The Out-of-Nowhere Hot-Selling Sports Jersey Phenomenon: A Recent Timeline

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Everyone understands why the jerseys of all-time greats like Peyton Manning, LeBron James, and Derek Jeter top on the best-seller list. But in our age of the insta-hero, the masses can be driven to buy jerseys due to a player’s great story rather than one’s mere greatness.

The Brooklyn Nets’ Jason Collins, a veteran NBA center has never been anyone’s idea of a superstar, has recently had one of the hottest-selling jerseys in the league. Collins is only signed to a short-term contract with the Nets, and he’s not expected to be a major contributor to the team. Yet Collins has been making history as the first openly gay player in major American professional sports. Support of his bravery and gay rights in general has apparently translated into big bucks spent by fans eager to be seen wearing his #98 jersey.

While sports fans typically buy the jerseys of pro sports’ best players, superstar status isn’t the only reason folks favor player merchandise. In some cases, fans want to wear the jerseys of players they identify with or simply want to support, perhaps based on what the player stands for, the player’s style, personality, and attitude, or a compelling underdog back story. And when fans en masse embrace a player’s story and want to demonstrate their own knowledge, personality, and quirky individuality by donning his jersey, a surprise sales surge can hit like the one being enjoyed by Collins right now. Here’s a rehash of some curious jersey sales spikes over the years:

Tim Tebow
Considering that Tebow won the Heisman Trophy, one can’t say that he came completely out of the blue. But Tebow’s success at selling merchandise, which began when he was drafted in 2010 by the Denver Broncos with the 25th pick and saw his jersey outsell higher picks and become the quickest-ever seller for a draftee, has always been more about Tebow as an icon than Tebow as a player. Tebow was routinely bashed for his poor passing ability and an overall game that wasn’t suited for the pros. But after leading the Broncos into the playoffs on a string of ugly, come-from-behind victories, Tebow saw his jersey shoot to the top of the league’s best-seller list, where it sat until being pushed out of the slot by his replacement in Denver, Peyton Manning.

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Tebow moved from the Broncos to the New York Jets, and his jersey remained among the league’s top sellers, even though he never started and barely played for the team that season. Things took an especially screwy turn last summer, when Tebow signed a contract with the New England Patriots and the team sent out a special note to fans alerting them that pre-orders of Tebow jerseys were available for $99.95. Jersey sales were strong for a little while, but Tebow was ultimately cut from the team before the season started and hasn’t played in the NFL since.

Jeremy Lin
Two years ago, “Linsanity” took hold in America, when the former Harvard guard and undrafted, former NBA benchwarmer Jeremy Lin went on a stunning run as a starter for the New York Knicks, including a phenomenal 38-point outing against the Los Angeles Lakers. The impact of the surprise underdog story was felt immediately in NBA apparel stores and arenas around the country, with Lin jerseys and merchandise soaring and ticket sellouts at Madison Square Garden and beyond. Sports apparel specialist reported a 689% increase in merchandise sales between February 15-16 versus February 13-14 of 2012, and Lin ranked #1 in sales at the site for all NBA players that month.

A few months later, Lin’s Knicks merchandise was deeply discounted after he was signed by the Houston Rockets. Lin’s Rockets jersey has been among the top sellers in China, but he hasn’t been among the best sellers in the U.S. or overall worldwide since leaving the Knicks.

Colin Kaepernick
At the start of the 2012-2013 football season, few NFL fans had heard of Colin Kaepernick, a second-year backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who had had thrown a total of five passes in regular season games during his rookie year, after being the 36th selection in the draft. Kaepernick soon took over the team when starting QB Alex Smith suffered a concussion, with the 49ers eventually winding up in the Super Bowl. Kaepernick’s “out of nowhere” back story, as well as his phenomenal athleticism and youthful style (tattoos, flat-brimmed hats), helped make his #7 jersey the NFL’s biggest seller during the 49ers exciting run to the Super Bowl.

Richard Sherman
As a member of the Seattle Seahawks, Sherman was one of the NFL’s top defensive players this past season. But after he delivered a shocking, smack-talking rant on live TV after his team beat the 49ers, Sherman became the most-talked-about player in the game. Sherman was criticized and celebrated for the bout of trash talking that immediately went viral. Mixed in with the good and the bad was the fact that all the notoriety pushed Shermans’ jersey into the top 10 for the first time ever.

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T.J. Oshie
The men’s U.S.A. Olympic hockey team went home from 2014 Winter Games in Sochi humbled, without a medal after a lackluster 5-0 loss to Finland in the Bronze Medal game. If the team’s Olympic run will be remembered for anything, it will be that T.J. Oshie, a right wing for the St. Louis Blues, briefly became the nation’s most celebrated sports hero. Early in the tournament, the U.S. squad’s game against host team Russia ended in a 2-2 tie, and Oshie, a breakaway specialist, was called upon to earn the Americans a victory in the shootout following regulation. Oshie did just that, scoring on four out of six opportunities.

Almost immediately, the word “Oshie” became a source of pain in Russia, and for the short while that Oshie was a household name, his agent was flooded with calls and Oshie jerseys and T-shirts were flying off the shelves. Within hours of the win over Russia, Oshie’s official USA Hockey T-shirt sold out temporarily at , and “TJ Oshie” was the #1 searched term at the site during the final week of the Olympics.

Jason Collins
In the grand total of three games that he’s played for the Brooklyn Nets, Collins has averaged 8.7 minutes and 1 point per game. Usually, when a player is signed only to a 10-day contract like Collins has with the Nets, teams don’t even bother making the player’s jersey available for sale. But Collins is not the usual case.

Last spring, Collins came out as the first openly gay player in any of the major American sports, and after signing with the Nets earlier in February, he became the first openly gay player to take the court in the NBA. Support for the 7-foot center has come in many forms, including a standing ovation when entered his first game as a member of the Nets and impressive sales for his #98 jersey that have little to do with his meager production as a player.

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Up Next: Michael Sam?
While some in the media have said they are already tired of talking about Sam, the Missouri defensive lineman who came out in recent weeks and will soon be the first openly gay player in the NFL, it seems all but inevitable that whichever franchise signs Sam will see “a significant surge in jersey sales,” as Slate put it.