These days, sports apparel brands pay top dollar to be the exclusive uniform provider for professional sports leagues, and when those deals are made, the sports media reports on them. For instance, Nike’s recent $1 billion dollar deals with the NFL and NBA were widely reported. But prior to Reebok’s exclusive uniform deals with the NFL (winter 2000) and the NBA (summer 2001) , financial figures for the uniform deals were never released in the media. In fact, even mere mentions of the deals are difficult to find. As a result, the history of NBA uniform licensing is difficult to piece together. But as a jersey collector, it’s important to have a basic comprehension of uniform licensees over the past 30 years. It will help you determine which players and teams might be available from a certain brand like MacGregor Sand-Knit, Champion, Puma, Starter, Nike, Reebok or Adidas. It’s also an important first step in determining which jerseys are legit and which are counterfeits.
Several years ago when I first started trying to establish the timeline of Champion’s uniform licensing agreement with the NBA during the 1990s, I was not able to find one resource that accurately laid out NBA uniform licensing deals. I bounced around to different collector forums to try to piece it together, but found a lot of conflicting information and inaccuracies. Furthermore, no one had any supporting documentation backing up their claims. So I spent substantial time researching and piecing it all together. This series of posts are dedicated to providing an accurate, comprehensive look at the history and evolution of NBA jersey licensing. I have included links throughout this post to numerous articles, advertisements, product photos, etc. that backup my research.
The NBA was a late bloomer when it came to licensing and merchandising. NFL Properties was formed in 1963, MLB Properties in 1966 and NHL Properties in 1969. The properties divisions approved licensees, policed trademark infringement, collected royalties from licensed products and distributed those licensing revenues among league franchises. They also handled marketing and sponsorship as well, and as a result sought out licensees that had the ability to put additional marketing dollars behind their product. The NFL was head-and-shoulders above the other leagues when it came to the amount of merchandise it offered, the quality of the product and the marketing behind it. For instance, if you look through any Sears or JC Penney catalog from the 70s and 80s, you’ll see pages of NFL product and virtually no NBA product.
In 1979, the department store Jordan Marsh began selling licensed Larry Bird jersey t-shirts in its Boston area stores. It was Bird’s rookie season and his popularity was through the roof, and so were the sales of the licensed t-shirt. NBA merchandising was so insignificant at the time that the sales of that one t-shirt from a few local stores in the Boston area accounted for 10% of NBA merchandising sales for the 1979-1980 season. Obviously, there was no where to go but up for the NBA when it came to licensed product. In 1980, David Stern became the Executive Vice President of the league. He immediately began to focus on marketing and expanding licensing and merchandising. Finally in 1982, NBA Properties was established. That year, the NBA had local team merchandise in major department stores in 18 of 23 team cities, and it released it’s first merchandising catalog. In 1982, NBA Properties had only 5 employees, but by 1991 it had over 100 employees and was about to generate $1 billion in gross retail sales. On the sponsorship front, in 1983 the league only had 3 corporate sponsors, and their main sponsor Budweiser was about to sever ties. By 1990 David Stern had increased that number to 20. On February 1, 1984 Stern became Commissioner. League revenues from licensed products were $44 million when Stern took control, and most of that was due in part to the work he had done in the EVP role the previous four years. By 1991, revenues from licensed products had hit $1 billion. And by the time Stern retired 30 years later in 2014, merchandise sales were at $3 billion. This extensive June 3, 1991 Sports Illustrated article on David Stern shows how he took a league in shambles in the early 1980s and in a decade made it into the most exciting and lucrative league in professional sports.
With Stern at the helm, the NBA began to lock down official on-court league suppliers/licensees as part of its NBA Authentics line. Converse became the official shoe. Starter became the official jacket/sportswear/equipment bag. Sports Specialties became the official supplier of hats. Even the iconic sweater maker of the 1980s, Cliff Engle , got into the action by being named the official sweater of the stats crew. All of these apparel licenses were non-exclusive. However, the license to supply uniforms to all 23 teams was about to become exclusive for the first time, a first in the major professional sports leagues.
