When Nike took over the NBA license from adidas in 2017, they made up for lost time. Having lost their last team licenses in the early 2000s, the Portland, OR apparel behemoth knew they had to double down on pro basketball, especially as the sport has voiced aspirations to aggressively globalize. The apparel strategy would need to be ambitious, to match the scale of the game’s growth. So, they went hard— All 30 NBA teams would have four jerseys to choose from, minimum. But the goal was always more.
That initial four-piece set included both the home and away set, but also a “athlete mindset” design as well as a “community” layout. While those latter categories have evolved somewhat over the years, depending on the team, market size and fan base—the Brooklyn Nets currently have six jersey options, including “statement” and “classic” designs—they marked the latest phase of the progression to maximum jersey across American sports.
This did not come out of nowhere: college football teams like Oregon—a virtual Nike prototype factory thanks to Phil Knight’s stewardship—have marketed hundreds of jersey combinations as a way to attract recruits and national attention. At pre-COVID games, there were white-outs, black-outs, red-outs. But the NBA has surfaced this energy and built the most commercial momentum yet.
This moment was years in the making. Alongside Nike’s takeover of the NBA’s license in 2017 came sponsor logo patches, the sport’s concession to a changing world—and an adoption of world soccer’s brazen approach to merchandising. But as on-field soccer kit design has plateaued since its dizzying late 90s/early 00s high point, pro basketball’s aesthetic is blossoming, growing more chaotic, interesting and engaging by the moment.
While the first few seasons’ worth of Nike NBA designs wavered between “fine” (Brooklyn’s Coogi-trimmed Biggie tributes) and “whatever” (Dallas’s “Fresh Prince” jerseys), this year’s NBA collection communicated a newfound sense of urgency, most apparent in the Atlanta Hawks’s instant-classic MLK uniforms. According to Fanatics, which operates the NBA’s online store, 50% of jersey sales have been alternate jerseys since Oct. 1, 2020.
The WNBA picked up where the NBA left off, and have now set a new bar, no matter whether you’re gravitating more to the Elizabeth Warren-green Liberty alternates (with the Liberty torch standing in for the “I” in EQUALITY!), the Chicago Sky’s fatigue green warplane tributes, or the vision-scrambling Stranger Things-themed jerseys that the Indiana Fever will wear. This drop might just be the tip of the iceberg; as of this writing, the WNBA has yet to release teams’s new home and away uniform sets.