- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2002

Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki, the international sports sensation of 2001, is now passe in the world of sports merchandising. Ditto for legendary consumer draws like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Marshall Faulk and Jaromir Jagr.
Well, not entirely. But the luminaries are all taking a back seat these days to the likes of Alex English, the Denver Nuggets star forward from the early 1980s; Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan; and even former San Diego Chargers receiver Lance "Bambi" Alworth.
Whether you call it vintage, heritage, throwback or retro, old-school jerseys are red-hot and easily the story of the year in sports merchandising. Nationwide sales of the NBA's Hardwood Classics collection, its entire grouping of old-style jerseys, hats and caps, are up 566 percent over last year. Major League Baseball says sales of its vintage gear also dominated by the jerseys are up more than 400 percent, and its vendors literally cannot produce product fast enough to meet demand.
Philadelphia-based Mitchell & Ness Inc., the leading producer of vintage jerseys for the NBA, NFL and MLB, has increased its sales nearly fourfold and doubled its employee base just since last year.
"All these leagues, particularly the NBA, are simply exploding on us," said Mitchell & Ness owner Peter Capolino of the 98-year-old company, which outfitted the Philadelphia Eagles and Athletics during the 1930s, '40s and '50s. "We've doubled our staff; we've doubled our warehouse space. It's just ramped up so fast."
So what is all the fuss about, particularly given the startling $150 to $500 price tags typically attached to the retro jerseys? First, the attention to color, fabric, cut and stitching is painstaking. What the pros wore back in their day, whether that day be the 1930s or 1980s, is identical or virtually identical to the reproductions on the racks now. The high-end nature of the product, as a result, makes it a boon for collectors, who often have the jerseys signed and framed.
Entertainers, particularly hip-hop artists, also have gravitated toward the vintage jerseys in droves. Current chart-toppers like Outkast and Jay-Z, wanting a different look for their videos than familiar modern jerseys, have embraced the old stuff.
And that has helped dictate consumer patterns among the general public. The core demographic for vintage jerseys has moved from males aged 35 to 50 to those aged 18 to 35, a group far more likely to wear the jerseys than display them.
Mitchell & Ness, for one, now employs a full-time director of urban marketing who helps get the jerseys into prominent places, such as Hollywood movies and music videos. Each of the major sports leagues also is steadily fielding requests for vintage jerseys from both current players and producers.
Simple nostalgia and affinity for the stars of our youth play a significant role, of course. But part of the draw also is the security that buying an old-style jersey offers. If you bought a Baltimore Orioles jersey a few years back, for example, chances are you don't wear it out as often these days. Everyone wants to be associated with winners, and the companies making vintage jerseys and hats restrict their production almost entirely to winning teams and players. The leading exceptions are so-ugly-they're-now-almost-cool jerseys like the Chicago White Sox's abominations of the 1970s and early '80s.
A 1980 Nolan Ryan jersey from his days with the Houston Astros, though a bit jarring with the swath of orange and yellow stripes, always will denote a playoff team and a legendary pitcher. The NHL uses the tagline "frozen memories" for its vintage line for reasons beyond the sport's use of ice.
"Every fan at some point goes back in their mind to periods in history where their favorite teams, their favorite players were most successful," said Howard Smith, senior vice president of licensing for MLB. "It's a very natural thing to remember the best times. These jerseys tap into that."
The leagues and vintage licensees also believe they're sitting on top of an iceberg. For all the growth, vintage sports apparel still amounts to only a fraction of all licensed product sold. In the NHL, for example, vintage jerseys represent about 10 percent of the league's total apparel sales.
"This is still a niche program," said Brian Jennings, NHL group vice president of consumer products marketing. "But it's also something that's very, very consumer driven. A lot of what is made now is a direct result of specific fan requests."
One of Mitchell & Ness' new NBA jerseys is a 1978 Washington Bullets uniform worn by Wes Unseld. Unseld is a Hall of Famer, and the '78 Bullets won the NBA title. But one still wonders who exactly asked for that awkward amalgamation of red, white and blue.


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