More than ever, it's a Sunday ritual. Blue and silver, green and gold, or orange and blue. Whether they're headed to the stadium, the local bar or crashing on the living room sofa, pro football fans, like the players they worship, aren't dressed for the game until they've pulled on the team jersey.
And that, sports marketing experts say, explains why football jerseys blow away the competition in the $4 billion universe of sports merchandise.
"Every game is an event, you really get psyched up for it," says Matt Powell, an analyst with SportsScanInfo, which tracks sales of replica jerseys and other sports related goods.
According to the data his company tracks, the 10 best-selling jerseys in sports this year all hail from the NFL. Leading the pack is Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, a flashy and popular player who has taken on a big role in bringing the franchise back to life. Dallas has a 31-15 record since Romo took over as the starter in 2006. While SportsScanData doesn't track precise figures from each and every retail source, Powell estimates that a half million of Romo's No. 9 jerseys have been sold this year.
Not that Romo deserves all the glory. While it's become cliché to hear sports stars humbly share credit for their success with their teams, it's an accurate sentiment when it comes to merchandise sales. Romo is one of three Cowboys whose jersey is a top-10 seller, joining running back Marion Barber and receiver Terrell Owens. As quarterback, running back, receiver combos go, the three may not quite be the equivalent of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin – the trio that led Dallas to three Super Bowl titles in the 1990s – but their sales are a direct reflection on the club's brand identity.
That brand was forged in the 1970s, when Tom Landry and his quarterback, Roger Staubach, led what became known as "America's Team." Back then, Powell points out, a typical sporting goods store stocked two sets of jerseys and jackets: those of the local team, and those of the Dallas Cowboys. Nothing more.
That's why owner Jerry Jones pulled the team out of the NFL's merchandise revenue-sharing agreement several years ago – the Cowboys are the only team in the league that keeps all of its merchandise money, while all the others share equally. More than $200 million of the Cowboys $1.6 billion worth is attributable to its brand strength, according to the latest Forbes valuations. When Marion Barber's jersey outsells those of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Derek Jeter, what more proof is needed about the power of the NFL and the Cowboys?
Among other sports, top sellers include James, Bryant and Dwayne Wade of the NBA, along with Jeter, Ryan Howard and Manny Ramirez of Major League Baseball.
Other factors that sell jerseys: winning and switching teams. The top 10 list includes three Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, brothers Peyton and Eli Manning and, naturally, three-time winner Tom Brady, the sidelined quarterback of the New England Patriots.
And there's nothing like a traded star to ignite a whole new audience for his jersey. In addition to Owens, who came to the Cowboys two years ago after stints in San Francisco and Philadelphia, the New York Jets' Brett Favre now enjoys the No. 2 selling jersey after his highly publicized move there from Green Bay. The principal works in baseball too: When Ramirez caught fire at the plate for the Los Angeles Dodgers after a mid-season trade from Boston, so did his No. 99 jersey. If Ramirez signs elsewhere for 2009, look for stores to hold clearance sales to make room on the shelves for his latest replica jersey.
Changes in uniform designs and color schemes move merchandise, too. While a rise from last place to the World Series helped boost sales of Tampa Bay Rays gear this year, so did a change from green to blue in the team's primary uniform color. No wonder the Boston Red Sox are breaking out an alternative cap in 2009, featuring a pair of socks as a logo in place of the traditional "B."
Getting creative is more important than ever, Powell notes, since the days of sports merchandise as fashion began fading a few years ago. After a decade of explosive sales, annual growth has slowed to single digits since 2003. The trend of casual sports observers buying team jerseys and caps purely for color schemes has run its course.
"This is a fan business, not a fashion business," he says. Especially a football fan business.
The top five: