In 2015, it was announced that Nike had agreed an apparel deal with the NBA, beginning with the 2017-2018 season. At the time, Adam Silver, the NBA Commissioner, stated that:

“This partnership with Nike represents a new paradigm in the structure of our global merchandising business. As our exclusive oncourt apparel provider, Nike will be instrumental in our collective efforts to grow the game globally while applying the latest in technology to the design of our uniforms and oncourt products.”

The deal was reported to have been worth approximately $1 billion, with Nike securing the role as the league’s sole on-court apparel provider for an eight year period.

Since the start of the 2017-2018 season (its first under the present deal with the NBA), Nike has taken various steps to shake up the on-court apparel status quo. As part of its efforts to expand the global appeal of the NBA, it has introduced a series of alternate jerseys for the NBA teams to wear throughout the 2017-2018 season. In August, Nike unveiled the “Association” and “Icon” editions for each team, while the “Statement” editions were revealed in early December 2017. On Wednesday 27 December 2017, Nike announced the release of its “City Edition” uniforms for 26 of its teams, with the remainder of the jerseys for the remainder of the league’s teams to be released at a later date.

According to Nike, the idea behind the City Edition uniforms is to create a jersey that uses a unique element from the teams and cities in their design. The jerseys reference everything from monuments to franchise legends and Nike reportedly worked directly with the league and each NBA team, with the objective of “owning” both franchise and city pride. By way of example, the Los Angeles Lakers jersey focuses mainly on Kobe Bryant, one of the most famous players to have played for the franchise. The jersey’s design involves a black mamba snakeskin effect (a reference to Bryant’s nickname), while Bryant’s number 24 is etched on the waist-band. As for other franchises:

  • The Indiana Pacers’ jersey displays a vertical chequered flag to represent Indiana’s tradition of auto racing;
  • The Memphis Grizzlies’ jersey has a black and white colour scheme to mimic the look of the “I Am A Man” signs from the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968;
  • The Philadelphia 76ers’ jersey contains a parchment paper inspired base colour and script that resembles the Declaration of Independence; and
  • The Washington Wizards’ jersey contains a marble pattern on each side of the jersey to mimic the Washington monument.

Nike’s approach marks a change in tact in terms of on-court apparel. The traditional position was that each team would have a home jersey and an away jersey; the home team would usually wear the lighter coloured of its two jerseys while playing at home, while the away team would wear its darker coloured kit. Instead, each team now has four jerseys to choose from on any given game-night. Home jerseys are now referred to as “Association” jerseys, while the traditional away jerseys are the “Icon” jerseys.

The imperative behind this innovation appears to be primarily commercial in nature. With the introduction of each additional alternate edition of a jersey, a team’s fan has another reason to run to their local store and spend their money on merchandise in support of their favourite teams. In turn, the hope from the NBA must be that any further interest in the franchises can only be good for the league itself. This fits in with its stated objective of growing the game globally – the more interest there is in any element of the NBA (whether related to the players, the franchises, the uniforms or any other form of merchandise), the better for the NBA itself.

Given that Nike is one of the world’s best-known sports kit manufacturers (there are very few sports with which Nike does not have some form of affiliation), it will be interesting to see whether it takes the same approach to other sports. Certainly, there seems no reason why football fans, for example, would not be similarly enamoured by special edition football shirts that pay homage to club legends or local landmarks.

In England, such an approach would however have to fit within the regulatory framework of the Premier League, which is fairly prescriptive when it comes to the Premier League clubs’ kits. Under the existing Premier League rules:

  • Each club must have a home strip and up to a maximum of two alternative strips;
  • Each club must have at least one alternative strip which differs visibly from and contrasts with its home strip to the extent that the two strips could be worn by opposing teams in a match;
  • No club is permitted to participate in a league match wearing a strip other than its registered home strip or alternative strip or a combination of the same;
  • Not later than four weeks before the commencement of each season, each club must register its strips, each of which must be available for the club to wear in each league match during the season. The Premier League will then publish a description of each kit in its annual handbook;
  • Strips of the description registered shall be worn throughout the season and no changes to it shall be made except with the written permission of the Premier League Board;
  • On the occasion of the club’s last home or away league match in a season, it may wear a further strip provided that at least seven days’ prior written notice is given to the Board (together with a sample of the strip intended to be worn) and the strip shall be subsequently registered as the club’s home or alternative strip for the following season.

Thus if Nike wished to introduce, say, “City Edition” football shirts for those clubs for whom it acted as kit manufacturer (Nike is not the exclusive kit manufacturer for Premier League clubs, unlike its position with the NBA), such kit would have to be introduced pre-season and must be available for each game of the season. There is no reason why a club’s third kit could not be a “City Edition” (or something similar) but Nike would not be able to drip-feed the editions throughout the season, as has been its approach with its special edition NBA uniforms. One can see the attraction of a such an approach, as it gives fans new things to get excited about throughout a season. However, on the basis of the current Premier League rules, such an approach would not appear possible.

Certainly it would appear that Nike are already live to the commercial opportunities that come with special edition shirts in the football world. This past week, it has released an all black kit for Swedish club AIK Solna which will be worn during the club’s pre-season matches (the Swedish championship begins in February). The theme is striking in its look and is, according to the club, an homage to the kit worn by the club in 1901 during a friendly match to celebrate the ten-year foundation of the team. The limited edition shirt has already sold out on AIK’s website, showing that perhaps the approach Nike has taken to the uniforms of the NBA teams may have equivalent appeal for European football fans. Its only challenge now is ensuring that the roll-out of such an initiative complies with the regulatory framework in place in any given jurisdiction. Watch this space…