Canvas in Motion: The Art of Sports Jerseys

Sports Jersey Sales at the Superbowl, Image courtesy of John Seb Barber via wikimedia commons

Feature image: Sports Jersey Sales at the Superbowl, image courtesy of John Seb Barber via Wikimedia Commons

Canvas in Motion: The Art of Sports Jerseys

One month ago, I stumbled upon an X (formerly Twitter) thread reviewing newly released NBA jerseys. This thread shared a variety of opinions about the aesthetics of well-known jerseys. One post claimed the newest NBA jersey trend leans towards a darker, black hue, whereas five years ago, all teams sported a more gray look. Another post roasted the latest  Miami Heat jersey by saying, “Sadly, this dark era of uninspiring NBA jerseys just got even darker...It's tragic to know the best players in the world will rock these.” This post got thousands of likes–people agree. The thread had 5 million views total, and I realized just how big the conversation surrounding the aesthetics of sports jerseys truly is.

Shaquille O
Shaquille O'Neal sporting the vintage pinstripe Orlando Magic Jersey, Image courtesy of X (Formerly Twitter)

People care about jerseys because they represent their beloved teams, and jerseys serve as a connector between these beloved teams, fans, and players, so yeah, how they look matters. Jerseys become critiqued when fans debate about every nuanced aesthetic detail. A parallel could be drawn between these jersey debates and reactions toward a new painting or sculpture within the arts. t. In both contexts, individuals actively critique something they are seemingly far removed from but feel connected to on a personal level.
 

Despite seemingly obvious connections between sports and the arts, jerseys are hardly ever acknowledged as cultural artifacts or works of art waiting for a fan's or potential buyer's critique–but why not?

 

Well, for starters, sports are sweaty, loud, and competitive. I’d rarely attribute two of these adjectives to any art scene, but competitive, I certainly would–the competitions just differ drastically. Competition in sports looks like who can score the most points, whereas, in the arts, it takes the form of who gets a solo show in a reputable museum first.

American football team uniforms wholesale sales in the U.S. from 2007 to 2022(in million U.S. dollars), Image courtesy of Statistica
American football team uniforms wholesale sales in the U.S. from 2007 to 2022(in million U.S. dollars), Image courtesy of Statistica

While sports may seem worlds apart from galleries, art museums, and their precious artworks, an intriguing connection exists. The previously mentioned X thread reminded me that jerseys serve as an artistic expression within sports, just as artwork and artifacts do within museums and galleries.
 

Not only do sports jerseys exist as an artistic expression within the broader sports community, but because people pay pretty pennies for a jersey worn by a beloved player, jerseys have an immense economic market, just like the art scene.
 

In 2022, the NFL made 384.2 million dollars in football jerseys alone. Revenues are forecasted to reach 294 billion by 2030. You could say these jerseys have a bit of a socioeconomic impact. According to Statistica, “Global sales in the art and antiques market increased by nearly three percent in 2022 over the previous year. Overall, the total value of transactions in the art market worldwide amounted to 67.8 billion U.S. dollars in 2022, reaching the second-highest value reported in the past 15 years. Although jersey sales vastly surpass the annual revenue generated by the 2022 art market, both sports and arts have a dedicated audience willing to invest in their preferred cultural artifacts.

Addison Rae sporting a Brazilian soccer jersey, Image courtesy of Purseblog
Addison Rae sporting a Brazilian soccer jersey, Image courtesy of Purseblog
Travis Kelce Jersey via Nike
Travis Kelce Jersey via Nike

And let’s face it, trends almost always influence these so-called investments in pop culture, whether it's a print from an artist that’s gone viral or a jersey of an athlete who has a great PR team. Marketing influences the buying and selling of artworks and jerseys alike. A prime example is Travis Kelce's jersey sales surge, which increased by over 400% following the public announcement of his relationship with Taylor Swift. These jerseys aren't just apparel; they have quickly become a momentum of Swift and Kelce’s personal relationship, and people can’t seem to get enough.

