Smart Jerseys: What the NBA is Trying to Accomplish

Does NBA commissioner Adam Silver think we’re all just bandwagon fans, or is there more to the idea of smart jerseys?

The year is 2038. You’re about to pony up for the new Zion Williamson jersey prior to his 18th consecutive All-Star appearance. You pull up the NBA Store on your phone, but when you click on Williamson’s New York Knicks jersey, only one option is given. It’s a generic smart jersey, and the player name, team name, logo, and number all change with the push of a button on your mobile device. Sure it’s convenient, but is it really a Zion jersey if it can also be a Zaire Wade or LeBron James or Riley Curry?

With confusion and a hint of anger you log onto eBay—or whatever the kids are using these days—and buy a throwback Seattle SuperSonics jersey from 2007, embroidered with “Durant” across the back. At least that jersey can’t be anything else.

When Silver rolled out the “smart jersey” at the All-Star Technology Summit, he set off a wave of speculation and hysteria, not to mention conspiratorial thinking. While Silver communicated that this tech isn’t just around the corner, it doesn’t mean we can’t analyze what we know about smart jerseys sitting here in 2019, and what this could ultimately mean for the league going forward.

What do we know about smart jerseys?

In short, not much. Silver’s demonstration involved him changing the name and number on the jersey from Kemba Walker’s to Stephen Curry’s and, finally, to Michael Jordan’s. There was no team logo on the All-Star jersey, so it’s unclear whether or not that will be changeable.

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Silver used his mobile phone to make the changes, suggesting that there would be an app for the jersey, or perhaps it would be included as part of the NBA app.

We also don’t know who will be developing the jerseys. Curiously, there was no mention of Nike, the current jersey manufacturer for the NBA, who is under contract through the 2025-26 season. This could simply be because the technology won’t be viable until beyond the life of the contract. But it’s interesting nonetheless that Nike appears to be completely un-involved.

There is some color-changing wearable tech already on the market, believe it or not. From threads that have microwires and color-changing pigments in clothing that will have washable, wireless antennas inside it, something that sounds more sci-fi than reality is becoming a tangible thing

What is the practical application of the jerseys?

One of the most common complaints that you’ll hear from fan blog comments to Joe Fan griping in the stands at your local team’s game is that he or she dropped $110 on a New Orleans Pelicans Buddy Hield jersey or a Minnesota Timberwolves Jimmy Butler jersey only to see the player traded within a calendar year or less.

Clearly, sunk jersey costs is one problem that the NBA has set out to solve for its fans. But so much of that potential problem-solving will hinge on the final price point for the smart jerseys. If it’s five times the cost of a “dumb jersey,” how many fans would actually pony it? What about at three times the cost?

It’s also important to point out that the jersey presented by Silver was an All-Star jersey, so it was made to be neutral in appearance. If you buy an Oklahoma City Thunder jersey and want to convert it into a Golden State Warriors jersey (sorry, couldn’t help it), you’ll want to not just change the name and number and logo, but all of the jersey colors, from the base color to the trim.

Perhaps the smart jerseys will only apply to All-Star jerseys. That makes some sense, but how many people actually buy All-Star jerseys in the first place? And why all the hoopla over jerseys that would be used just once in a season?

How will smart jerseys work for the casual fan?

At first glance, it’s hard to see how a smart jersey could work for a casual fan. After all, spending $100+ for a shirt without sleeves is a tough pill to swallow for many die-hards. How on earth can the NBA expect casual fans to get with the program?

Consider a subscription model. The NBA surely has research showing how often Joe Fan buys a new jersey—let’s call it every five years, for simplicity’s sake. There’s an introductory fee as an upfront cost, say $200. The fan then has the ability to pay an annual fee for customization, as they choose to switch their Durant to a Curry or a Ben Simmons to a Joel Embiid.

Maybe the league will have an annual fee on the actual jersey, whether or not you choose to change the threads each year. Every time you do make a change, they ding you for $50. Was your favorite player traded at the deadline? No biggie. Just pay $50 instead of buying a whole new jersey.

The numbers are all fairly wild guesses to be fair, but a model like this would certainly be beneficial to the league, and there’s an argument to be made for the fans, too. Theoretically, you would never need a new jersey, and at that point, what’s $50 every year or two or three or whenever you choose to make a change?

Will players wear smart jerseys on the court?

Let’s assume that by the time these jerseys are rolled out, they’ll feel normal to the touch and won’t be any heavier than the jerseys of today. The next logical step would be to have players wear them. Fans want authentic apparel, right? The highest-priced, NBA apparel is what players wear on the court, and that’s what the real fans want.

So what use would a superfan have for a smart jersey if the players aren’t wearing them on the court? A superfan doesn’t need a customizable jersey, as they aren’t hopping onto and off of bandwagons. And if a superfan is out on the idea, then who the heck is buying into it?

Oh, and there’s hackers to worry about. What could be worse than a wholesome star like Steph Curry’s name to suddenly change to something unsavory right as he nails a game-winning jumper? If there’s technology of any kind on the jerseys, then it’s absolutely hackable, and the league will have to consider those potential consequences.

To recap, a smart jersey will surely be far more expensive than their already expensive predecessors. They likely won’t be able to completely change color, thereby limiting their versatility, and probably won’t be worn by players on the court.

Who could possibly benefit? We’ve talked about name, number, team name and logo, colors. What else is on an NBA player’s jersey?

It’s the advertising, stupid.

In the 2018-19 season, 29 of the league’s 30 teams have a jersey sponsor. Oklahoma City is the lone holdout. The patches reportedly range in annual value from $5 million to $20 million, and have been a boon for many of the sponsors. For instance, Denver, Utah, and San Antonio are the 17th, 30th, and 31st-largest media markets in the United States, and their jersey sponsors all rank in the top 10 in the NBA in media value based on exposure of their brand.

What could be better than signing a sponsor at, say, $12 million to sponsor the jersey on a multi-year agreement? Well, how about four sponsors at $5 million each? Their logos could rotate during individual games, or perhaps each sponsor gets one quarter. Or maybe each of the four gets to be on the jerseys for roughly a quarter of the season.

No matter how you slice it, this is obviously inventory that moved as well or better than the league expected, and teams want more of these billboards to pitch to prospects.

Is that a bad thing? Depends on your individual perspective. There would surely be widespread angst if jerseys became flashing, neon billboards and the court was converted into a veritable Times Square. But who really cares if Philadelphia’s StubHub ad turns into a Heinz logo at the start of the second half?

There’s plenty of other possibilities once smart jerseys are officially a thing. In fact, Nike has been selling a version of a smart jersey to the general public for almost two years. Simply download an app and scan the tag on your jersey, and you’ll receive all kinds of content sent to your phone, plus rewards on the latest edition of NBA2K, and plenty of marketing materials you probably don’t want or need.

Imagine the treasure trove of information the league could pack into the fully-realized version of smart jerseys. Most franchises have already gone entirely mobile with their tickets. Is it only a matter of a decade or two before fans’ jerseys are their ticket stubs?

This is entirely speculation, but the dots connect clearly. And while they’re dots that are admittedly years and possibly decades into the future, they offer a glimpse into the lengths that the league will go to monetize everything in sight, all the way down to the threads that each player wears.

Ben Beecken
Ben Beecken
Ben Beecken is a writer at Grandstand Central with a primary focus on the NBA, MLB, and NFL. He has spent nearly a decade working on the business side of sports including eight seasons in minor league baseball team front offices. Ben is also an editor and writer at Dunking With Wolves and a contributor across the FanSided network.


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