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On August 26th, 2016, San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem. He had done so during two previous preseason games as well, but the story gained worldwide attention after a beat reporter's photo went viral. The conversation became a flashpoint, devouring the sports media landscape and extending into the mainstream. Talking heads fiercely debated both sides of the issue. Newspaper columnists expounded. Bloggers blogged. Twitter eggs did their Twitter egg thing.
And Kaepernick jerseys flew off the shelves.
By September 6th, five days after Kaepernick and San Francisco safety Eric Reid took a knee before the team's final preseason match against the San Diego Chargers (Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane sat in protest, too), the quarterback had the top-selling uniform at the NFL Shop. Kaepernick, who pledged to donate the proceeds he received "back into the communities," was surprised but inspired by the sales. "It was something that the jersey sales jumped because of people's belief that there can be change and we can make this country better and that they believe I was someone who can help that change," he said.
For the quarterback, the fact that people were shelling out $99.99 for a Game Jersey, $149.99 for a Limited Jersey, or $299.99 for an Elite Jersey was a sign that his protest struck a chord.
For Nike, however, the massive increase in sales likely caused a massive headache. In 2012, the sporting giant became the NFL's official apparel provider, displacing Reebok while paying a reported $220 million a year for the privilege. Before each season, the company works with the league and retailers around the country to determine which players' jerseys will be available in physical stores like Dick's Sporting Goods and online at sites including NFLShops.com. Nike aggregates data and pre-makes jerseys based on those numbers, with about a half-dozen players per team available. Huge stars — the Tom Bradys, Odell Beckham Jrs., and Antonio Browns of the world — are pre-produced in large numbers. Less popular players have fewer of their jerseys made, if any are produced at all.
Kaepernick, a minor star at best before his protest, fits into the second category. When jersey orders started flying in from around the country, Nike needed to respond to dramatically increased — and unpredicted — demand. They likely did so using a supply chain strategy called postponement, also known as delayed differentiation, Felipe Caro, an associate professor of decisions, operations, and technology management at UCLA Anderson School of Management, said. The philosophy, popularized by Benetton in the 1980s, involves making a lot of a base product (in this case, the generic San Francisco 49ers jersey) overseas where it's cheaper, then adding final details (Kaepernick's name and number) quickly and locally at the main distribution factory in Memphis.
"That's the secret behind mass customization," Caro said. "The only way to make that cost-effective is to have basic components that you can produce in advance. With very simple math, you can come up with pretty reasonable quantities of how many of each type you should produce: the star players and the base product." While the professor wasn't 100 percent sure that postponement was Nike's strategy for jerseys, he did say that he'd "put all my money" on it being done that way. (Nike did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Occasionally, increased demand isn't only for one player, but for an entire team. Take the case of the Carolina Panthers in 2015. While pundits predicted a good season, few thought that the Cam Newton-led squad would finish 15-1 and reach the Super Bowl. As the season progressed and the team kept winning, jersey sales spiked. (The jersey-buying public is a fair-weather group.) Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly, and tight end Greg Olsen finished in the top 50, while Panthers jerseys customized with other players or the last name of a fan were popular as well. "You look at orders at the beginning of the season compared to what [Nike] shipped, and it was significantly higher," Josh Feinstein, the director of consumer products for the NFL, said. "That speaks volumes. And [Nike] still ran out because nobody saw that coming. They did a good job of doing the best they could." The lesson: The jersey game involves imperfect and unpredictable information, and sometimes Nike, despite the flexibility it's built into the system, will miss.
There's also an increasing need for speed as fans want jerseys available ever faster. If a starting quarterback goes down and his backup plays well or a previously unheralded linebacker has a few breakout performances in a row, fans will demand that the player's uniform is available. "Nike definitely works faster than they've worked in the past, trying to keep up with the appetite of the fans," Feinstein said. "All that stuff is really predicated on marketplace demand. If a retailer in a certain market is screaming for a new player, as long as Nike has the inventory and the quantities that are needed, they'll produce and ship them."
For Nike, however, the jersey game is about more than driving sales. They make up a tiny fraction of the more than $30 billion in revenue the company makes per year, and given the hundreds of millions that Nike spends to be the NFL's official supplier, the company likely loses money on the products. But that's not the point. "My academic opinion from the research side of this is that this isn't a consumer push. It's wanting access to mass media," Windy Dees, an associate professor specializing in sports marketing and sponsorship at University of Miami, said. "The biggest payoff for Nike is that their logo is on the front of the jersey, and they are in front of the camera for the highest-rated product on TV."
While NFL ratings fell this year, more than 20 million people still watch every week, and Super Bowl LI will draw more than 100 million viewers. Combine that with the increasing prevalence of athletes on social media, tweeting, Instagramming, Snapchatting, and Facebooking in their jerseys (hey, Antonio Brown), and the little Nike Swoosh constantly finds its way into consumers' brains. That visibility translates into loyalty and more buying opportunities. "Jerseys are what I call gateway apparel," Dees said. "A lot of people might not be buying jerseys in huge amounts, but Nike is also supplying all the other pieces of apparel that are in demand: T-shirts, hats, etc. That drives a ton of revenue on the consumer side."
Nike has also expanded the options for fans, creating a jersey line for women (partly because of the league's non-stop effort to attract female fans) and the Color Rush line that gives supporters another option to buy. The result is that Nike is selling "three or four times as many jerseys as Reebok was selling 10 years ago," Bloomberg reported in late 2015.
The jersey push is unlikely to slow down. Two years ago, Nike renewed its contract with the league for another three years, and it will now run through the 2020 season. It's an expensive part of doing business, a loss leader designed to increase marketshare and visibility elsewhere. "With the escalating price of jersey rights deals, you know that these companies are reaping the rewards of these deals or they wouldn’t continue to fight over teams and leagues," Dees said. "Nike has taken a big hit because Under Armour and Adidas are starting to make strides. Under Armour is cutting into the college space, and they just signed a big MLB deal. Nike is looking into the rearview mirror and wanting to focus again on being the elite brand." When it comes to American sports, there's nothing bigger than the NFL, and Nike knows it needs to keep as many jersey options available, despite the unpredictable nature of the game.
For the most part, it succeeds. But sometimes it falls short. Try to buy a Kaepernick jersey today from Dick's, and you'll find that it's temporarily out of stock.