The NBA’s VP Of Global Merchandising Tried To Change My Mind About Those Short-Sleeve Uniforms

  • Jake O'Donnell

A week ago, I wrote an empassioned critique of the NBA’s recent short-sleeve uniform trend after catching a glimpse of the 2014 All-Star jerseys (I thought they looked like a CBA team’s warm-ups). As luck would have it, my snarky musings caught their eye — yes, I was contact by the National Basketball Association because of a blog post — and they requested I speak to their Vice President of Global Merchandising, Sal LaRocca, to set the record straight.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what there was to talk about. I thought the jerseys were ugly and unnecessary. Was he going to try and convince me otherwise? Could I possibly finagle some free gear out of this? The only real question I had (and you probably have as well) was, why are they turning basketball uniforms into the shirts my dad goes cycling in?

Mr. LaRocca defended the sleeves as “an inevitable step in the uniform’s evolution.” His analogy was that video games were perfectly fine 10 years ago, yet developers added new components to improve them, so the addition of sleeves to the NBA getup was inherently a good thing. Sure, analogies aren’t always perfect, but this was a painful stretch. The world of video games is littered with failed attempts at innovation. In fact, the sheer concept of evolution implies that any actual improvement comes as the result of countless failures, which is why we aren’t all strapped into our Nintendo Virtual Boy consoles. It’s also why you don’t see anyone walking around in a sleeved NBA jersey.

In actuality, the difference between an NBA jersey and a video game is that I can always get a different video game if I don’t like how the developers updated the game’s latest iteration because there will always be an alternative that gives me what I want. On the other hand, if I’m a Golden State Warriors fan and every Golden State Warriors uniform has sleeves on it, my options are “deal with it” or “don’t buy one.” When we’re talking about a superfluous piece of clothing with a price tag of $150, that decision seems easy to me. His analogy didn’t make any sense, and neither did his business logic.

Surprisingly, that the controversial jerseys haven’t negatively affected jersey sales, Mr. LaRocca said. On its own, this claim would indicate the new uniforms aren’t nearly as unpopular as the endless stream of jokes on Twitter would lead you to believe, but that’s not necessarily the case, because only a handful of small market NBA franchises have adopted the style, so to point to the entire league’s uniform sales and infer that they’re popular is a tad misleading. That’d be like saying the new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie was well-received because people haven’t stopped watching “Terminator 2” on Netflix.

Trust me, “The Last Stand” is awful, and the NBA’s merchandise sales are (most likely) buoyed by the sleeveless jerseys still being used by the vast majority of the league.

I then brought up the 21 anonymous NBA players who were polled by Bleacher Report regarding their new work garb. As you might expect, the overwhelmingly negative consensus was not something Mr. LaRocca gladly accepted. For context, here are some of the reviews:

[Bleacher Report] “I don’t think they look good. Or feel good. But I’ve come to accept that the NBA doesn’t care what we think.”

“[Introducing sleeved jerseys is] not a decision that is up to the players.”

“The jerseys themselves aren’t better than the traditional ones.”

“I think our sport is tough to have stuff on your shooting arm with shooting being so key.”

“They do not wick sweat away from the skin well. You end up with a wet, cold, sticky shirt. In Milwaukee (or any other cold-weather city), you will freeze your tail off.”

“I actually think it’s the V-neck that makes it look bad. If they just went to a round neck it would basically look like a soccer jersey and that would be OK.”

When confronted with the poll’s results, Mr. LaRocca slapped the floor and started defending the uniforms like he was guarding LeBron James in the waning seconds of a tied Game 7. “They’re not speaking from a well-informed place,” he said, adding that players have a say in the uniform design, implying that any issue they have with the sleeves is their fault. “They’re given options on the tightness of the uniforms,” he said.

“Kobe wears his game jersey much more loosely than LeBron.”

Ok, but what about the sleeves? Were the players sign off on the sleeves and do they have a say in getting rid of them?

[Crickets]

Mr. LaRocca deferred on this one, circling back to the company line like everything said behind it counted for three points. “Most players like them,” he reiterated.

“We work very closely with the players to make sure they’re happy.”

Really? Do you really?

The conversation was then rerouted to other aspects of the uniforms, as Mr. LaRocca tried to dispel the notion that these new jerseys were excruciatingly tight and forced on the players, as if the they were ground meat being squeezed onto casings at a sausage factory. Once again, he suggested that players and fans liked the uniforms, which felt like the kind of repetitive, desperate denial someone uses when they’re hiding something. What was the ulterior motive behind these sleeved jerseys?

I took a chance and asked him point blank. “Are the sleeves a precursor to advertisements?”

“It’s a great a great idea,” he said about putting ads on this new chunk of fabric that had begun appearing on players’ shoulders, but no, I was reassured that the development of the Warriors’ sleeved uniforms began well before discussions about ads on jerseys had ever taken place.

“Plans to put ads on jerseys are not in the works,” he added, as if that didn’t validate my suspicion that league had real interest in putting logos on uniforms. “We put the sleeves on there because we’re trying to stay ahead of the curve,” he reiterated.

Judging by the reaction of fans and players, the curve he’s talking about doesn’t appear to be related to fashion or function. Apparently it’s some other mysterious curve, one that we’re supposed to believe is in no way connected to the very real possibility that NBA players will living, breathing NASCARs.

Just like the leaked All-Star uniforms, I’m not buying it.

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David Gonos

David Gonos has been writing about sports online since 2001, including CBSSports.com, FoxSports.com, NFL.com, MLB.com and SportsIllustrated.com.