As a child growing up in '90s-era Chicagoland, I was devastatingly aware that I was one of the chosen ones. The Chicago Bulls were my home team, and Michael Jordan my decorated commander, a lionheart I pledged to follow to the ends of the earth.
While classmates shaved Benny the Bull into the sides of their buzzcuts, I collected the limited-edition T-shirts that seemed to appear out of thin air after each championship. But in 1998, at the conclusion of Jordan's "last dance," the world returned to its axis. I loved the Bulls, but I was a big kid now and had real responsibilities, like third grade, to tend to. Over time, I relegated my small army of Bulls paraphernalia to the back of my closet, and by the time I regained interest in Bulls merch a decade later, something else had happened: The clothes had gotten really, really ugly — all bosomy graphic tees that spelled out "SPORTS" in rhinestones.
Earlier this year, though, I came upon a promising development to this story. In February, collegiate-inspired apparel brand Rowing Blazers released a slam-dunk-able collaboration with the NBA. Here was the Bulls apparel I had wanted as an adult: an elevated range of design-first pieces that didn't take itself too seriously.
It wasn't just Rowing Blazers that seemed to get it: Across luxury and contemporary labels alike, sports apparel has been getting fashion-ified. Elder Statesman, Louis Vuitton and Canada Goose have all launched collections with the NBA in recent years, while Gucci and Polo Ralph Lauren have done the same with the MLB. More accessible brands are getting in on it, too, with BaubleBar and H&M forging partnerships with the NFL, just in time for stadiums to reopen at full, 60,000-person capacity once again.
So, what happened? It's a perfect storm of sports getting bigger and shoppers getting savvier — about fashion, sure, but also about their own personal brands, of which their teams play a big part. You better believe brands are cashing in.
"It's funny because that standard, run-of-the-mill sports merchandise is probably cooler than it's ever been in some ways," says Yang-Yi Goh, GQ's commerce editor. "But these brands are trying to do something exclusive, and trying to get some press out of it as well. Partnering with these leagues is a good way to do that."
The fashion industry may have only recently inked meaningful relationships with professional leagues, but the two sectors are no strangers to one another. Sports have always been stylish, a characteristic owing to the athletes themselves who have used fashion to help establish their star power. Goh references Muhammad Ali, Walt Frazier and of course, an Italian-suited Jordan himself as having incorporated clothing into their cults of personality, and to their benefits as athletes.
As Goh says, "These are striking, statuesque people. They're going to look incredible in pretty much anything they put on." Only now, sports organizations are capitalizing on their athletes' sartorial prowess, incorporating fashion into its marketing machines.
In 2005, the NBA became the first major league to enact a dress code — a strict one. Masterminded by then-NBA commissioner David Stern, the new uniform required that athletes wear "business-casual attire" to games and a sport coat with dress shoes on the bench. In more controversial specificity, it also banned accessories like chains, pendants or medallions worn over the player's clothes, as well as headgear of any kind — directives many criticized as targeting Black players.
Yet for the next 15 years, rules were rules, and athletes began dressing their part within the airtight confines of business casual. "The NBA was first to turn these tunnel entrances at games into a fashion moment," says Goh. "There's 30 teams in the league and 82 games a year, and every single one of those games is essentially a red carpet for these teams."
The savvier franchises are well on top of it, making sure their own photographers are on hand (with good lighting) so they can first capture, then post pregame looks on their respective social media platforms. As an NBA fan himself, Goh has grown aware of this fledgling Instagram community where people are looking to players for stylistic fuel.
"What a player wears to a game can affect the bottom line for some of these brands," he says. "They'll sell out of a product immediately, so logically, a lot of these brands have started to take notice and want to work with the leagues directly."
This is as true for the NBA as for the WNBA, with players like Brittney Griner, Cappie Pondexter, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Sue Bird and Tamera "Ty" Young using fashion to amplify their game. During the 2021 WNBA Draft, number-one pick Charli Collier wore a custom piece designed by Sergio Hudson, who dressed former First Lady Michelle Obama at President Joe Biden's inauguration. And yet, less than 1% of sponsorship money goes to women's sports.
