Sunday, December 20, 2015

Nike's Football Business Depends on Adults Playing Dress-Up

Nike pays a fortune for the privilege of making all of the gear worn in the National Football League, and most of it will be bought by almost nobody. Professional and college players get their equipment for free, and few fans have enough enthusiasm to buy the same $100 gloves worn by their favorite wide receiver. But grown men and women have proved eager in the past decade to pay as much as $300 for jerseys identical to those worn on the field. The same feats of fabric wizardry meant to enhance the performance of elite athletes see more use by fans rushing the beer vendor at halftime and blitzing platters of chicken wings in front of the TV.

Last week, in the middle of its fourth year as the league’s gear supplier, Nike unveiled yet another futuristic football uniform. The shirts and pants players will wear next season, dubbed Vapor Untouchable, are almost a third lighter than the current uniform. “The feedback from the athletes is, ‘I’ve got better range of motion, and I feel faster,’” said Todd Van Horne, Nike’s creative director for football. Fans probably aren't concerned with how much their shirts weigh, but they will need to spend again to match the on-field look—and that’s exactly what Nike was counting on when it bet heavily on football. (...)

Adult fans didn’t always get a thrill by dressing themselves in the jerseys of football stars. For decades, a guy in the stands would clothe himself more like Vince Lombardi than like Bart Starr. Gradually, the sea of wool overcoats and fedoras gave way to logo-plastered sweatshirts and jackets. The NFL jersey didn’t become “official” until 2000, when the league cut a deal with Reebok for the exclusive rights to on-field apparel. For the first time, fans could pay for the privilege of donning the exact garment worn by players, and just at the moment when online shopping arrived in earnest.

The market for authentic football jerseys “exploded,” the NFL’s Kane said of the period after the Rebook deal. “All of a sudden, if you were going to a game, you were wearing a jersey,” he said. “It has really become the uniform of the fan.”

When Nike was bidding on the NFL gear business, it saw some gaps in the field that Reebok had largely left open. Female fans, for one, had never been offered a chance to buy an official jersey with a cut that wasn’t intended to flatter massive men with shoulder pads, or Cheesehead hats. Nike made better-fitting women’s jerseys and helped the league move beyond what Kane describes as the “shrink-it-and-pink-it” approach. Today, women’s and kids’ styles account for almost half the jerseys sold at

Nike also took control of the official jersey business just as the fantasy football phenomenon was beginning to build. The traditional boundaries of fandom were shifting from geographies and teams to individual stars. In the 2012 season, for example, Saints quarterback Drew Brees made a lot of money for fans who couldn’t care less about New Orleans, and his jersey sold accordingly.

Nike is now selling three or four times as many jerseys as Reebok was 10 years ago, according to the NFL. People are buying more jerseys in part because there are more to buy.

by Kyle Stock, Bloomberg |  Read more:
Image: Robbie McClaran