When Nike took over the NBA license from adidas in 2017, they made up for lost time. Having lost their last team licenses in the early 2000s, the Portland, OR apparel behemoth knew they had to double down on pro basketball, especially as the sport has voiced aspirations to aggressively globalize. The apparel strategy would need to be ambitious, to match the scale of the game’s growth. So, they went hard— All 30 NBA teams would have four jerseys to choose from, minimum. But the goal was always more.
That initial four-piece set included both the home and away set, but also a “athlete mindset” design as well as a “community” layout. While those latter categories have evolved somewhat over the years, depending on the team, market size and fan base—the Brooklyn Nets currently have six jersey options, including “statement” and “classic” designs—they marked the latest phase of the progression to maximum jersey across American sports.
This did not come out of nowhere: college football teams like Oregon—a virtual Nike prototype factory thanks to Phil Knight’s stewardship—have marketed hundreds of jersey combinations as a way to attract recruits and national attention. At pre-COVID games, there were white-outs, black-outs, red-outs. But the NBA has surfaced this energy and built the most commercial momentum yet.
This moment was years in the making. Alongside Nike’s takeover of the NBA’s license in 2017 came sponsor logo patches, the sport’s concession to a changing world—and an adoption of world soccer’s brazen approach to merchandising. But as on-field soccer kit design has plateaued since its dizzying late 90s/early 00s high point, pro basketball’s aesthetic is blossoming, growing more chaotic, interesting and engaging by the moment.
While the first few seasons’ worth of Nike NBA designs wavered between “fine” (Brooklyn’s Coogi-trimmed Biggie tributes) and “whatever” (Dallas’s “Fresh Prince” jerseys), this year’s NBA collection communicated a newfound sense of urgency, most apparent in the Atlanta Hawks’s instant-classic MLK uniforms. According to Fanatics, which operates the NBA’s online store, 50% of jersey sales have been alternate jerseys since Oct. 1, 2020.
The WNBA picked up where the NBA left off, and have now set a new bar, no matter whether you’re gravitating more to the Elizabeth Warren-green Liberty alternates (with the Liberty torch standing in for the “I” in EQUALITY!), the Chicago Sky’s fatigue green warplane tributes, or the vision-scrambling Stranger Things-themed jerseys that the Indiana Fever will wear. This drop might just be the tip of the iceberg; as of this writing, the WNBA has yet to release teams’s new home and away uniform sets.
Yes, it’s a commercial jersey release, designed to make money for a company that isn’t exactly providing clear answers about the state of its labor force in China. But the launch comes at a critical moment for the WNBA, which has remade itself as a social platform for its players as well as an increasingly competitive circuit demanding more mainstream coverage and analysis.
Attention aside, the aesthetic explosion tracks to a timeline where the consumption of pro sports is changing. Because of the COVID pandemic, fans couldn’t be in the stands—or in the concourses buying stuff. That cranked up the pressure on the sport as a digital product, both in America and overseas, in the form of TV rights, but also emerging digital markets like NBA Topshot. Jerseys are a piece of that, too. Say what you will about the two-tone pastel popsicle eyebleed that the Miami Heat currently wear during virtually every national broadcast game—it looks insane on TV. For all of the overblown griping about the WNBA’s ratings and profitability relative to the NBA, any sport’s not-so-secret-sauce has always been attracting casual fans who don’t have hard-set habits or team affiliations. A completely reinvigorated on-court look could go a long way for fans that are only tuning in to some games, or mostly following along on social media.
If you want proof that jersey diversification is an effective marketing strategy, look no further than Major League Baseball, an organization that will not make a major change unless it absolutely has to: A few weeks ago, Nike unveiled a yellow-and-pale-blue Boston Red Sox alternate jersey that noticeably did not include a stitch of red. While this development felt sacrilege to some, it was neck-snapping to many casual fans who otherwise might not have cared about a Boston Red Sox news item. The jersey is inspired by Boston’s Patriot Day, and dressed with the Boston Marathon’s traditional colors; six other teams in big markets (Arizona, both Chicago clubs, Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles) will unveil “City Connect” uniform editions later this season. After unpacking the influence, the yellow-and-blue numbers feel a little on-the-nose, but it’s certainly the right idea. If something like the Boston Red Sox “City Connect” alternate passes whatever MLB and Nike’s success metric is, we’ll definitely see more experimentation with baseball, which is desperately in search of ways to connect to younger audiences. (Now … bring back “Turn Ahead the Clock”). The people who make baseball are all in agreement that baseball needs to be a better TV product, above all else; modernizing the on-field look would be a great start.
To be clear, there’s a hard ceiling here when it comes to the impact of alternate jerseys as products; these designs are the result of vigorous groupthink, the songs of 1000 email ccs and copious marketing notes. Anything higher than “eight out of ten” is a pipe dream. At the heart of it, a new apparel launch is engineered to move product; a hardcore fan or jersey collector probably already has a home/away set for their favorite team, and any alternate jersey release is an attempt to narrow the distance between the team and the fan’s wallet. This is world soccer’s tried and true strategy, where teams dump brand new, differentiated shirts on fans annually, if not bi-annually.
Pro sports leagues are on notice. There’s never been more competition for potential viewer’s downtime, thanks to effectively infinite streaming media, video games, Twitch, or four more seasons of Bridgerton. The NBA knows it might have a Gen Z problem, and that live sports may no longer be a golden goose. The NBA seems to be the league best prepared for the post-pandemic future, but anybody who tells you exactly what that might look like is lying to you.
But anytime preferences change this rapidly, there’s an opportunity. At its heart, maximum jersey is an attempt to bring the sport more in line with modern attention spans. It’s a heat check, for sure. Will people watch more New York Liberty games because the on-court look is fire? It’s impossible to know. But it feels like a savvy guess, a move that suggests that the decision makers fully understand the NBA and WNBA’s larger fashion movement and are eager to do something about it.
Maximum jersey is here to stay. Yes, it is commercial in nature—I predict that this week’s WNBA launch will sell out quickly—but it’s a net plus. In a time where it’s easy to get down on American sports, maximum jersey is a movement that feels good to get behind.