Prior to the 1986-1987 season, there was no exclusive uniform supplier for the NBA. The league consisted of 23 teams at the time, and each contracted directly with a national supplier of their choosing or with a local distributor. Rawlings, Medalist Sand-Knit (which became Macgregor Sand-Knit in 1984), Russell Athletic and Wilson were the major brands, but there were also lesser known brands like Powers Mfg, Tiernan and Spanjan. Here’s a breakdown of uniform suppliers for the 1985-1986 season, the last season before the NBA signed an exclusive uniform supplier:
Rawlings: Portland Trailblazers, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Seattle Supersonics, Chicago Bulls and New Jersey Nets
Macgregor Sand-Knit: Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Utah Jazz, New York Knicks, Golden State Warriors and Detroit Pistons
Russell Athletic: Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and Indian Pacers
Wilson: Sacramento Kings, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Washington Bullets
Powers Mfg: Denver Nuggets
Tiernan: Los Angeles Lakers
In the late summer, just two months prior to the tipoff of the 1986-1987 season, the NBA for the first time selected an exclusive supplier for uniforms, warm-ups and practice-wear. In August 1986 Macgregor Sand-Knit signed a five-year contract with the NBA to be the official uniform supplier. The deal also gave Macgregor Sand-Knit exclusive rights to produce replica jerseys, warm-ups and practice-wear for consumer retail. For the first time, the NBA logo now appeared on jerseys (jerseys prior to the 1986-1987 season did not have the NBA logo).
At the time, Macgregor was rapidly expanding in the sporting goods sector, and the NBA believed that not only could they handle the physical production of providing on-court uniforms to all 23 teams (they were already supplying uniforms to 7 teams), but they could also add substantial marketing capabilities to help grow the replica uniform market that the NFL and MLB had already proven had potential to be extremely lucrative (and of course, meet those production demands as well). The logic was that with one exclusive supplier, product quality would be consistent, and marketing would be cohesive and more aggressive.
Macgregor Sporting Goods was founded in 1829 and over the years changed hands twice, first in 1936 when it was bought by Goldsmith and then in 1958 when it was sold to Brunswick. After World War II, Macgregor experienced huge growth and became a major sporting goods brand. But by 1979, the Macgregor brand was basically dead and Brunswick sold the Macgregor trademark to Equilink Corporation for around $3 million. Equilink quickly resuscitated the Macgregor brand through a series of acquisitions and went from virtually zero revenue in 1979 to $78 million in 1986.
Macgregor’s main appeal to the NBA in 1986 was their acquisition two years earlier of Sand-Knit, a proven innovator in both production quality and aesthetic design of uniforms. In March 1984, Macgregor acquired the Athletic Products Group from Medalist Industries, which included the Sand-Knit Division. Medalist Sand-Knit was an established uniform brand with a rich history that gave Macgregor instant credibility in the professional team sport uniform segment of the sporting goods industry. Back in 1921, John Sand Jr. founded a knitting mill in Chicago which he named after himself – Sand Knitting Mills. For the first three years, he made sweaters. But he then started focusing on the athletic clothing business under the trademark Sand-Knit, and was responsible for innovations like the two-way stretch football pant and stretch nylon used in jerseys. In 1953, Sand moved his factory from Chicago to Berlin, Wisconsin. Eight years later in 1961, Sand Knitting Mills was acquired by J.M. Nash Co. (which would be rebranded Medalist Industries in 1967). Medalist Industries was traditionally a manufacturer of industrial products for the home building and furniture industries, but was looking to diversify into athletic clothing and equipment when it purchased Sand-Knit. In 1961, Sand-Knit was mainly producing football uniforms for collegiate and professional teams. However, by the end of the 1960s Sand-Knit pioneered a market for their revolutionary, boldly designed SandMark basketball jerseys. Marquette University under coach Al Maguire became the “test” team for Medalist’s basketball jerseys (kind of like Oregon has been a “test” team for Nike). Maguire served on the board at Medalist starting in 1970, and he even took an executive position with the company after he abruptly walked away from coaching in 1977 after leading Marquette to the national championship. Marquette’s uniforms starting in 1968 were cutting-edge design that were unlike anything on the market, and while most teams wore the same jerseys year-in and year-out, Marquette cycled through designs approximately every three years. The most infamous designs were the bumblebee uniforms of the early 70s that the NCAA banned, and the “untucked” jerseys of the mid 1970s. By the 1975, Medalist Sand-Knit was the uniform supplier of 24 NFL teams, 9 NBA teams, 3 ABA teams and 2 Major League Baseball teams (they produced the iconic Houston Astros Rainbow jersey that was introduced in 1975, and in 1979 Medalist Sand-Knit became the official licensee to produce replica baseball uniforms).
