It was 30 minutes before the start of the Golden State Warriors’ latest home playoff game, and fans were beginning to fill Oracle Arena, where each of the nearly 20,000 seats was draped with a gold T-shirt.
Six rows from the court, a man named Sundance Burrough took off his blue replica jersey (cost: $109.95), wadded it up and wriggled into one of the free T-shirts.
“I don’t want to be on the big screen,” he said, nodding to the enormous video board hanging above center court. “And it looks better when everyone wears yellow.”
Overhead, the screen was frozen on some fans elsewhere in the arena who had yet to don the shirts.
“Put your shirt on!” the screen read. Within moments, the fans saw themselves on camera, grabbed their shirts and pulled them over their heads.
“Thank you!!” the screen silently replied, and the cameras moved on.
Sartorial conformity has struck professional sports, and nowhere is it as contagious as in the NBA playoffs. Combining American culture’s love of T-shirts, its affinity for free things and an innate desire to belong, fans across the league this spring are willfully forgoing individual expression and dressing exactly alike in team colors.
For those in the arena, and the millions watching the playoffs from home, the lowly T-shirt provides a human, monochromatic backdrop to the action on the court. It is even a verb in sports marketing circles: shirting.
The idea of persuading fans to dress identically in team-provided T-shirts is often credited to the Winnipeg Jets hockey team of the mid-1980s. The concept moved to other teams and other sports, all during an era when fans increasingly draped themselves in replica jerseys and other licensed merchandise.
Conformity in the sports venue has been rising for years. In the NHL, the New York Rangers and the Anaheim Ducks are among those who have given every fan in the arena a free shirt to wear. But with the proximity and visibility of fans surrounding a basketball court, NBA arenas in 2015 may represent the pinnacle, the near-perfect blend of allegiance, marketing and stagecraft.
“I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon,” Peter Sorckoff, chief creative officer and senior vice president for marketing for the Atlanta Hawks, said on Friday. “The way it looks on television is important to teams and to broadcasters. And I really believe in the sociological and psychological impact it has on people. I think people want that. That’s why they are coming to the game. They want more of that.”
Fans, as anyone who has witnessed the frenzy over T-shirts tossed into a sports crowd can attest, see them as a valuable prize. “That will give you the biggest pop you can get at any sporting event, to offer a free T-shirt,” said Joe Dupriest, the Washington Wizards’ chief marketing officer.
Teams see them as a not-too-expensive way to engage fans, perhaps boosting home-court advantage, while decorating their building in swaths of team colors.
“Nowadays, you can watch a ballgame at your house, on a huge flat-screen, practically in a movie theater,” said the Chicago Bulls’ vice president for corporate sales, Scott Sonnenberg. “But when you come to a game, you want to feel you’re a part of it, that you can impact the game. To have those red T-shirts, they feel like they’re part of it, they are impacting the outcome.”
Not all teams participate in shirting. The Memphis Grizzlies and the Milwaukee Bucks were among those who relied on towels, not shirts, and the Grizzlies have even given tacit approval to entrepreneurs who sell unlicensed T-shirts outside their arena. The San Antonio Spurs, the defending champions who lost in the first round, rely little on promotional giveaways.
But most of the other 16 franchises that made the postseason made T-shirts a thrust of their marketing efforts. All four semifinalists remaining in the postseason — Golden State, Houston, Cleveland and Atlanta — are heavy believers in T-shirt giveaways. For a few dollars a shirt — rarely more than $5, often underwritten by a corporate sponsor — the teams dress their arenas and, bit by bit, their communities.
No place does it with the aplomb, and frequency, of Golden State. The fans are the first intended audience, greeted, as in other NBA arenas, by the sight of perfectly aligned shirts in every direction.
“The impression when you walk into the arena and see 19,000 yellow shirts neatly folded over every chair, it tells you, ‘I’ve arrived,’ ” the Warriors’ chief marketing officer, Chip Bowers, said. “It kind of takes your breath away.”
By the time Wednesday’s game started, the majority of the 19,596 fans in attendance, having arrived in individual ensembles of style and fandom, were dressed in identical bright yellow T-shirts that read, “Strength in Numbers.”
The Warriors began ordering yellow T-shirts in January, anticipating a long playoff run for the team with the league’s best record. During the second-round series, they had a third-round design ready to give the printers as soon as the team clinched.
Shirts usually come in large or extra large, though most teams order small bunches of other sizes for fans who complain. In Washington, shirts came in three colors, distributed by section — white in one, red in the next, blue in the next. In Portland, the arena of red T-shirts was interrupted by a script of white ones that spelled out the city’s basketball name, “Rip City.”
On Thursday night in Los Angeles, half of the blue shirts ordered by the Clippers did not arrive until 5 p.m., an hour before the doors opened to the public. All of the team’s top executives pitched in to get them to the seats on time.
“Please put on your shirts,” an on-court master of ceremonies implored fans at Staples Center minutes before the game. “I want to make sure we’re all in uniform, cheering the guys.”