The Thunder beat the Jazz last night, staving off elimination in their first-round series. The Jazz were in white jerseys. They’d worn white in Game 4, too, but in game 1 they were in blue. In game 2, bright yellow. And in Game 3, they wore orange-red gradient jerseys.
The Jazz have four different jerseys this season. That is too many. There are too damn many NBA jerseys.
Take the 76ers. Since the start of the 2014 season, the Sixers have worn 10 different regular jerseys—plus a 1966-67 throwback last year. In the playoffs, they’ve worn their cream “city edition” jersey, which didn’t even debut until February and now is basically their main uni. This year, Nike added a drop-shadow to the lettering on the previous Sixers jerseys, as well as an alternate red jersey that kind of looks like it says “Suxers.” Then, midway through the year, the Sixers essentially dropped that branding to play in a different jersey. They have a whole new logo for the playoffs.
I don’t mind the Sixers jerseys. Maybe they’re a little busy with the stars on the side of the primary one—and certainly they could say “Philly” instead of “Phila”—but I’m fine with them. But geeze, there have been a lot of them recently.
There’s an obvious reason for the jersey push. For confirmation, I called up Matt Powell, a sports marketplace consultant and VP at NPD Group. Indeed, he told me, NBA teams have many more jerseys nowadays because they want to sell more jerseys to fans. “I think they’re following the lead that we’ve seen from European soccer clubs where every year there are three new jerseys,” Powell said. “It used to just be two, and now they’ve got an alternate as well. And the idea, of course, is to make the most loyal fan dump last year’s jersey so they get the jersey their favorite player is wearing.”
Powell says this strategy has worked to sell a lot of soccer jerseys. And Nike, which took over NBA uniform design this season, has jumped right past making two new jerseys every year to making four. (Not every team has four jerseys, though some have even more.)
The most obnoxious part is how every jersey has to have some meaningful backstory now. The Sixers jerseys aren’t technically cream, they’re “parchment.” Here’s Sixers VP Chris Heck on the team’s main playoff jerseys: “With a design inspired by the Declaration of Independence and other historical notes, our City Edition jersey captures the essence of Philadelphia.” Shut up. No it doesn’t. I know they’re the 76ers, but things have happened in Philadelphia since 1776. It’s just a jersey.
Nearly every team has some sort of overly complicated backstory for their jerseys. LeBron James had “significant input” into Cleveland’s jerseys, which reference the city’s Guardians of Transportation statues. Here’s how the Bucks describe their alternate jersey: “The western edge of Lake Michigan is known for producing some of the coldest winters in the country. It has created a gritty and determined fan base much like the young team it supports.” Are Bucks fans more notably gritty than fans of other teams? Who knew? Memphis’ alternate edition jerseys honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Here’s how they were unveiled on NBA.com: “Grizzlies unveil MLK50 City Edition Nike uniform.” They couldn’t even do a civil rights jersey without putting a fucking Nike swoosh on it.
The media plays into this too, and I get it. It’s easy content. I’ve done it. Zach Lowe wrote nearly 1,400 effusive words on the Jazz’s gradient jerseys. The fawning press coverage is essentially a series of ads for the league and Nike.
And the NBA needs those ads: their official merch isn’t all that popular. Powell says that the athleisure trend hasn’t buoyed sales of NBA jerseys, which have been out of style for about a decade now. “It’s really interesting, in this athleisure phase that we’re in right now, people are wearing athletic apparel for every activity—but one of the pieces that hasn’t really come back is sports-licensed apparel,” Powell says. “Today, if you see someone wearing a jersey not at a game it looks kind of odd.”
Powell said he spent the last five years or so predicting that jerseys would become hot again, but as sales numbers haven’t borne that out, he’s stopped. (The NBA’s short-lived sleeved jerseys, Powell says, were mostly a move to eventually put larger ads on the jerseys—but also an attempt to sell something that isn’t a tank top. It still didn’t work.)
I know “there are too many jerseys” is an old-man complaint (and the NBA only really started regulating jersey designs for consistency in the late 70s). But I do wish teams would just pick a design—one color, one white—and stick with it for a few seasons. There’s something nice about teams that stick to the same jersey for a long time. It makes the teams feel familiar.
Much like how arenas that regularly change their names can lose their sense of place, teams that constantly switch jerseys seem to lose their identity. The Sixers had ridiculous black jerseys when they went to the NBA Finals in 2001, but at least they’d been playing in them for four years.
Then again, if the Sixers make the Finals this year I’m sure I’ll be buying a “Phila” jersey, and I’ll like it. The commercialization of sports takes no prisoners.