When Macgregor purchased Sand-Knit in March 1984, Sand-Knit supplied more uniforms to professional athletes than any other firm. Sand-Knit had sales of $20 million in 1983, and within two years of being purchased by Macgregor the division had grown 115% with sales around $45 million in 1986. With the acquisition, Macgregor acquired Medalist Sand-Knits four manufacturing plants in Wisconsin, so Macgregor instantaneously had the production capability. However, Macgregor’s headquarters were in East Rutherford, New Jersey so they needed to establish distribution in Wisconsin to support the growing Sand-Knit division. In August 1985 they began looking for towns to build a $4 million, 100,000 square foot distribution facility and by June 1986 construction began in Fond du Lac. It was clear that Macgregor was confident they were going to land the NBA uniform contract at this point, and establishing adequate distribution capabilities was a final sign of good faith to the NBA that Sand-Knit was fully committed. Two months after breaking ground on the distribution center that would complement their surrounding production factories, the NBA announced that Macgregor Sand-Knit was the exclusive supplier of NBA uniforms starting in the 1986-1987 season.
The partnership between Macgregor and the NBA quickly soured. As mentioned, Macgregor went from basically zero revenue in 1979 when Equilink Corporation acquired the trademark, to a position seven years later where the NBA trusted Macgregor with it’s uniform license. Macgregor’s rapid revival was due largely to a rapid series of aggressive acquisitions. Macgregor followed up their 1984 acquisition of Medalist Sand-Knit by acquiring Riddell Sporting Goods (leading producer of football equipment) in 1985. Then, within two weeks of publicly being named the official uniform supplier of the NBA, Macgregor acquired Sports Specialities (the leader in licensed headwear and the official hat of the NBA) in September 1986 for $15 million. It was the acquisition of Sports Specialties that shed some light on the shaky foundation that Macgregor was operating on. As mentioned earlier, Macgregor had revenue of $78 million in 1986. But one must keep in mind that it’s income that really matters at the end of the day. Sports Specialties had net income of $1.5 million on revenue of $12.4 million for fiscal year 1985. Macgregor meanwhile had six times the revenue of Sports Specialties with $78 million, but they had no income. In 1986 Macgregor lost $560,000. So Sports Specialties had one-sixth the revenue of Macgregor, but netted $2 million more dollars. It was glaringly obvious that Macgregor was expanding too fast and was going to face a capital crunch in the very near future.
Just over a year later in October 1987, the warning signs came to fruition. Almost from the start, Sports Specialties realized the merger with Macgregor was a nightmare. Macgregor had tremendous cash-flow problems and breached the merger agreement with Sports Specialties over and over again. For fiscal year 1987, Macgregor’s losses had ballooned from $560,000 (on $78 million in revenue) to whopping $12 million (on $93 million in revenue). By expanding so rapidly, Macgregor encountered tremendous operational inefficiencies and wasn’t able to fill orders. By not fulfilling orders, revenue was affected. Once revenue was affected, Macgregor didn’t have the working capital needed to correct the operational inefficiencies and keep up with demand. So it was a giant snowball effect that eventually landed Macgregor in bankruptcy court in October 1987. To avoid bankruptcy and raise some much needed cash, Macgregor sold Riddell and Sports Specialties. But the sale only delayed the inevitable. Over the next two years Macgregor lost an additional $22 million and in March 1989 they officially filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. At that point Macgregor owed $5 million to nearly 300 creditors and had seen sales plummet from $93 million in 1987 to only $40 million in 1989. Ironically, Sports Specialties made an attempt to buy Macgregor but eventually backed away. In July 1989 Macgregor was sold for $25 million to MGS Acquisitions, and it was revealed that Macgregor had nearly $50 million in operating losses since 1985.
Obviously for the NBA, this was a disastrous relationship. MacGregor was barely able to meet it’s obligations to outfit the league’s 23 teams, let alone keep up with distribution of licensed products for the consumer side. And without capital to even keep basic operations running efficiently, MacGregor spent no money or energy on marketing. And marketing would have been counterproductive anyway, since it would only would have created increased demand that Macgregor would not have been able to fulfill. As a result, it’s difficult to come across MacGregor Sand-Knit advertisements or catalogs featuring their replica jerseys (granted, some of this has to do with the fact that many of the early licensed team sport merchandising catalogs that may have featured the replica jerseys are rotting away in landfills since there was no collectible value in holding onto them). The 1988 Sears Wishbook added a “Sears Sport” section that featured licensed authentic apparel from the NFL, MLB and NBA. It is the only major department store catalog that I can find from that time period that featured Sand-Knit’s replica jerseys. The 1987-1988 NBA Official Merchandise Catalog has the most complete feature of Sand Knit replica jerseys, showing a sample jersey from all 23 teams at the time. Outside of their merchandising catalog however, the NBA just ran more generic ads in other sports publications promoting its wide range of official suppliers; these ads did not showcase any product. Some national chain stores that specialized in licensed apparel from major sports leagues, like Fan Fair, would run ads in local papers. But overall the marketing behind replica jerseys just wasn’t there, and MacGregor lacked the resources to promote their own product.
