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Want to Sell NBA Jerseys to Rec League Schlubs? Add Sleeves

LeBron James of the Miami Heat takes a shot as Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves defends during Sunday's NBA All-Star game in New Orleans

Photograph by Gerald Herbert/Getty Images

LeBron James of the Miami Heat takes a shot as Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves defends during Sunday's NBA All-Star game in New Orleans

A year ago the NBA began experimenting with short-sleeved game jerseys in place of traditional tank tops. The Golden State Warriors were first to try the new style. This season, the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Brooklyn Nets added a sleeved option. The 10 teams in the nationally televised games on Christmas Day also wore sleeves, as did both teams in the All-Star Game last weekend.

The logic behind the trend is simple: Lots of NBA fans don’t have NBA bodies. To look good in a tank top jersey takes a broad neck and preferably, a pair of cannonball shoulders. Wearing a t-shirt underneath a traditional jersey only advertises your insecurity. Just about everybody, on the other hand, wears short sleeves.

“The idea behind them was presuming there was a large segment of our fan base—especially older males like myself—who weren’t going to be comfortable wearing tank‑top jerseys, but would feel comfortable wearing a sleeved jersey to work out or play basketball in, or whatever else,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told reporters at the All-Star Game festivities in New Orleans.

So far, Silver said, sales have been strong. According to Sal LaRocca, NBA president of global operations and merchandising, sales of the sleeved All-Star jerseys were up 15 percent over last year’s tank top version, with a similar group of players in both contests. “We think it’s a pretty good apples-to-apples comparison,” says LaRocca.

Overall, he says, retailers are reporting that sleeved jerseys are selling faster than traditional tank tops. For LaRocca, this suggests that new buyers are coming to the market: “Every indication is that the incremental sales of the short-sleeved jerseys are additive to the traditional jersey sales,” he says. LaRocca looks for fans wearing sleeved jerseys with jeans and other casual attire as a sign that the new style has a broader appeal, and he says there were plenty in New Orleans.

While sleeves in basketball are unorthodox—some say heretical—and a few players have anonymously expressed concerns, the NBA is simply joining the rest of the major team sports in letting fans match their favorite athletes without exposing their upper arms. The league is also following a well-worn playbook of giving fans more varieties of official gear to add to their collections. European soccer, in particular, has mastered the art of selling a constantly changing array of kit. “Adidas (ADS:GR) is our global partner and obviously have a significant position in the world of soccer,” says LaRocca. “And I’m sure that that was part of their thinking when they were designing these, that we are a global sport.”

LaRocca spent a large part of All-Star weekend talking with players about sleeves. The reports, he says, were largely positive. “Dirk Nowitzki said he didn’t even realize the sleeves were on when he was playing,” he says. Others appreciated the extra warmth. According to the league, the statistics show that sleeves have not affected shooting percentages or scoring. The truest indication that the sleeves are a success, says LaRocca, is that more teams plan to add them.

Boudway is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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