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When the 2017-2018 NBA season tips off on October 17th, the league's 30 teams will look different. It's the first year of the new contract with Nike, a move that resulted in dramatic changes to jerseys league-wide.
While some franchises, like the Boston Celtics, kept most of their classic look and others, like the Minnesota Timberwolves, got an entire brand overhaul, the move to Nike means a new chassis with changes to the armhole, neck, side, and back shoulder. (The changes also feature “innovations” like a combination of Alpha Yarns and recycled polyester, which mean that each uniform reportedly not only wicks sweat 30 percent faster but also includes 20 recycled PET bottles.) As a result, each squad has four new looks — Association (previously the Home jersey), Icon (formerly the Road unis), Statement, and City — while eight teams also have a fifth colorway known as Classic.
It's the most dramatic overhaul of NBA jerseys in years, perhaps ever, a function of changing manufacturers. But while the scale of the changes is bigger than previous years, uniforms frequently changed year over year in the past as well. According to Christopher Arena, the NBA's senior vice president of identity, outfitting, and equipment, there were only “two or three identity changes per season,” but a quick glance at the 2015-2016 uniforms shows all manner of new throwbacks, pride, holiday, sleeved jerseys, and more, in addition to tweaks to the home and road shirts. These unending alterations are about two things: money and attention. They are why the uniform you bought last year to support your favorite team is frequently hopelessly outdated, no matter what year you bought it.
Before 1994, NBA teams had two jerseys: home whites and road colors. Before the 1994-1995 season, the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns, and Sacramento Kings debuted a third jersey, and four teams (the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, and New York Knicks) followed suit the next year. The practice has only expanded since, as league executives and merchandisers learned that multiple jerseys could keep the league in the news during the off-season. “You can't really avoid logo or uniform talk if you're an avid follower of a sport team,” Chris Creamer, founder of SportsLogos.Net, said. “There are so many new uniforms coming out all the time.” (See also: Multiple Reddit threads dissecting the most minute details of every new jersey.) The discussion of jerseys reached a fever pitch this summer as the NBA and Nike released details about new uniforms slowly, trickling out a couple new designs a day. During the slow summer months, this is one way to keep fans talking about the league.
A constant stream of new jerseys is also a way for the league to make some extra cash through sales. “The entire point of doing a league-wide deal with a single manufacturer is purely revenue,” Creamer said. “There was a time when every team would wear whatever jersey manufacturer was in the area or they made a deal with. Now with the merchandising game being where it is, probably at an all-time high, money can be made anywhere. Why not do it with what is basically the equivalent of a naming rights or a broadcast deal?”
Alternate uniforms are an important revenue stream for all college and professional sports leagues, but they are most vital in the NBA because it's a league where some teams — like the Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, and others — have traditional and largely unchangeable looks. Developing alternate jerseys provides year in, year out flexibility that the home and road ones don't, enticing fans to buy over and over again.
But the constant churn of jerseys did create some confusion, or at least the danger of market saturation. The nonstop deploy of new alternate uniform designs meant that some teams had six, eight, even 10 different jerseys on offer. That's a lot. Enter Nike.
After the retailer entered an eight-year deal worth $1 billion, company executives, along with representatives from the NBA and the teams, made the decision to streamline the number of jerseys. The result was the four offered this year. “Nike worked with the NBA to create a uniform construct that enabled teams to express their heritage and unique stories within the same framework,” a company representative said.
Creamer sees the advantage of the decision as one that allows teams to keep their traditions while simultaneously appealing to a newer generation of fans. “The Celtics and Lakers aren't going to change [their older uniforms],” he said. “The two new uniforms give an opportunity to create a new design and increase excitement without stomping on tradition. It's the answer to the question, ‘What can we do for our younger fans who maybe don't want to wear a jersey from the 1950s?’”
According to Arena, one specific jersey option is going to do most of the work going forward when it comes to being refreshed on a seasonal basis. “We felt the City edition was going to encapsulate a lot of those other uniform buckets that we created,” he said. “We really think this is a uniform that can change every single year.”
There is a question, however, about how much merchandise Nike will be able to sell. “Taking over the outfitting rights for the NBA’s team clothes has the potential to largely support Nike’s ability to generate sales from basketball-related products,” Ayako Homma, a senior research analyst at market research provider Euromonitor, said. “The US market witnessed slower performance of basketball clothing and footwear in 2016. This was attributed to the recent trends in consumers turning away from wearing basketball shoes for daily activities and shifting more toward retro and casual lifestyle shoes.” (Even the Jordan brand behemoth is struggling.)
To combat the slowdown, Nike isn’t just releasing uniforms. It’s also bringing out “a new on-court collection, including tights and socks, that provide a seamless look for the greatest athletes in the world when they play on the game’s biggest stages.” Presumably, you too, dear consumer, will purchase these tights, socks, and other apparel to go along with your new uniform. Because the truth is that while people purchase jerseys to support their favorite team, they also buy them for a different reason: To play.
Emma McMillan, proprietor of jersey retailer Hardwood Ventures, sees this behavior all the time. “The real strength for repeat sales for us comes via the audience who actually play basketball,” she said. “These are predominantly boys and young men, who are significantly more likely to come back each season or multiple times a season to pick up the latest jersey that they’re then going to wear for training or to ball in at the local park. Purchasing behavior in that instance often seems tied to having the latest designs and the jersey aesthetic, rather than any specific team loyalty.”
In other words, if you design it and it looks cool, they will buy it. At least they have in the past. And, both Nike and the NBA hope, past performance is indicative of future results.