While MacGregor Sand-Knit had established the foundation for the NBA replica jersey market, a huge opportunity had been wasted to grow it and capitalize on the NBA’s rich pool of superstar talent. The NBA had the perfect mix of emerging superstars (Jordan, Barkley, Olajuwon, Malone, Drexler, Ewing, Wilkins), bonafide superstars (Bird, Magic, Isiah Thomas, Worthy) and veteran superstars (Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Anyone involved in the down-days of NBA marketing in the late 90s would have killed to time travel a decade earlier to capitalize on that talent pool. Not to mention there were very marketable championship teams like the Celtics and Lakers.
Furthermore, Macgregor entered their license with the NBA at a time when the infrastructure was finally falling into place on a national scale to get product in front of fans. Nowadays with the internet, fans can order a jersey of their favorite player or apparel of their favorite team anytime they want. Prior to the mid-80s, most fans only had the opportunity to purchase licensed merchandise first-hand from at the stadium or arena, and only for the home team. Some major department stores might have had some dedicated floor space at certain times of the year, but that would have been for local teams only as well. So if you lived outside of a major metropolitan area, you pretty much had to rely on the Sears Catalog or JC Penney Catalog, and even then product was limited to a few pages at most. But by the time Macgregor got the exclusive uniform contract in 1986-1987, sporting goods stores that focused solely on licensed apparel from the four professional sports leagues were popping up nationwide. Merle Harmon’s Fan Fair quickly spread out from it’s base in Milwaukee expanding from 32 stores in 1986 to 95 by early 1988 (click here for a great storefront photo from 1987 of a Fan Fair store in a Cincinnati mall which featured Magic, Bird and Jordan jerseys on the wall). Pro Image opened it’s first mall kiosk in Salt Lake City in 1985 and a year later in 1986 they had 32 stores. By 1993 Pro Image had over 200 stores. Now fans in malls across America could get merchandise of any team and player they wanted.
In addition to growing brick-and-mortar stores that focused solely on licensed apparel, the sports catalog industry was about to take off thanks to a small sports-supply store in Dallas, Athletic Supply. In the early 80s, Athletic Supply was providing uniforms and practice-wear mainly to local schools, but they also were distributing uniforms to the Dallas Cowboys (they would get the blank jerseys from Russell Athletic and do the name and number application at the store). The owner, Norm Charney, saw a huge opportunity. Prior to the Cowboys season, Charney would display some of the game jerseys in the windows and customers loved them. Charney felt there was an untapped market for authentic jerseys. In those days, you could get the cotton jersey 3/4 sleeve shirts, but you were limited to usually just the one superstar player on a particular team, and the shirt didn’t have the player’s name. Charney began ordering extra blank Cowboys jerseys from Russell Athletic, customizing at his store and selling to the public (Mitchell & Ness had a similar beginnings in Philadelphia in the early 1970s). The NFL stepped in since it was clear copyright infringement, but Charney obtained a license to sell authentic merchandise from the league. In 1984, Athletic Supply branched into catalog sales by producing the Cowboys merchandise catalog. A year later, Athletic Supply became the official catalog for the NFL with its NFL Pro Shop catalog. Athletic Supply was selling tens of thousands of authentic game jerseys (they struck distribution deals with all the NFL jersey suppliers at the time) that customers could customize with a player name and number of their choosing. In 1986, Athletic Supply added the NBA, MLB and NCAA basketball, and shortly thereafter the NHL. Charney combined all the leagues into the Athletic Supply Catalog, and became the largest licensed sports catalog in the country. This opened the door for other catalogers like Eastbay (who entered licensed team sports in 1989 and issued their first team sports catalog in 1990) and ProTeam (which began in 1992 and quickly became a leader of the 1990s boom of licensed team apparel both through catalogs and eventually on the internet).
MacGregor was in prime position with their NBA agreement. They were right on the cusp of the licensed team sports apparel explosion that was about to takeover mainstream fashion at the turn of the decade. But instead, Macgregor Sand-Knit silently exited the NBA at the conclusion of the 1989-1990 season, one year before their five year deal was to expire. With it’s bankruptcy and sale, the NBA voided the final year of the contract and sought a new uniform supplier for the 1990-1991 season. In July 1990, Champion Products would be named the official supplier of NBA uniforms, practice-wear and warm-ups. The four-year deal also gave them exclusive rights to sell replica uniforms and practice-wear.