By Bruce Berglund, author of The Fastest Game in the World: Hockey and the Globalization of Sports

When the National Hockey League starts its COVID-delayed season in January, all thirty-one teams will have eye-catching new jerseys. The NHL’s supplier of on-ice uniforms, Adidas, designed a new “Reverse Retro” line of alternate jerseys, with each shirt incorporating references from the franchise’s history into a reimagined color scheme.

The new jerseys generated a media stir when they were revealed in mid-November. More importantly for the NHL, the jerseys also stirred fans to reach for their wallets. Within days, the league’s online shop reported that some team jerseys were sold out.

Sports jerseys are big business. In 2018, worldwide sales of licensed apparel and merchandise topped $26 billion. When soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo joined Juventus in 2019, the Italian club reaped more than $60 million in jersey sales in one day.

The NHL does not match the European soccer leagues in sales, or the top-selling American National Football League. Still, hockey fans love their jerseys––or sweaters, as hockey uniforms are still called (even though it’s been a long time since they were stitched from wool). Team jerseys are standard apparel in the stands at an NHL game. And with the price of a new Reverse Retro design running up to $275, compared to $100 for a Cristiano Ronaldo kit, the league earns a nice profit from its fans’ devotion.

Fan gear is one subject I address in my book The Fastest Game in the World: Hockey and the Globalization of Sports. The current popularity of the colorful, oversized shirts is the result of changes in marketing and fan culture, in hockey as well as other sports. Not long ago, fans went to the arena in everyday street clothes. The trend of putting on what the players wore first emerged in European soccer in the 1980s. By 1990, photographs show that most spectators at Wembley Stadium for the FA Cup final were wearing replica club shirts.

By contrast, photos of NHL crowds from the early ‘90s show that most fans didn’t give second thought to what they wore. Check out the crowd at the 1993 Stanley Cup finals in Montreal and you see more men in business suits than Canadiens sweaters. A decade later, however, Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena was awash in red and white when the Red Wings won the cup.

In part, the shift in standard fan attire was the result of deliberate marketing by clubs and merchandise companies. The NHL’s three California teams had an important role in this turn.

First were the Los Angeles Kings, who introduced a new logo and color scheme in 1988, the same time they traded for hockey’s biggest star, Wayne Gretzky. With a new logo and colors, Kings gear became a fashion statement. Queen Latifah and members of NWA donned the black-and-silver caps. By the mid-1990s, hockey jerseys were standard apparel among hip-hop artists, with the shirts of different teams appearing in videos by Snoop Dogg and LL Cool J. Designers even introduced their own shirts. Hockey jerseys had great shape and appealing colors, observed Tommy Hilfiger. “And it’s cool because hockey is kind of a rough sport.”

NHL franchises hired their own designers to craft logos and colors that would have maximum appeal. Management of the San Jose Sharks, who joined the league in 1992, put thirteen months of research into designing their stick-chomping shark logo and color combination. After discovering that teal was favored by both men and women, the team bought an eighteen-month supply of material in the color. The investment paid off: in their first year, despite a woeful record on the ice, the Sharks sold $150 million worth of merchandise, more than any other sports team other than Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Even young Prince William was photographed in a Sharks hat while skiing in the Alps with Princess Diana.

Yet for all the marketing savvy of the Sharks, they were no match for the Ducks. Before the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim played their debut game in 1993, the franchise’s owner, the Disney Corporation, pulled out the stops in a $500,000 pregame spectacle. The old guard in the NHL might have sneered at players skating onto the rink through a giant duck head, but they couldn’t ignore the new team’s opening-night haul––over $300,000 worth of merchandise. The Mighty Ducks raced past the Sharks in sales in 1994, and then bested the Bulls. That year, total sales of NHL merchandise passed one billion dollars, up from $100 million when Gretzky joined the Kings.  

Royals and rap stars made NHL apparel popular in the early ‘90s, and the appearance of new teams brought spikes in sales. But the sustained growth of merchandising revenue owes more to changes in fan culture than fashion. No matter the sport, putting on a team’s colors indicates that the wearer is an authentic fan. As sociologist Richard Giulianotti explains in his study of English soccer fans, people identify with teams in different ways: there are committed supporters who identify strongly with the club, more casual fans, recent converts, and spectators who are interested in the game as a social or entertainment outing. For each type of fan, the team shirt justifies their presence in the arena. As with other sports, hockey fans have come to believe that true allegiance has to be worn.

Nostalgia is also an important motivation. In the NHL, the teams that consistently sell the most merchandise are the so-called Original Six, the league’s oldest franchises. At a game between Detroit and Montreal a few years ago, I noticed that the most common jerseys in the stands were not those of current players but the two teams’ legends: Gordie Howe for the Red Wings and Maurice “Rocket” Richard for the Canadiens. Judging from the average age of the crowd, few people wearing the jerseys had been around to see Howe and the Rocket play. Yet the shirt provided a link to their team’s storied history––a golden age they did not experience personally.

Whether it’s the jersey of a past great or a contemporary Reverse Retro design, makers of licensed apparel understand that a shirt can have deep meaning for its wearer. “We’re selling emotion,” observed one apparel executive in the 1990s, “not just a product.”