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How the NBA's Sleeved Jerseys Could Change the League Forever

By Jake Mann – Nov 13, 2013 at 11:24AM

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A handful of NBA teams have begun to roll out Adidas' sleeved jerseys, most notably the Golden State Warriors. The economics of this trend are worth discussing, since it could alter basketball forever.

In the American professional basketball circuit, sleeveless jerseys have been as timeless as the NBA itself. For more than six decades, logos have changed, color schemes have been altered, and shorts have thankfully been lengthened, but for the most part, the shape of the top-half of the uniform has gone untouched.

Until recently, that is.

Beginning with the Golden State Warriors last season, short-sleeve jerseys designed by Adidas (ADDYY -2.61%) began popping up at select Oakland home games.

Courtesy Adidas.

Despite a fairly positive reaction from fans, whom ESPN's Paul Lukas  points out might actually prefer to show less skin when repping their favorite team, some members of the media were less than pleased.

 Bleacher Report named Golden State's sleeved alternate the "worst uniform in NBA history," while  others have likened the jerseys to pajamas. Even players have gotten in on the criticism; the Warriors' own  Stephen Curry told USA Today that the uniforms are "ugly," while  Roy Hibbert of the Indiana Pacers has voiced his unhappiness on Twitter.

Early adopters

In addition to the Warriors and the Pacers, a handful of other teams have revealed their own versions of Adidas' sleeved creations, including the L.A. Clippers, the Phoenix Suns, and the San Antonio Spurs.

For the early adopters in particular, the implementation of the sleeved jersey can be traced back to an NBA marketing guru named Rick Welts. The executive, who is now the president and COO of the Warriors, has been instrumental in so-called "sleevery." He told  USA Today earlier this year that his attempts to bring a sleeved jersey to the league initially failed in the early '80s, particularly due to a lack of innovation "from a technology and performance standpoint."

Three decades later, Adidas' proprietary ClimaCool aeration technology has made Welts' dream a reality, crafting a jersey that is lighter than older tank top alternatives.

Golden State, and the few teams that have taken the plunge, are just the beginning, though.

The next step

According to UniWatch's  Twitter account earlier this month, the NBA will debut sleeved jerseys for the Miami Heat, L.A. Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, and the New York Knicks on Christmas Day, with other teams potentially in the pipeline. The Warriors, Clippers, Spurs, and Houston Rockets also play on Dec. 25, so we anticipate they'll don Adidas' new threads as well.

It's also worth pointing out that Christmas Day is not an insignificant date. 

The holiday naturally delivers the league's best regular-season ratings, and in 2012, it supplied three of the best-rated games in history.

If the NBA does indeed unveil a broader collection of sleeved jerseys next month, it may indicate that bigger plans are in store. If you hadn't already guessed, money may be the driving force behind this trend.

Follow the money

As we've alluded to above, there are a couple reasons a broader rollout of sleeved jerseys makes sense for the league, and it all ties back to revenues. The two most significant appear to be:

  • The potential to boost fan jersey sales
  • More on-jersey advertising space

It all starts with what the fans want. While we don't have a survey gauging fan interest in sleeved jerseys, or projected revenues if the league adopted an all-sleeve policy, a few statistics can shed some light.

Fans may buy in

For starters, it's estimated that leaguewide jersey sales fell from $3 billion in the 2010-2011 season to around $1 billion in the shortened 2011-2012 lockout season. While aggregate NBA revenues recovered by 20% last year, problems remain. Specific retailers have cited a lack of superstar turnover and the success of smaller-market teams as reasons behind a general bearishness in the jersey industry. For the most part, these problems don't look like they'll go away anytime soon.

Two weeks into the 2013-2014 season, the Eastern and Western Conferences' first place teams are the Pacers and Spurs, neither of whom had a single jersey on the top 15 worldwide sales list last year. On the other hand, bigger-market teams like the Lakers and Nets, who had a combined five jerseys in the top 15 last year, wouldn't make the playoffs if the season ended today.

With all of that said, the proliferation of sleeved jerseys could renew fan interest in small- and big-market teams alike. After hitting the $5 billion total revenue mark last season, a similarly sized expansion this year indicates $6 billion is a fair expectation. If "sleevery" is successful, though, it's not unreasonable to expect upside to this number in the range of $6.5 billion to $7 billion. The latter scenario would place the NBA's sales footprint awfully close to that of Major League Baseball, which is second in North America only to the NFL in terms of total revenue.

Advertisers may buy in

There's another, very obvious reason that it makes sense for the league to support sleeved jerseys: advertising. When looking at the design of the new uniform option, two things are immediately noticeable: First, there's a chunk of space open on each sleeve, and secondly, the logos are much smaller, leaving more empty space on the body.

Courtesy Adidas.

Both features of sleeved jerseys are attractive to potential advertisers.

It has been widely reported that the NBA has pondered jersey ads since 2009. In 2012, the league specifically considered the possibility of selling one promo spot per uniform in the form of a small patch, most likely on the jersey's front.

More interestingly, Adam Silver, who is set to replace David Stern as NBA commissioner next February, seems very open to the subject. Last year, Silver  told reporters that "there is potentially a big opportunity in the marketplace to put a two-by-two [inch] patch on the shoulder of our jerseys," and he's also estimated such a plan could add $100 million to NBA revenue in its first year.

There's potential to triple this figure when one imagines three ad spaces — one on the chest and one on each shoulder — available on sleeved jerseys.

Of course, it's quite possible that sleeved jerseys could go the way of the league's Noche Latina alternates that show up only a few times each season. Judging by the potential that "sleevery" has in the advertisement world, though, there's reason to believe it could usher in a new face of the NBA, literally.

Fool contributor Jake Mann has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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