Jerseys, like ’em or not, are the fashion

You don’t have to comb the financial records of teams in the four major North American leagues and NASCAR to know that the sale of team merchandise is one of sport’s biggest money-makers, along with television contracts, gate receipts and concessions.

You don’t have to have an in at Sean John, Nike or Rocawear to realize that sports and fashion right now are one and the same.

Just open your eyes.

Everywhere you look — at a game, at the mall or on MTV — someone’s got the one of the latest jerseys or hats on, whether he or she actually likes the team or just because they appreciate the way the colors look with their sneakers.

I knew when I started seeing the jerseys of NBA sixth men and NFL safeties that sports clothing was hotter than the centerfold on the latest issue of Maxim. Toss in the popularity of throwbacks, where we can now see a kid who only knows Dan Fouts and Howie Long as broadcasters wearing their jerseys, and we’ve graduated from trend to certified craze.

To demonstrate just how hot this sports merchandise is, I took a not-so-scientific poll by surveying the stands in between plays while covering the recent VHSCA all-star football game in Hampton. On old sports geeks and young hipsters alike I found over 90 different jerseys in several colors and variations.

Here are some of the things I noticed:

— NBA jerseys were the most popular, followed closely by NFL, college sports and Major League Baseball. I was at a football game in Hampton, mind you, not in turn two at RIR or the at MCI Center during a Capitals odd-man rush. Sports clothing is definitely popular among fans of the NHL and NASCAR as well, as each did more than a billion dollars in merchandise sales in 1999, according to a study published in The Licensing Letter in early 2000. The NFL led the way in that study, selling $3 billion of merchandise that year. A recent Harris poll said that three out of five Americans bought sports merchandise in a year, spending an average of $232 per person.

— In Hampton, no one’s jersey was more popular than that of Allen Iverson, but then again we weren’t far from his hometown. I saw six different Iverson jerseys, his current white and black 76ers jerseys, the Royal blue 76ers alternate jersey, a red jersey in the same style, a child’s jersey and a 76ers throwback style jersey.

— Tim Duncan (white Spurs, black Spurs and Wake Forest jerseys) and Shaquille O’Neal (purple, yellow and white Lakers) were second with three different styles. I also saw these guys twice: Eddie George, Jason Kidd (Nets and Team USA), Tracy McGrady, Steve Francis, Kenyon Martin and Julius Erving, whose jersey came in #6 and #32 varieties.

— Seeing Dr. J’s jersey on some guy barely old enough to remember him play is impressive, but he wasn’t the rarest retired superstar to show up on the back of a young’un that day. I spotted Bill Walton, Clyde Drexler, Dominique Wilkins, Alex English and Moses Malone as well as Terry Bradshaw, Jim Kelly, Warren Moon, Ronnie Lott, Barry Sanders and Roger Staubach.

— I didn’t even realize you could buy jerseys for relatively mediocre NFL players like Dat Nguyen, Marcus Robinson, Joey Galloway or Shawn Springs. At least Dre Bly, whose jersey I also spotted, is from that area.

— Along those lines, I spotted a Santana Moss jersey, but saw no sign of Randy Moss.

— One guy couldn’t figure out which hometown QB he liked best, so he sported the #2 Saints jersey of Aaron Brooks, with the red and black #7 from Michael Vick’s jersey on the front in place of Brooks’ number. Now that’s original.

— In case you haven’t heard, the Clippers are popular in the ‘hood. I spotted the jerseys of Elton Brand, Lamar Odom, Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles, who doesn’t even play for L.A. anymore.

— The then-possible charges of sexual assault against Kobe Bryant didn’t affect one guy’s wardrobe. Apparently, he’d paid a hundred bucks for a white #8 Lakers jersey, and he was going to wear it out, bad publicity be damned. Ditto for the dude with the Sammy Sosa jersey and the guy rocking the Jay Williams Bulls jersey.

— Speaking of the Bulls, the shocker of the day: I spotted the Michael Jordan Wizards jersey, the MJ Bullets throwback and even a #23 UNC shirt. But I saw no sign of Jordan’s familiar red and black #23. Guess that’s played out.

— I saw NBA jerseys that never really existed. The Baby Blue Mike Bibby Kansas City Kings jersey? The Denver Nuggets rainbow Marcus Camby jersey? Hey, it doesn’t say anywhere that jersey-makers can’t take creative liberties.

— There is hope yet for the WNBA. I saw a Cynthia Cooper jersey on the back of a teenage girl.

— There is hope yet for baseball too, though their gaudy 1980s unis (think Astros, Pirates, White Sox) are more popular than particular individuals’ jerseys. But I did see Kenny Lofton, plus a pair of girls wearing Magglio Ordonez and Mike Piazza jerseys.

— People love their up-and-coming NFL stars. I saw the jerseys of Julius Peppers, Corey Dillon, Ahman Green, LaDainian Tomlinson, Travis Henry and Fred Smoot.

— In case you were wondering, yes, these established stars and recent retirees are still cool: Darrell Green, Reggie Miller, Bill Romanowski, Chris Webber, Jamal Anderson, Edgerrin James and Marshall Faulk.

— The latest team du jour: The Dallas Mavericks, judging by the friends with the matching Steve Nash jerseys, plus the Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finleys I spotted.

— One of the last jerseys I noticed was one of the freshest off the racks: Two young siblings were sporting the LeBron James jerseys, one red, one white.

In all, I saw more jerseys and hats than I could keep you interested writing about. There was a kid with game-worn University of Miami digs, a No. 34 Celtics jersey that said Robinson on it, not Paul Pierce, and even one I couldn’t place: Black No. 20 basketball jersey that said Haynes. I remember a Lester Hayes that played football for the Raiders, a basketball-playing Elvin Hayes and even a Dolph Schayes. But no Haynes.

What does this all mean, besides watch how much you spend because these jerseys and hats are probably already on their way out of style? Well, I’m not sure. Sports clothing and memorabilia will always be hot for fans of certain teams. You’ll always see Redskins jerseys at FedEx Field, not to mention Eagles, Cowboys and Giants jerseys on the backs of those who love to tick off the home team. So don’t worry if you can’t surf over to and drop $350 on a XXL Mike Schmidt Phillies jersey in Columbia Blue. Your regular old sports merchandise is still pretty cool.

In fact, with teams and leagues doing billions of dollars per year in merchandise sales, next time your bigwig owner drops $13 million on a free-agent signee, thank yourself. Then, like thousands of other fans are bound to do, go buy his jersey. Apparently it’s what keeps the sports and fashion worlds turning.

Keith McMillan’s column appears on Tuesdays in the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger. Reach him via e-mail at [email protected] or at (703) 878-8086.