OAKLAND, Calif. – It was 30 minutes before the Golden State Warriors’ latest home playoff game, and fans were beginning to fill Oracle Arena, where each of the nearly 20,000 seats was draped with a gold T-shirt.
Six rows from the court, a man named Sundance Burrough took off his blue replica jersey (cost: $109.95), wadded it up and wriggled into one of the free T-shirts.
”I don’t want to be on the big screen,” he said, nodding to the enormous video board above center court. ”And it looks better when everyone wears yellow.”
Overhead, the screen was frozen on some fans elsewhere in the arena who had yet to don the shirts.
”Put your shirt on!” the screen read. Within moments, the fans saw themselves on camera, grabbed their shirts and pulled them over their heads.
”Thank you!!” the screen silently replied, and the cameras moved on. Sartorial conformity has struck professional sports, and nowhere is it as contagious as in the N.B.A. playoffs. Combining American culture’s love of T-shirts, its affinity for free things and an innate desire to belong, fans across the league this spring are willfully forgoing individual expression and dressing exactly alike in team colors.
For those in the arena, and the millions watching the playoffs from home, the lowly T-shirt provides a human, monochromatic backdrop to the action on the court. It has even inspired a verb in sports marketing circles: shirting.
The idea of persuading fans to dress identically in team-provided T-shirts is often credited to the Winnipeg Jets hockey team of the mid-1980s. The concept moved to other teams and other sports, all during an era when fans increasingly draped themselves in replica jerseys and other licensed merchandise.
Conformity in sports venues has been rising for years. In the N.H.L., the Rangers and the Anaheim Ducks are among those who have given every fan in the arena a free shirt to wear. But with the proximity and visibility of fans surrounding a basketball court, N.B.A. arenas in 2015 may represent the pinnacle, the near-perfect blend of allegiance, marketing and stagecraft.
”I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon,” Peter Sorckoff, chief creative officer and senior vice president for marketing for the Atlanta Hawks, said on Friday. ”The way it looks on television is important to teams and to broadcasters. And I really believe in the sociological and psychological impact it has on people. I think people want that. That’s why they are coming to the game. They want more of that.”
Fans, as anyone who has witnessed the frenzy over T-shirts tossed into a sports crowd can attest, see them as a valuable prize. (”That will give you the biggest pop you can get at any sporting event, to offer a free T-shirt,” said Joe Dupriest, the Washington Wizards’ chief marketing officer.)
Teams see them as a not-too-expensive way to engage fans, perhaps boosting home-court advantage, while decorating their building in swaths of team colors.
”Nowadays, you can watch a ballgame at your house, on a huge flat screen, practically in a movie theater,” said Scott Sonnenberg, the Chicago Bulls’ vice president for corporate sales. ”But when you come to a game, you want to feel you’re a part of it, that you can impact the game. To have those red T-shirts, they feel like they’re part of it, they are impacting the outcome.”
Not all teams do it. The Memphis Grizzlies and the Milwaukee Bucks were among those who relied on towels, not shirts, in the playoffs, and the Grizzlies have even given tacit approval to entrepreneurs who sell unlicensed T-shirts outside their arena. The San Antonio Spurs, the defending champions, who lost in the first round, rely little on promotional giveaways.
But most of the other 16 franchises that made the postseason made T-shirts a thrust of their marketing. All four semifinalists – Golden State, Houston, Cleveland and Atlanta – are heavy believers in T-shirt giveaways. For a few dollars a shirt – rarely more than $5, often underwritten by a corporate sponsor – the teams dress their arenas and, bit by bit, their communities.
No place does it with the aplomb, and frequency, of Golden State. The fans are the first intended audience, greeted, as in other N.B.A. arenas, by the sight of perfectly aligned shirts in every direction.
”The impression when you walk into the arena and see 19,000 yellow shirts neatly folded over every chair, it tells you, ”èÏI’ve arrived,’ ” the Warriors’ chief marketing officer, Chip Bowers, said. ”It kind of takes your breath away.”
By the time Wednesday’s game started, most of the fans in the announced crowd of 19,596, having arrived in individual ensembles of style and fandom, were dressed in identical bright yellow T-shirts that read, ”Strength in Numbers.”
The benefits are both immediate and lasting. Unlike the usual giveaways of pompoms, towels, placards and noisemakers, T-shirts are hands-free. A couple of years ago, the Toronto Raptors noticed that fans could not clap when waving a towel. The team has gone for T-shirts since.
And, unlike those other trinkets, T-shirts are not quickly discarded. Golden State, through Wednesday, had played 14 home playoff games in the last three seasons. It has given away more than a quarter-million gold T-shirts that now make regular appearances around Northern California.
It is a slow-release form of guerrilla marketing.
”I go to the gym, and I see every campaign from the last seven years,” said Ken Sheirr, the Houston Rockets’ vice president for marketing. ”For a few dollars a shirt, I’m getting somebody to advertise our brand in perpetuity, or at least for a certain amount of time.”
T-shirt philosophies differ among teams. The Rockets tend to change the colors and designs of their shirts nearly every game. The Warriors, firm believers in yellow, change the design slightly with each round. (Two years ago, their shirts had various one-word slogans on the back – four for the first round, a different four for the next. Fans traded to collect all eight.)
The Hawks, more measured, have done shirts just once this year, believing in quality over quantity, worried that the allure of a T-shirt ”loses a bit of its magic” if overdone, Sorckoff said.
”We imagine that every person has only seven T-shirts in their drawer,” he said. ”And that becomes our acid test: Would you take one of our seven shirts out of your drawer and replace it with this one?”
For 20,000 high-quality T-shirts, the Hawks and other teams might spend $100,000. Most have little trouble finding a sponsor willing to cover the cost. Some simply pull the money out of the marketing budget, increased by the extra revenue of postseason games.
There is some concern over cannibalizing retail sales of other team merchandise, but most teams consider it a worthy trade.
Logistics are trickier than finances. Getting 20,000 shirts ordered, printed, delivered and placed on arena seats with little notice requires behind-the-scenes calisthenics. The next home game, just a couple of days away, might be a Game 7 or a Game 1 of the next series. Or there may not be another home game. Some marketing departments, like the Nets’, try to coordinate with the team to make sure that fans wear the same color shirt as the players.
That is why some teams supply T-shirts only at the start of a series. Some provide T-shirts later in a series but use a generic design that makes no mention of the playoffs, in case they must be saved for a giveaway the next season.
The Warriors began ordering yellow T-shirts in January, anticipating a long playoff run for the team with the league’s best record. During the Warriors’ second-round series, they had a third-round design ready to give the printers as soon as the team clinched.
The Hawks had T-shirts made for their first-round series with the Nets. It was not until after they were all placed on the arena seats that someone noticed that the design, featuring an intricate blend of the players’ names, was missing the All-Star guard Jeff Teague. The shirts were pulled. (The Hawks won anyway.)
Shirts usually come in large or extra large, though most teams order small bunches of other sizes for fans who complain. In Washington, shirts came in three colors, distributed by section – white in one, red in the next, blue in the next. In Portland, the arena of red T-shirts was interrupted by a script of white ones that spelled out the city’s basketball name, Rip City.
On Thursday night in Los Angeles, half of the blue shirts ordered by the Clippers did not arrive until 5 p.m., an hour before the doors opened to the public. All of the team’s top executives pitched in to get them to the seats on time.
”Please put on your shirts,” an on-court master of ceremonies implored fans at Staples Center minutes before the game. ”I want to make sure we’re all in uniform, cheering the guys.”