s while playing for Georgetown.

German apparel manufacturer Adidas, which has an exclusive licensing deal with the NBA and dozens of college teams, approached the league last year with the idea to bring back sleeves. This time, the league was open to the idea, working with players to test the fabric, fit and function of the jerseys before pursuing a team bold enough to wear them. The Golden State Warriors introduced the design last season, wearing it during several games.

Within the next two seasons, a majority of NBA teams will have a short-sleeved jersey as part of the regular-season uniform rotation, Mr. Grancio said.

Where the trend goes from there is unclear. Mr. Arena said the league will evaluate how the jerseys function before expanding their use. He said retail sales will not factor much into the NBA's plans.

But Mr. Powell said sales will be the most important factor. If they sell well enough, they could become the norm.

"Any time a team or league changes a jersey, it's first and foremost about creating a new item to sell," he said.