The NBA, however, is another story. A 2020 Forbes report found that the league's franchise values now total $2.12 billion, up 14% in the previous year. The league's 30 teams generated a record $8.8 billion in revenue through the 2019-2020 season, and this is a trajectory that in all likelihood is only going to get steeper: NBA values are up nearly sixfold over the past decade.
Louis Vuitton is one such property to be banking on the NBA's marketing power. This May, Louis Vuitton released its brand-new NBA collection created by Virgil Abloh, the range paying homage to the league's '90s heyday, all retro leather bombers and bags with basketball-like textures. The collaboration was upscale in both design and, obviously, retail value. For Goh, that's what made it so genius.
"It's a natural fit," he says. "These players have such an affinity for Virgil Abloh, and Louis Vuitton has this great air of luxury that, I'm sure, fits a lot of the NBA's wants and needs in terms of their fashion partners."
As far as the brands themselves, well, let's just say they're not having to bang down shoppers' doors in an attempt to sell professional athleticism. In fact, retailers aren't quite sure which is a more dominant factor: this ubiquitous integration between athletes and fashion, or an increasing demand from consumers themselves.
The latter remains the case for über-trendy accessories retailer Baublebar, which released its own collection of NBA and NFL jewelry this May and September, respectively. With pieces for each of the leagues' teams, fans can drape themselves in a kitschy array of charm necklaces, cheeky earrings and beaded bracelets specially designed for each team. I can imagine just how delighted Dallas Cowboys fans are, for one, by the boot-shaped drop earrings that come embellished with dainty glass and resin beadwork, reasonably priced at $48. Daniella Yacobovsky Fiala, Baublebar's co-founder, confirms my suspicions: The customer response has been overwhelming.
"We unfortunately sold out of many products within days of launch, but have been working hard to get everything restocked soon so our shopper can be ready for game day and holiday gifting," says Yacobovsky Fiala. "We also consistently receive requests for us to expand to additional sports franchises, so it's clear our designs and perspective are resonating."
Baublebar's NFL collaboration came courtesy of its official licensing division, which launched in 2020 with a Disney partnership that, similarly, did gangbusters at market. Was Baublebar surprised that the same reaction would flood its NFL and NBA offerings? Not exactly, no.
Yacobovsky Fiala knows sports fans are, as she says, "extremely passionate." They're also parched for anti-corny jewelry that can be worn beyond a Sunday afternoon watch party.
"As fans are getting more interested in and becoming savvier about style, they want to show off their fandom in ways that are a little more tasteful or refined," says Goh. "And some of these brands are definitely helping to do that."
When Yacobovsky Fiala and co-founder Amy Jain launched BaubleBar in 2010, they didn't know how far their demographic could stretch. In an interview with Inc., the pair admitted they initially planned to market to a 28-year-old, metropolitan-based woman. But as the company accrued more customer data, they learned their core age group was actually something much wider, encompassing multiple generations and geographic plots. Today, that includes Generation Z, who are now significant sports fans themselves.
According to ESPN, some 96% of 12- to 17-year-olds identify as sports fans. Canada Goose, which first partnered with the NBA in 2016, finds the demographic to be particularly invested in its sleek, unisex outerwear. In March, the retailer even linked up with cool-kid menswear label Rhude for a sprinkling of streetwear flair, which Penny Brook, Canada Goose's chief marketing officer, says has been well-received by sports fans and Canada Goose shoppers alike: "Brands are playing a crucial role in popular culture, especially with the Gen Z consumer. They admire brands that transcend traditional boundaries and are a seamless part of their everyday lifestyle."
Even for those of us beyond the Gen Z age group, sports are cemented in our lives as being something much meatier than the game itself. A Bulls championship T-shirt from decades ago is much more than a T-shirt, of course. Niamh McManus, senior design director at Canada Goose, sums it up tidily for me: "Increasingly, we're noticing the blurring of traditional boundaries between subcultures." Between sports, fashion, music and art, she says, there's an emerging global culture where different disciplines can merge and play.
"It's natural for fans to want to attend those events in outfits that make them feel good," says Yacobovsky Fiala. "People are increasingly realizing how broad the community of sports fans truly is, and are bringing them more options to show support."