We’re talking about just a few inches of fabric, but sleeves on NBA jerseys have garnered immense attention around the league and -- where NBA supplier adidas and the league most want -- in retail outlets. Sunday's All-Star Game in New Orleans gives us another chance to gawk at those extra inches, this time in a fleur-de-lis motif.
While just 0.3 percent of NBA games have featured sleeved uniforms this season, the high-profile attention given to the new look on Christmas Day and the upcoming All-Star Game reminds us that the sleeves we see now could be a glimpse into the future.
“We’re still in the middle of rolling out what we think is a pretty big revolution in terms of short sleeves and a lot of people are reacting to it and getting used to it,” Chris Grancio, adidas’ head of global basketball, told SI.com. "It will take a couple of seasons to get where we want to be.”
And the NBA doesn’t plan to stand in the way of the sleeved revolution.
The idea originated with adidas three years ago. Players commonly wear short sleeves under their jerseys in high school, college and practices, so Grancio said putting sleeves on the NBA jersey was a “natural takeaway from how players choose to play today” and served as a “great opportunity for fans to embrace their favorite players or teams in a more authentic way.”
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Let’s face it, the tank top is a “challenging” piece of apparel to wear well for most fans. But to get sleeved uniforms on fans, adidas first needed to get the top -- shall we start calling it a shirt? -- on NBA players. The league was OK with the change, if the teams were, according to Sal LaRocca, the NBA’s president of global operations and merchandising. Because more people wear shirts with sleeves than without, the league wanted to explore the worldwide consumer potential of a new fashion piece, too.
“So far, the response has been good,” LaRocca said. “The consumer and fans have the final say when they decide to buy something or not, and we’ve been encouraged.”
The Warriors unveiled the look last season. But it wasn’t a one-time gimmick. After a 93 percent sales increase for Golden State jerseys following the launch of their short-sleeved option, the initial on-court experiment translated to more covered shoulders around the NBA.
By the end of this season, roughly half of the NBA’s teams will have sleeved jerseys in their rotating wardrobe, counting teams required to wear the sleeved big logo Christmas uniforms, which nearly sold out across multiple retail platforms.
“When you look at Christmas Day this year versus last year [the 'big color' uniforms],” Grancio said, “we’re really happy with the success. Those uniforms significantly exceeded expectations in retail.”
As part of its regular uniform set, Golden State now has a white option, while the Los Angeles Clippers offer up a light blue, the Phoenix Suns an orange and Minnesota Timberwolves a black look. The Brooklyn Nets recently unveiled a Dodger-themed sleeved uniform, too.
And there’s more on the way.
“As we look at rolling out sleeves, we expect it to continue,” Grancio said. “Quite a few teams will add to that number at the end of this season and into next season.”
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With teams on board, the next challenge is to get players' full support, too.
“If the players as a general matter feel like they don’t want to wear short sleeves on a go-forward basis, the league would simply not do it,” LaRocca said.
Some players have admitted that they don't like the look. LeBron James said before his Christmas Day sleeve debut that he was concerned teammates didn't love the sleeves, as he doesn’t want shooters worrying about sleeves in the middle of the game. After the game, James said that if he were to wear sleeves again, he would get a larger size to ease the tugging sensation.
Also on Christmas, Knicks guard Beno Udrih tried to roll up his sleeves after missing a three-point attempt and was quoted later as saying that the sleeves bothered him. Blazers center Robin Lopez, Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki and Heat forward Shane Battier also complained about the new look.
But even with negative reaction -- and mainly from players on teams that don't regularly wear sleeves -- there hasn't been a massive backlash, and plenty of other players compare them to wearing compression workout shirts. More important, LaRocca says players understand the revenue-generating ability of sleeves and support the NBA in those efforts. Revenue is split 50-50 between the players' association and the owners, who split it equally among their 30 constituents.
"It doesn't matter from a revenue perspective if the revenue is from a Golden State or a Knicks or a Clippers product, all the money is divided amongst the 30 owners regardless of the popularity," said LaRocca.
In discussions with players, LaRocca said he’s had one tell him there is a benefit in keeping shoulders warm, another say he doesn’t care either way and a third who wasn’t a fan of the sleeves but still wanted to back the idea. LaRocca believes most of the negative reaction centers on the backlash against the logos, such as the giant Christmas Day logos and the distinct All-Star aesthetic.
To get the sleeved look, adidas uses the exact same construction as the NBA’s Revolution 30 Tank uniform through the chest and body and even down the sleeve. The new technology is found in a four-way stretch material that “essentially sits over the shoulder right where a traditional jersey ends,” Grancio said.
Most of the world already plays hoops in sleeves -- “It is not like we decided to put players in tuxedos,” LaRocca said. “It is not such a radical departure from what they have worn on a regular basis” -- so the translation to retail proves obvious. Wearing a jersey, though, isn’t the same as sporting a cotton shirt. Just as with the traditional-cut jerseys, adidas offers three different tiers of the sleeved jerseys at retail.
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The “authentic” style is identical to the version worn by the players. The next tier down, the “swingman,” the most popular at retail, fits more generously, because most fans aren’t elite-level athletes. The third tier, the replica, offers a more generous style of cut, with even more space for the non-athlete, and a different quality of materials for the embellishments.
For the players, Grancio says he’s seen some size their sleeved jersey up and other down, all based on personal preference.
While the NBA hasn’t made any decisions on next year’s Christmas Day or All-Star looks yet, LaRocca agrees with Grancio that as fans continue to show interest, we’ll see new teams in sleeves. There’s no goal for how many jerseys eventually go sleeved, but there also wasn’t a plan in the mid-'80s to overhaul basketball shorts.
“I don't think anyone had a hope for making longer shorts,” LaRocca said. “It just organically happened. This is very similar. Maybe [the NBA] will wear both or only short sleeves or only tank tops. We’ll be there to react accordingly.”
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and technology for
Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.