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The rise and fall of the NBA’s sleeved jerseys

Sleeved jerseys were done before they even had a chance to flourish.

2017 NBA Finals - Game Five Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The era of sleeved jerseys never had the chance to live long. It started in 2013 and effectively died when the NBA announced Nike would be its apparel partner moving forward in 2017 after its deal with Adidas expired.

Nike unofficially buried the idea in January when the Wall Street Journal reported that the company had no plans of bringing the idea back with its new iteration of jerseys.

Change is difficult — especially when there are decades worth of tradition preceding it. The process can be smooth, though, so long as there is a legitimate chance given.

But for sleeved jerseys, that chance never really existed.

Sports is business and business is revenue. Sleeved jerseys were a key to new revenue for the NBA. In 2012, just off the wave of the lockout season, the league had to think of new revenue streams for its growing product.

It was a not-so-well-kept secret that the NBA wanted to implement jersey ads in the years following the introduction of sleeved jerseys in 2013. Conspiracy theorists are quick to point out that sleeves allow more space for potential partners to add their corporate logos to jerseys. Think soccer jerseys with an NBA twist.

“It’s about consumers being able to wear the product,” Matt Powell, a sports business analyst from the NPD group, told SB Nation. “It relates exactly to a t-shirt look. It was absolutely about merchandise sales.”

Both of those things, Powell said, were also part of its downfall. Fans weren’t totally open to having ads all over their jerseys despite them now being part of the league’s future. The jerseys were also expensive. They typically sold for $70 to $80 dollars everywhere they were sold authentically. Consumers could easily just buy a t-shirt at a better value and have a similar product.

As far as conspiracies go, Adam Silver pushed back against the idea that the league was moving in this direction to increase space for jersey ads in a 2014 interview with Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck.

"That was not a consideration," Silver said. "It was based entirely on trying something new and making something available to our fans that they would feel more comfortable wearing."

Silver said the league would ultimately move on from the jerseys if players didn’t like them. Players certainly didnt, so the league has moved on.

Did they feel the sleeved jersey experiment worked? When we reached out for comment, the league declined other than to say that their position on the sleeved jerseys has not changed since Silver’s interview with Beck.

Via Adidas

The Golden State Warriors, of all teams, introduced the league to jerseys with sleeves. But this was before all of the glamour and glitz. They were a new and interesting team in concept, just like their uniforms.

Stephen Curry’s dominance was just in its infancy — he hadn't even had his 54-point game vs. the Knicks yet. But that didn’t stop him from being the first player to come after their new jerseys.

After a 113-95 loss to the Chicago Bulls on March 15, 2013, Curry became the first to publicly bash them, calling them “ugly jerseys” in a postgame interview. First blood was drawn.

Miami Heat v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Later that year, the NBA set up their Christmas day slate and put their sleeved jerseys on the biggest stage yet. Every team playing on Christmas day would get a sleeved jersey.

Christmas jerseys are special because only certain teams get them each year, plus they were only worn once per year. That makes them all the more attractive to fans — but how attractive can they be without the backing of the players?

Before we knew it, players across the league were piling on. Dirk Nowitzki complained about them, on Christmas Day no less, saying, “Call me old school but these jerseys with sleeves are awful” via his Twitter account. Robin Lopez followed up saying there “needs to be a mass burning of these sleeved NBA jerseys” later that night. Jarrett Jack dropped a zinger on the jerseys a few months later, saying they made the Cavaliers look like the “Beach Police.” There was a league-wide sentiment that these jerseys were no good.

Complaints from players ranged from the sleeves affecting the way players shoot (even though numbers didn’t always back that up), to the jerseys not wicking sweat enough, to them just being plain ugly.

It got so bad that Adam Silver had to come out and publicly vouch for the jerseys in his annual press conference before the 2014 All-Star game where the league was set to introduce their first (and last) sleeved All-Star jerseys.

NBA All-Star Game 2014 Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Silver was steadfast in his defense and maybe even a bit dismissive of player’s concerns then. He said the jerseys don’t have an impact on competition despite consistent complaints from players.

Little did he know the issues would only grow from there.

LeBron James has always been the league’s biggest storyline and lived underneath a constant microscope. Everything he does is measured — no social media post or public statement from James is sent into the ether without thought. His actions are included in that as well.

So when James ripped through the sleeves of his jersey out of frustration during a primetime game with the Knicks in 2015, it sent a message throughout the league: He was done with these jerseys. (Video via NBA highlights 2)

And, to make matters worse for the league, James played much better after desecrating his uniform. His concerns seemed to be validated despite what Silver was saying just a year before.

