By Rob Carey
For a long time, sporting attire was worn exclusively by athletes. Branded teamwear could be seen only on the backs of professional footballers during competitions and training.
If you look at photos of matches that were taken as late as the mid-20th century, you won’t see anyone in the crowds wearing team merchandise. You were more likely to see someone suited up at a football, basketball, or baseball match than someone wearing team colours.
At this time, team jerseys didn’t feature sponsor logos either. The kit was just seen as another cost of ‘doing business’ for team owners. It wouldn’t be until much later that the true commercial opportunities of sports jerseys could be exploited.
Start of the merchandise trend
Hats and t-shirts with team logos began appearing during the 1950s, although it’s not clear if these were officially licensed or made on a smaller scale by third parties. The latter seems much more likely.
Keychains, bobbleheads, and foam fingers all started appearing at games in the 1960s and 70s, giving fans a way to show their support for their team, both at the game and in their day to day lives.
The first retail versions of jerseys
It wouldn’t be until the 1980s that sports fans could walk into a store and buy their team’s jersey. Sports clubs began to see the commercial opportunity that jerseys and other merchandise hold. This also meant more frequent updates to jersey designs, requiring fans to buy new ones each year if they wanted to keep up with the trends.
Suddenly, the suits worn in the bleachers and stands were replaced with a sea of team colours.
Jerseys away from the pitch
Today, sports merchandise, including jerseys, hats, and other accessories are all worn away from the pitch. Walk down a busy city street, and you’ll almost certainly find someone wearing some form of officially licensed sportswear.
They’ve been made popular by celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Matt Damon, Drake, and Katy Perry, all wearing jerseys from teams like the Boston Red Sox, Juventus, and West Ham.
Baseball caps and jerseys also make regular appearances at professional poker tournaments. These tournaments are heavily promoted and sponsored by online poker sites who use it to advertise their own services. In turn, they share photos of players donned in sports merchandise.
Even people that don’t follow the sport or support a particular team wear sports attire. A report by SB Nation in 2018 showed that NBA jerseys were a popular fashion item in Samoa, despite few people watching the sport.
Instead of being used to show loyalty to a particular team, they’re often a gift from loved ones who live abroad. Basketball is also seen as a ‘cool’ sport, and therefore wearing a jersey is a way to plug into that.
Similar trends can be found around the world, where the New York Yankee brand can be seen emblazoned on the clothes of many who don’t watch baseball. This is a desire to wear something that’s connected with American culture that’s so influential around the world.
As sports teams and leagues have begun to exploit revenue opportunities in multiple areas, branded merchandise became big business. According to Transparency Market Research, the global sports merchandise market is expected to exceed $48bn by 2024, up from $27.63bn in 2015.
Sports jerseys only became a fashion accessory in recent decades. Before the 1980s, they were worn almost exclusively by players until teams spotted the opportunity to profit from selling replicas to the public.
Whether they realised they’d become a fashion accessory among non-sports fans isn’t clear, but they’ve profited from it regardless. It seems the cooler the sport is perceived to be, the more desirable its jerseys become.