 

It may seem like a stretch to compare these two vastly different worlds, and by no means am I suggesting that sports and arts are the same–they just aren’t. But it is true that players, games, and jerseys indeed hold cultural and historical knowledge similar to ancient artifacts sitting within the walls of the MET Museum. The meticulous design and subsequent aesthetic discourse about these jerseys (take the above-mentioned X thread, for example) can so easily be compared to two people debating about the artwork at a gallery opening.

 

With a touch of suspension of disbelief, let’s take a look at some iconic jerseys, just as we often do here at ArtRKL with works of art.

Cultural Icons Through the Years

Orlando Magic “Pinstripe Revival”

In recent years, The Orlando Magic brought back their classic 1989 vintage pinstripe jerseys. In many ways, this homage is, as CEO Alex Martins stated, “A tribute to our roots, to the players who built this franchise, and to the fans who have been with us through thick and thin,” said Magic CEO Alex Martins. “We understand the emotional connection fans have with these jerseys, and we want to give them a taste of the past while looking forward to a bright future.”
 

The pinstripe revival further proves that jerseys hold immense meaning, history, and knowledge for this team, just like a favorite work of art might for a gallery or collector.

1989 Orlando Magic Jersey, Image from Tumblr
1989 Orlando Magic Jersey, Image from Tumblr

Toronto Raptors

In 2021, according to Yahoo sports, The Toronto Raptors released “sleek new uniforms as part of the NBA’s “City Edition” release, an annual tradition that sees a fun and flashy design added to every team’s jersey rotation.” According to Yahoo, “The black and gold colorway, popularized by Toronto-born rapper Drake and his OVO brand, returns in celebration of the team’s association with the superstar artist.”

 

There's even meme's about the new release.

Miami Heat

When I think of classic sports attire, one of the teams that first comes to mind is the Miami Heat. Over the years, there have been countless Miami Heat iconic jerseys sported by Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Glen Rice, to name a few. People love the Heat’s apparel; it represents the team, the camaraderie, loyalty, and the passion that comes with being a Heat fan.

2023 Miami Heat Jersey, Image courtesy of NBA
2023 Miami Heat Jersey, Image courtesy of NBA

New York Yankees

I know we’ve touched on football and basketball, but what about baseball? It’s safe to say the New York Yankees pull from the past–their jerseys allude to the 1951 original New York Yankee jersey we first saw over a half-century ago.

 

So, you may have caught onto the theme: Vintage has emerged as the epitome of cool within the realm of sports. Maybe it's all been done before, and it's opportunely “cool” to bring back vintage jerseys, but there’s an undeniable charm in reestablishing old jerseys in our present-day context.  One could think of it like Warhol or Picasso, whose work never really seems to go out of style.

New York Yankees 2012 Uniform Sketch via wikimedia commons
New York Yankees 2012 Uniform Sketch via Wikimedia Commons

Vintage Sports Apparel Meets Street Fashion

This vintage trend doesn’t just stop at sports jerseys. And jerseys don’t stop at sports. For years, jerseys have infiltrated street fashion, too. While waves of this fashion subculture have come and gone, including football and baseball jerseys, more recently, soccer jerseys seem to be all the rage. Once confined to the soccer field, jerseys now find themselves as coveted street fashion statements paired with Adidas sambas. The appeal lies in the history, designs, and juxtaposition of sports and fashion that collide once jerseys are brought into a new,  contemporary landscape.

Example of jerseys in street fashion, (from left_ @thenotoriouskia _ @danie.sierra _ @roxannedeasis)
Example of jerseys in street fashion; from left @thenotoriouskia, @danie.sierra, @roxannedeasis

Little did I know that happening upon that X thread a few weeks ago would lead me here, but I have to say, I’m glad it did. It's nice to look at pop culture symbols and think of them in a new light. Whether sports jerseys can be defined as art objects is still up in the air in my book. Certainly, there are parallels to the broader art world; aesthetic trends in sports jerseys are deeply analyzed, widely discussed, and undergo drastic changes based on the buyers’ desires, namely the dedicated fans. But one thing is certain: Jerseys deserve recognition in more than just the context of sports, and we art lovers should take a closer look.


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