From 1991-1992 through the 1996-1997 season, Champion held the exclusive uniform license for the NBA. Champion produced the on-court uniforms for all 29 teams, and was the only licensee able to produce replica and authentic jerseys for retail. Starting in the 1997-1998 season, the NBA divided the uniform licenses between Champion, Nike and Starter. While Champion could no longer produce authentic jerseys for the 19 teams now held by Nike or Starter, they still had the exclusive license to produce replica jerseys for all 29 teams. Replica jerseys fueled NBA merchandise sales in the mid-90s, in part due to strong draft classes in 1993 (Chris Webber, Anfernee Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn) and 1994 (Glenn Robinson, Jason Kidd, Grant Hill). In addition, the Jordan-led Bulls had dominated merchandise sales in the early 90s, but in the 1994-1995 season were overtaken by the Charlotte Hornets, led by Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning. Michael Jordan’s retirement prior to the 1993-1994 season officially marked the end of an era that had featured Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas. There was a new group of up-and-coming superstars, and Champion was in the right place at the right time as fans scooped up jerseys of their new favorite players and teams.
During the 1995-1996 season, NBA licensed apparel sales began a multi-year decline. The reason for the decline was four-fold: fashion trends were just starting to move away from sports apparel and towards casual clothing from retailers like Gap and Abercrombie, the market was saturated with jerseys from the NBA’s limited pool of marketable superstars and teams (the Bulls and Rockets won every title from 1991 through 1998), the NBA was undergoing a cultural shift with up-and-coming superstars like Allen Iverson and Kevin Garnett who weren’t popular with casual fans, and the bounce the NBA had experienced from Major LeagueBaseball’s strike in 1994 had leveled out . During the initial decline, replica jersey sales were still strong and helped negate declines in other NBA licensed apparel. But by the end of the 1996-1997 season, Champion was experiencing a 20% decline in replica jersey sales. With Nike and Starter now producing on-court apparel for the 1997-1998 season, Champion needed to focus on increasing sales of its replica jerseys. The 1997 NBA draft was lackluster (despite Tim Duncan being the #1 pick), so Champion couldn’t drive sales through rookie jerseys. Jordan was back and the Bulls were putting together another three-peat. The market was already flooded with Bulls jerseys, so Champion couldn’t capitalize on sales generated from the crowning of a new NBA championship team and bandwagon fans.
Champion’s answer was to release a limited edition line of jerseys under the name “Champion Gold”. The line was announced in November 1997 and released on February 1, 1998, a week prior to the NBA All-Star game. The limited edition line paid tribute to NBA players who achieved “gold” status by being 1997 All-Star Game starters, Schick Rookie Game MVP, Nestle Slam Dunk Champion, league MVP, and NBA Rookie of the Year. The jerseys featured gold fabric with the team logo and players name in the traditional team colors. The collection featured 13 players, and you can see them all in my Special Edition jersey gallery:
- Charles Barkley (Western Conference All-Star)
- John Stockton (Western Conference All-Star)
- Hakeem Olajuwon (Western Conference All-Star)
- Shawn Kemp (Western Conference All-Star)
- Gary Payton (Western Conference All-Star)
- Michael Jordan (Eastern Conference All-Star)
- Scottie Pippen (Eastern Conference All-Star)
- Anfernee Hardaway (Eastern Conference All-Star)
- Patrick Ewing (Eastern Conference All-Star)
- Grant Hill (Eastern Conference All-Star)
- Kobe Bryant (Nestle Slam Dunk Champion)
- Allen Iverson (Schick Rookie Game MVP & NBA Rookie of the Year)
- Karl Malone (NBA MVP)
A couple of interesting things to note. Patrick Ewing was named an All-Star starter in 1997, but did not play. Dikembe Mutombo started the game in Ewing’s spot, but Champion still honored Ewing for this collection rather than Mutombo. Also, Shawn Kemp was still on the Sonics for the 1997-1998 season and played in the 1997 All-Star game for the West. But prior to the 1997-1998 season Kemp was traded to the Cavs, so Champion printed his special gold jersey with his new team rather than the Sonics.
This was the only year Champion issued the limited edition “gold” collection, which means it didn’t sell that well. Today, these jerseys are pretty difficult to find. The Michael Jordan jersey is the most common, followed by Hill, Hardaway and Iverson. The John Stockton jersey is probably the hardest in the collection to find (I’ve only seen it a couple of times in 15 years of collecting), followed by Olajuwon and Malone. This past Memorial Day, Drake posted a photo on Instagram of him wearing a gold Jordan jersey. Since then, the demand for these jerseys has skyrocketed. A year ago you could get a Jordan gold jersey for around $50. Now they are going for $250+. These jerseys were made in the USA, so the jock tag and collar label should reflect that. Also, since these didn’t sell well and there was deadstock inventory leftover, you’ll see these often come up for sale with the tags still attached. However, you don’t often see the Champion Gold tag attached. I have a feeling once these jerseys didn’t sell and ended up in factory stores and on clearance racks, they were retagged. So if you are an avid collector and pay a premium for deadstock jerseys with tags attached, you might want to make sure the Champion Gold tag is included.
Champion failed to recognize that trends were shifting to “on-court” apparel. Since the market was oversaturated with Champion’s heat-pressed nylon replicas, fans looking to stand-out from the crowd were willing to pay premiums for sewn tackle-twill, polyester mesh authentic jerseys. Nike recognized this and eventually released the Swingman, which was a happy medium between expensive on-court authentic jerseys, and cheap printed replica jerseys.