The Roar
The Roar


Why are we so obsessed with sports merchandise?

Brad Takairangi of the Eels looks on after his team conceded a late try during the Round 10 NRL match between the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and the Parramatta Eels at ANZ Stadium in Sydney, Friday, May 11, 2018. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)
14th May, 2018
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One day last week, I found myself sifting though an entire room full of rugby league replica jerseys; 15 boxes of the blighters.

And since I can’t bring myself to take anything at all in life at face value, from a sunny day to the concept of schadenfreude, I found myself pondering a couple of things.

One, despite all the whining in columns like this about what officials should and shouldn’t do and how much more prosperous another sport might be, rugby league is big business. This stuff flies off shelves.

Jerseys in Australia are almost $200 (in the UK the same thing is less than 50 quid) and people don’t waste a minute parting with their cash.

Can you actually conceive of the figure that the NRL TV deal is worth? Two billion dollars? Can you imagine how you would spend that … responsibly?

Each one of these neatly packaged jerseys represents a fan who is keen enough to buy one. Here they are, maybe 100 in a box. That’s an amazing thrall you are holding over someone’s emotions with a tangible commercial return. When you think about it, you handle the merchandise a little more devoutly.

Secondly, there is the entire idea of sports merchandise itself.

These are bits of material with some embroidery and some printing. Why do they mean so much to us? Why do companies pay so much for licensing from leagues and clubs? How can they be sold at massive mark-ups?

Why do we care so much about the indigenous shirt or this year’s Marvel Superhero design? We can even argue about these things….

Brad Takairangi Eels

(AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

To me, a team’s colours are a bit like a song we first heard when we were 13. It’s apparently called the reminiscence bump; you love things you first encountered in your teens and 20s when your brain was maturing.

Our attachment to club colours is not completely explainable and not completely linked to the obvious, the same as we don’t like a song because of the chord progression and style of drumming.

Sports merchandising makes money out of these subconscious human tendencies.

I’m new at working in this industry but when we sold Toronto Wolfpack and other gear outside Halliwell Jones Stadium on Sunday, and a little boy or girl asked their dad for a cap or a jersey, I did find myself questioning whether we were selling something real or if we were just flogging an illusion.

Toronto Wolfpack CEO Eric Perez fronts the press.

Toronto Wolfpack CEO Eric Perez fronts the press.

Is this business moral?

Like I said, bits of material with printing and embroidery. In themselves, nothing special.


I could only look to myself for an answer. I was one of those kids; went to Peppers Sports Store and bought one of the first Illawarra Steelers jerseys ever put on sale in 1981 after begging my parents for it.

Things were very different then. In their first season the Steelers weren’t on TV much and at the 1982 grand final a Manly fan looked at the already-fading scarlet and asked me what team it was – a team that had been in the same comp as Manly all year.

I once heard Eddie Lumsden say that when he arrived in Sydney to play for St George, he didn’t know what their jersey looked like!

Now we know everything for TV but in 2018 watching games on there is optional for me. I weened myself off treating every game of rugby league as special. On Sunday I snuck in and watched 10 minutes of the first half and that’s it.

But when I stack the jerseys, sort through the caps and hang the training singlets, I’m the 12 year old at Warrawong Shopping Centre again. Back then, the Steelers hadn’t played a game; perhaps they’d signed one or two players. I was wearing an idea, something that bestowed upon its wearer an identity.

If you’re English or Australian wearing a Toronto Wolfpack jersey, chances are you’re a bit like I was then – full of wonder and keen to get out and see the big world.
The brands your friends are into are not for you.

That might be why we gave the Warrington-following dad a discount when both his sons insisted on a Wolfpack jersey even though Dad reminded them the Canadian team had just been flogged 66-10. Maybe they’ll remember Sunday as an early flicker of individuality.

Maybe one of them might even write a column about it.