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How The NBA Created The Hindenburg Of Sports Uniforms

Nike tells Co.Design that it will move away from sleeved jerseys next season. The story behind their failure is a cautionary tale.

How The NBA Created The Hindenburg Of Sports Uniforms
[Photo: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images]

When the NBA, Adidas, and the Golden State Warriors unveiled the league’s first sleeved jerseys in 2013, opinion was divided–to put it politely. A scan of the comments on any story about the uniforms yielded purists lamenting the break with tradition, aesthetes raging against the awkward fit, and cynics eager to point out it was all just a soulless cash grab by the NBA’s marketing and advertising department. Still, some, like Uni Watch’s Paul Lukas, kept an open–if hesitant–mind.

But it was not hard to see the reasoning behind the criticisms that flooded in. The sleeves looked a little too short. The torso looked a little too tight. It was as if a bunch of 6’7”, 230-pound men were playing in their middle school uniforms.

Since their introduction, these sleeved jerseys have lived a tortured life.
They’ve been ruthlessly mocked by fans on forums and torn apart by journalists across the country. This, in part, is because they were subject to some egregious design treatments, including the Brooklyn Nets’ half-assed homage to the Brooklyn Dodgers, and these regrettable Chinese New Year uniforms the Warriors were forced to wear in 2015.

On the court, there are as many athletes who have spoken out against them publicly–Dirk Nowitzki, Stephen Curry, and Kawhi Leonard to name a few–as there are ones who complained anonymously.

Now, Nike has confirmed to Co.Design that it plans to move away from the controversial shirts when the company once again becomes the official supplier of NBA jerseys next season. But when determining the legacy these sleeved jerseys will leave behind, the question is: did they become the Hindenburg of sports uniforms because were they an empty gimmick, or were they just an idea the world wasn’t ready for? All evidence points to the former.

The biggest gripe players cited, when it came to performance, was the constricting nature of the sleeves while shooting. (It’s worth noting that various stat dives have shown that the jerseys did not have an adverse effect on shooting percentages.) Other criticisms included poor moisture wicking and the V-neck cut.

Lebron James, who has longed complained about the shirts, famously ripped his open in the middle of a dismal performance against the New York Knicks. (To be fair, Lebron would later pull an 180 and claim the jerseys were a good luck charm during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ run to the title last season.)

Despite the fact that Adidas attempted to play up the performance perks of the sleeved jerseys when they first launched–the uniforms were the lightest the league had seen to date according to Adidas–the vast majority of statements from NBA and Adidas executives made no attempt to shy away from the fact that the decision making here was driven by marketing potential; the use of sleeves were a highly-identifiable branding tool, they had potential for use in the NBA’s now-defunct plans to place ads on jerseys, and they allowed fans to wear an official jersey that wasn’t a tank top.

And from a business perspective, it made enough sense. Typically speaking, alternate jerseys in any sports league are widely accepted by everyone involved as an easy way to rack up more merchandise sales above anything else.

But most of the time with alternate uniforms, the differences are aesthetic–not structural. And while NBA teams opt to wear their more conventional alternate jerseys beyond whatever the league mandates, seemingly few teams have worn their sleeved iterations above and beyond what was required. There are currently 19 teams with sleeved jerseys, and since being introduced, teams have been required to wear them for anywhere between three and 12 games a season. On top of that, no teams have adopted such a design for their main uniforms.

But on-court performance issues and popularity with teams themselves wouldn’t be such huge concerns if fans were padding the NBA’s wallets with sleeved jersey money. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case, either.

[Photo: via Warriors Team Store]

Early on, it seemed like the experiment was gaining traction. The Warriors reportedly experienced a 93% uptick in jersey sales following the initial launch of their sleeved jerseys. But all the while, the sentiment from fans and players has remained unfavorable, and reports started surfacing as early as 2014 that the shirts were not selling well.

Matt Powell, VP of sports industry analysis for the NPD Group, says that while it’s tricky to divine the number of sleeved jersey sales alone, he has encountered no evidence to suggests that they’ve sold well. “Based on interactions on Twitter and those I talk to in retail, the product was not well-received,” Powell said. In response to reports that the jerseys weren’t selling well, Adidas argued that its internal data suggested otherwise, but opted not to release sales figures. (Adidas was also not available for comment on this story.)

But the most telling thing, looking past the corporate motivations and alleged performance flaws, these sleeved jerseys just didn’t pass the basic eye test. Only the most probing of minds could find any merit in a radical jersey change that provided little aesthetic value and even less functional value. Despite any potential they might have possessed, the finished product is an eyesore in every sense of the word and the NBA will be better off leaving the concept behind. Ultimately, the jerseys are a crucial lesson for designers in any field as to why you shouldn’t try to fix what isn’t broken, lest you alienate an audience which has no issue with the status quo.

About the author

Adrian Covert has written some things on the Internet, and now he writes and edits things on Co.Design. Loves naps.

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