Todd Smyth is going to be pulling hard for the Titans this weekend.
Brett Schultz, marketing manager for Mitchell & Ness in Philadelphia, a leading producer of replica throwback jerseys, said in an era when football players may be stars one day and inmates the next, the old uniforms provide a constancy fans crave.
Smyth is a buyer for Modell’s, the sporting goods retailer. In recent years he and the rest of the sales force have seen so-called alternate or throwback jerseys triple sales for local teams, spiking the week after they are released. Combine a good look with a winning streak, and the kind of cycle only a uniform retailer could love begins.
“When people see things on the field that always results in extra sales,” Smyth said. “You get a win in this jersey and they get superstitious and they start to wear it again and again.”
On Sunday the Jets will prove even the stodgy NFL — referred to by many a player as the “No Fun League” — can think outside the playbook every once in a while. League officials say the throwback jerseys are a symbolic way to consider the league’s past and the evolution of a professional game now more than 85 years old.
“For a team like the Jets, wearing the jerseys allows them to celebrate and capture a part of the team’s history and project it to a generation of fans who might not know it exists,” said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy.
Not the ones from Tennessee. The Titans of New York, aka the Jets, who will take the field against Philadelphia at Giants Stadium Sunday wearing navy blue and gold. The uniforms will honor the Jets’ initial incarnation in the American Football League in 1960, and it’s the retailer in Smyth who will be doing the rooting.
“This business is all about newness and freshness” said Rich Yonkers, general manager for licensed apparel for Modell’s. “Gang Green might not be green anymore. Think about that.”
Not to mention move some product, though the additional jersey sales are a mere blip for the world’s richest sports league. The NFL declines to specify sales figures for specific jerseys. But the league’s licensed merchandise — everything from shot glasses to head covers for golf clubs — is a $3 billion business annually, according to industry trade reports, and it’s built on a steady stream of new products.
“The player on the throwback jersey won’t blow up or get traded, so there is more equity,” Schultz said. “Down here you had people wearing Terrell Owens jerseys one year and burning them the next.”
It all started back in 1994, when the league celebrated its 75th anniversary by having teams recreate a vintage uniform and wear it during the season. The fashion show was a hit, especially for the nostalgic NFL fan, for whom the uniforms evoked the days before artificial turf and domes. Even the officials got into the act. Jersey sales spiked. Everyone was happy.
Then in 2002, the NFL decided to allow teams to wear a third, alternate jersey twice each season. The special jersey is allowed to change from year to year, but teams must clear the design with the league 18 months before they don the new duds. This season Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington are all wearing throwback jerseys to celebrate various milestones.
The Jets, meanwhile, had a problem. The alternate jersey rule required teams to use a color that was already in their uniforms. Miami has an orange jersey. Philadelphia has a black one, though this year the Eagles wore a throwback blue and yellow uniform for their 75th anniversary because those are the city’s official colors.
But the Jets only have green and white in their uniforms. Fortunately, they had an equipment manager named Gus Granneman who had football cards from 1960 with pictures of the Titans uniforms.
“We were sitting around after a game in 2003 and we thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could do something really different,” Granneman said.
That meant proposing an alternate jersey without a hint of green and white and a different team name.
League executives at first wouldn’t allow it. Too different. But the Jets pressed on and proved the blue and gold replica Reebok made for them was historically accurate. Finally, last year Tennessee gave the green light, despite the name infringement, and so did the already blue-and-gold Rams “All week the players have been asking me if they’re going to be able to keep a uniform,” Granneman said.
The jersey, like all NFL in-game apparel, is made by Reebok and will retail for $90.
Ideally, the Jets are hoping fans at the game are so inspired by the new look they pick up a jersey or something else that says Titans on it while they are at the stadium, or through the Jets’ Web site.
NFL teams get to keep 100 percent of the money they take in from merchandise sales at games or through e-commerce. Money from all those shirts sold at Modell’s, Target, JC Penney or approximately 10,000 other stores goes into the pot shared by all 32 teams.
While it may seem like the cheap jerseys china would provide a windfall to the league, retailers and league officials say it isn’t so.
“The league will strategically plan this from year-to-year and not let all the most popular teams do it at once,” Yonkers said. “That way they keep their revenues stable.”
Of course, anyone with money to burn and a true passion for throwbacks can visit Mitchell & Ness. For $300, Mitchell & Ness will custom produce a jersey of nearly any player from the past, going so far as to use the material from the time the uniform was worn.
Ironically, Schultz said seeing certain throwback uniforms on the field, doesn’t cause a spike in business for Mitchell & Ness, which sells about 10,000 NFL jerseys a year, accounting for roughly 35 percent of its business.
“We’ve had a Titans jersey in the past,” Schultz said. “It did okay, but it’s not like the Joe Namath cheap nfl jersey from 1968.”