The Rise of the Free Team T-Shirt

How a gimmick that started with towel giveaways in the 1970s became a fixture of the NBA playoffs

Ken Blaze / USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday afternoon, before the greatest finish to an NBA Finals commenced in Oakland, hundreds of volunteers roamed the aisles at Oracle Arena in what’s essentially become a de rigueur ritual at playoff games: the lining of fan seats with free t-shirts. Apparel giveaways have long existed in pro sports—who can forget the Terrible Towel?—but in recent years, the stands of many high-stakes NBA games have become uniform affairs, yielding the appearance of near-total fan fealty.

Of course, fans aren’t actually required to wear the shirts, which are, inherently, a little bit uncool. They’re often ill-sized and frequently bedecked with the logo of the corporate sponsor that picked up the tab for that game’s giveaway. But as John Branch of The New York Times noted last year, fans who fail to conform frequently end up on the Jumbotron before the game, where they are vigorously booed by fellow fans in act of public shaming. (One exception to this rule was Justin Bieber, the Canadian chanteuse, who was booed when he appeared onscreen in Cleveland last week even though he had put on the free Cavaliers shirt.)

Despite the glitter of about 20,000 gold shirts on Sunday, the Golden State Warriors did not prevail in their winner-take-all home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. But that doesn’t mean that the marketing ploy was a failure.

“Since the sponsor’s brand is on (the back) of every shirt, the connection between the passion the fans have for the team transfers to the brand sponsor because it becomes part of their stories,” Kirk Wakefield, a professor of retail marketing at Baylor University, wrote in an email. “Whenever they recall and recount the experience, the brand is part of the story. When fans wear those shirts throughout the rest of the year, the brand story lives on.”

Wakefield traces the true proliferation of the trend back to the Oklahoma City Thunder. In 2012, the team began placing bright blue or bright white t-shirts on the 18,203 seats in Chesapeake Energy Arena and have done so at over 40 home games in the past few years. Despite the mesmerizing effect for those watching at home, not every team has adopted the practice. The vaunted San Antonio Spurs, which declined to comment on their rationale for not participating in the trend, are one of the few consistent holdouts.

Meanwhile, professional hockey which, unlike football or baseball, has similar-sized crowds to basketball has also gotten more into the act. Earlier this year, after Philadelphia Flyer fans chucked giveaway light-up bracelets onto the ice in disapproval of the team’s performance against the Washington Capitals, the team handed out t-shirts at the following home playoff game that read “Stay Classy, Philly,” an homage to a scold delivered by Lou Nolan, the team’s beloved public address announcer.

Behind the scenes, given that both the NHL and the NBA have overlapping playoff seasons and that it’s impossible to predict how long a playoff series may last, some logistical drama has emerged as front offices rush to turn around t-shirts in a short period of time. This year in particular, as Ian Thomas at Sports Business Daily reported, the Pittsburgh Penguins had some difficulty sourcing gold-colored shirts because teams with similar color schemes such as the St. Louis Blues, the Golden State Warriors, and the Cleveland Cavaliers advanced deep into the playoffs. Terry Kalna, the team’s senior vice president of sales and broadcasting, told Thomas that the team’s Stanley Cup giveaway shirts were a slightly different hue than that of previous playoff series. It ultimately didn’t matter: The Penguins won the Stanley Cup.

The Warriors were not so lucky and, following their game in Oakland on Sunday, there was another apparel glut. This time, it was a surplus of Warriors’ championship gear produced before the outcome of the series was known. Instead of being sold, it will all be donated to charity. As for the shirts given out before the game, some became a bittersweet keepsake; others ended up on eBay.