I’m mad at Arsenal Football Club. Not because the English Premiere League team tanked during the final month of the previous season and plummeted from third place—and a precious spot in the Champions League—to finish in fifth. And not because they lost the Europa League final, our last glimmer of 2019 hope, to their crosstown rival Chelsea. No, these things I’m used to. As an Arsenal supporter for more than two decades, I’ve more than reckoned with the perennial heartbreak. I’m mad because, yet again, I have to stump up 90 bucks for a new team jersey.
Okay, so I don’t have to purchase the new team kit. No one from the Arsenal front office is showing up on my doorstep and strong-arming me until I click “buy.” Granit Xhaka isn’t hiding in my bushes waiting to club me with a sock full of pennies if I don’t pony up. But the team did have the nerve to switch uniform suppliers from Puma to Adidas for the coming season, and the new shirt is pretty solid.
Plus, there’s some history there with Adidas. The Three Stripes brand is what the team wore in 1989, when Michael Thomas scored the legendary injury time goal against Liverpool in the final match of the season to win the league title. One of the greatest moments in Arsenal’s storied history.
I’m annoyed, though, because I once again feel compelled to buy a new jersey despite vowing, as I do each new season, to not buy another jersey. I already have twelve. Both home and away. I have a Dreamcast sponsor shirt from their double-winning 2001/02 campaign. I have a Thierry Henry home shirt from the Unbeatables 2003/04 campaign that I bought at Highbury (the team’s former and much-missed stadium) in London. I also have a claret-colored Dennis Bergkamp home shirt from their final Highbury season, bought for me by a friend at Highbury. I have a shirt from each of their shirt sponsor eras over the past twenty years—JVC, Dreamcast, O2, and Emirates. Suffice it to say, when it comes to Arsenal, I’m literally covered.
Now, you could chalk this up to a run of the mill and very weird clothing addiction. Trying to fill the gaping black darkness with red and white sweat-wicking polyester. But it isn’t only me. This is actually a pretty common tale among soccer fans—a majority, judging by the crowds regularly packing pubs and soccer stadiums.
Somehow, the soccer clubs of the world have engineered a dream con: get more than half their fans to splash out on new team jerseys year after year, despite already having a closet full of them. So the question is, how do they do it? How do they dupe otherwise sane adults (well, mostly) into buying almost the exact same shirt over and over again simply because it has a zig where last season it had a zag? I have some theories.
First is the simple fact that, of all the major sports, soccer team replica jerseys are the most affordable. Pro models of NBA and NFL replica jerseys tend to run about $150, while the NHL’s are closer to $200. MLB jerseys are the most expensive at $250. Most replica soccer shirts, however, hover in the $80-$90 range. Of course, price isn’t the only factor. There’s also the fact that soccer is the one sport with new jersey updates each season.
Most other pro sports will update uniform styles maybe once every few years at most (or in the case of classic franchises like the Dodgers or Yankees, never). Or they’ll have a rotation of alternate and retro jerseys that get people to splash out a little bit more often. But since about the late 2000s, soccer clubs have gone with annual updates to home, away, and alternate kits. That’s three new jerseys every year. And occasionally those updates include a new shirt sponsor, which is basically a lock to get fans to open their wallets.
Soccer is also a sport where the majority of fans actually wear replicas jerseys rather than other forms of team merch. Go to an MLB or NFL game, and maybe 1/3 of the people in the stands are jersey’d up. With soccer, apart from the occasional pretentious hipster or old school octogenarian in a team scarf—which is what soccer fans wore up until about the mid-’80s—most people are in jerseys. Part of this is due to the fact that, here in the U.S., baseball caps have long been a much easier and cheaper—and less aggressive—way to show team pride for any sport. But in Europe, baseball caps aren’t as popular. And as a soccer fan in America, where the sport sits no higher than fourth on the popularity totem, we generally do as the Europeans do.
It also helps that, of all the sports, soccer jerseys look the least ridiculous in a non-competition setting. In fact, over the last few years, soccer kits have made it all the way to high fashion status. This probably comes down to the fact that it’s essentially just a fancy T-shirt shirt with a big logo on it, and nothing gets the fashion crowd ramped up these days like fancy T-shirts with big logos.
In the last few years, soccer jerseys have appeared in runway shows for Vetements, Balenciaga, and Gosha Rubchinkiy. And Paris brand Koche even had a multi-season collab with local team Paris Saint Germain. Step out in an MLB or NFL jersey, or worst of all an NBA jersey, and you’ll get a few eye rolls. Step out in a Man City jersey and you’re on the cutting edge of fashion.
Of course, fashion bona fides likely don’t sway hardcore soccer fans. If anything, it’s more a combination of the culture of wearing them, as mentioned above, and a subconscious peer pressure to stump up for the new kit each season. I say subconscious because, in the 20 years I’ve been watching the Arsenal, no one has ever overtly spoken out about someone wearing last year’s shirt. But I do think there is a weird stigma to it.
It’s almost as if wearing a shirt from one or two or even three seasons ago somehow reveals that you are not a serious fan. That you only first got into the team during that season’s shirt rotation, and are thus a baby fan who hasn’t been seasoned by decades of pain and anguish. By always wearing the latest kit, it suggests that you are a hardcore fan to the point that you absolutely always have to be up to date on everything.
Conversely, a shirt from 10 or 15 years ago, or more, has a similar effect. When I go to the Arsenal pub, I most often see either the newest kit or relatively old ones, shirts from at least a decade past. When I wear my Dreamcast home shirt from the 2001/02 double season, I get no shortage of props. It’s like silently announcing to the world that yes, I too have been suffering since Patrick Vieira defected to Juve.
But the retro shirts are still best deployed in concert with new ones. You can wear the latest kit for most games, and then mix in the odd retro version to highlight the true breadth of your fan-ship. And extra points for wearing a lesser-known player’s name and number on the retro model. Ray Parlour rather than Thierry Henry proves you’re no dilettante (it also proves that you made at least one questionable decision during the early aughts).
So there you have it, my best working theory for why Arsenal jersey numero 13 will soon be winging its way to my mailbox. We’re an odd lot, us soccer fans. We favor a sport in which people are mostly just running up and down a field for 90 minutes. We erupt into ecstasies over tie games and fourth place finishes. We go to pubs at 6am because our team is playing on the other side of the world. And we stack our closets full of colorful shirts that have no real use in life other than helping us to fit in at that pub at 6 o’clock in the morning.