James later said ripping his sleeves was actually a result of his play and not the tightness of his sleeves, but nothing he does on or off the court is done without thought. Perception is reality and this, along with his pervious comments on the jerseys, weren’t a good look.

Teams continued to wear the jerseys for the rest of the season, but there was no coming back from this. The league didn’t have a leg to stand on without James’ full support.

James was now the face of the players who revolted against the league’s new jerseys. He’s the most noteworthy player in the league to the casual fan, so selling a product without him is simply impossible.

“The players deep-sixed it,” Powell said. “If LeBron says he hates sleeves, the fans are going to hate sleeves. That’s a huge thing.”

But James’ relationship with the jerseys continued to evolve. In 2016, the Cavaliers went to the NBA Finals and wore their sleeved jerseys in games five and seven of the NBA Finals — and they won both.

And, apparently, the call came from James himself.

The most iconic moments in Cavaliers’ history and in James’ career came in the jerseys. He and Kyrie Irving had massive performances in game 5 where they became the first teammates to ever score 40 points in a Finals game. Then James had The Block. Irving had The Shot. And the rest is history.

2016 NBA Finals - Game Seven Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

But it didn’t matter. The public never forgot when James and company hated the jerseys. Twitter went into a frenzy about the Cavaliers’ announcement that the team would be wearing their black and wine alternates in an elimination game.

“[The players] sent a huge signal,” Powell said. And that signal was enough, he said, to keep the uniforms from ever succeeding in the first place.

The issues with the jerseys extended beyond the players — there were multiple petitions started by fans urging the powers-that-be in the league to scrap their new look completely.

The mix of losing tradition in the jerseys along with the belief that ads would soon be all over their favorite team’s jerseys moved fans to take action against the league’s new look. Leon Scothern, an NBA fan and the creator of a petition against the jerseys, called the addition of the jerseys “bizarre.”

In his petition, Scothern paints a picture of the sleeved jersey design being beneath the NBA’s standards.

“This isnt soccer. This isnt volleyball. This is the NBA, the greatest basketball association in the world. So why introduce those hideous sleeves on NBA jerseys?” it asks, before calling the uniforms “ridiculous” and pointing out the backlash from players over time.

The rollout of the jerseys made no sense without player support, Scothern said, and made the league seem out of touch with both its players and fans.

“It didn’t seem like they had worked closely enough with the players to get the sleeves right in terms of movement and comfort either,” Scothern told SB Nation. “All I could think when watching teams wearing the sleeved jerseys was that they had converted a soccer jersey into a basketball top.”

It was a good idea in terms of space for advertising, he said, but it didn’t make sense for the NBA to break tradition in the way they did. When the league did that, they lost the public’s support. And without the players’ full support, it was an uphill battle the NBA couldn’t win.

We don’t know if the NBA view their trial as a success or failure, but here’s what we do know: The sleeved jerseys won’t be back anytime soon. The league declined to comment on whether they’d make another push for sleeved jerseys with Nike. But Josh Benedek, a spokesman for Nike, said, “We will not be having sleeved jerseys next year.”

That does leave the opportunity open for Nike to experiment with sleeved jerseys if they’d like to, but the experiment with Adidas just ended. It doesn’t make sense to try them again so soon.

But for the future? It should happen, Powell said. It will take some time, but he believes we’ll see sleeved uniforms again.

There is money to be made here. The league’s experiment with 2.5-square-inch sponsor patches is going to continue and teams are going to find lucrative deals down the line. As of now, the deals teams are cutting with sponsors have been between $4 million and $60 million after the Warriors signed their massive deal with Rakuten.

Powell estimates that future deals could eventually increase to “the billions” for the league years down the line if they expand ad space for sponsors. The league’s ultimate goal will likely be to “look like European soccer jerseys,” he said, and the only way to do that is with sleeved jerseys.

“Are the fans going to complain? Yes, but the fans tend to be the last guys to have any say in these things,” Powell said. “The league is under pressure to constantly find new revenue sources. This is one way.”

From a fan perspective, Scothern said the NBA trying out sleeved jerseys increased fan tolerance for ads on jerseys. “If you had to trade off either sleeved jerseys, sleeved jerseys with adverts on the sleeves, or a small breast plate patch advert on a traditional jersey, the latter would win every time,” he said.

So maybe the league’s sleeved jersey trial wasn’t exactly a success in a traditional sense. But it did open the door for new ways to increase revenue, whether it be behind a new jersey or a new advertising source on traditional jerseys. And as that ad space increases, teams will look for more space to include companies on their jerseys. That’s when we’ll talk about sleeves again.

We don’t have sleeved jerseys for next year — we might not have them for another 10 years. But this certainly isn’t the last time you’ll hear about them.

The iconic '90s Indiana uniforms designed by Flo-Jo