It’s mid-September, the fourth week into the new domestic season 2017-18 and Nike have just unveiled their wave of ‘third kit’ designs for a host of top European teams. In isolation each of these shirts are a beautiful item, a sharp colour scheme and minimalist design reflect the current trends in modern football. The only problem is, these kits aren’t viewed nor were designed in isolation, each of the 9 kits are formed of exactly the same template and released a matter of hours apart. There’s an issue here, but it isn’t one of poor design or even lack of imagination. It’s the issue of over-commercialisation and sportswear manufacturers taking complete advantage of fan loyalty.
The frequency of kit updates from top football teams has been dealt a due amount of criticism in recent years. In spite of this, the majority of clubs continue to churn out seasonal replacements with minor material alterations, giving fans something else to get excited about and spend their hard-earned cash on. But the much anticipated kit-release is more than just another date on the football fan calendar, it’s the opportunity for clubs to capitalise and bring in some additional profit at the expense of the public. It wasn’t always this way, but attempts to slow the turnover in kit design have been quashed by manufacturer and sponsorship deals. In the year 1997 the government initiative ‘The Football Task Force‘ was established in a bid to encourage clubs to scale-back on this sort of behaviour. Their efforts reaped faux merit in 2000 when the Premier League Charter was settled with all 20 clubs in the top-flight at the time. The charter was not legally binding but suggested that annual kit releases were not in the best interests of the supporter and requested that clubs should limit home kit renewals to every two seasons.
A look back over the past 10 Premier League campaigns will give an insight into how the terms of the charter were paid such slight regard. Of the 7 teams that have consistently held Premier League status across that period, Arsenal have produced the least amount of kits with 27 releases and were the last club to produce a home kit with a life-span greater than one season. The final home shirt produced for them as part of their deal with Nike straddled seasons 2012/13 and 2013/14. Under their new deal with Puma, the numbers have increased in line with the rest of the clubs in the league. North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur are the club with the highest frequency over the same period producing at least 3 new kits every season, totalling 34 designs.
In the current climate these numbers are no longer an anomaly with 49 new kits released across the Premier League this season alone. Traditionally a third kit was introduced as an alternate for European competition but with clubs like Bournemouth, Stoke and newly promoted Huddersfield now joining in, third kits have been devalued to a mere gimmick allowing clubs to milk more profit from fans. It’s difficult to imagine a situation in domestic competition whereby any of these teams would struggle to avert a kit-clash without simply wearing their away strip.
Increased commercial exposure has led to fierce competition between manufacturers to seize sponsorship rights to the top teams. In late 2016, shortly after the beginning of the season, Chelsea finalised a shirt contract with Nike worth £60 million and in doing so reneged on their existing deal with Adidas, opting instead to buy out the remaining 6 years at the expense of £40 million. To make up the shortfall resulting from securing these multi-million pound deals, manufacturers transfer the financial burden to the supporter. In 2007 the RRP for a short-sleeved Chelsea home shirt would be roughly £39.99 across all retailers, step forward a decade and you can expect to pay £59.95 for an item of the same description, a near 50% price hike. As part of the agreement between club and manufacturer Chelsea’s replica shirt retail operation has been transferred to the hands of Nike with the online UK Chelsea Megastore links pointing directly to Nike.com.
Nike themselves offer two variations of authenticity in shirt production, a ‘stadium’ version, which is a standard replica kit at £59.95, and a ‘vapor’ version. The vapor shirt has the exact same material construction as those handed out to the players on matchday and you can part with £89.95 for the privilege of wearing one of those. If you would like to add a favourite player’s name it will cost a set price of £14.00 bringing the total to a staggering £73.95 for the most basic replica kit with printed player name.
In the case of the newly released third kits the eye-catching designs draw attention away from the underlying purpose of release. Given how late on the design of these shirts is produced, they will only stay current for 255 days until the season ends. Quick-succession blanket unveiling generates hysteria in the media and fan forums, comparing the minuscule details of each shirt. Manufacturers have been hiding behind ‘global templates’ for years using buzz phrases like ‘dazzle camo’ and ‘volt green’ in their elaborate individual product descriptions whilst little effort is made to actually personalise these shirts for their affiliated clubs. The Barcelona third shirt contains a subtle irregular tile pattern weaved into the camouflage that Nike have identified as ‘Gaudi inspired’, which seems like the loosest possible way of tying the design to the city heritage of Barcelona.
Unfortunately the landscape of commercialisation and subsequently shirt design doesn’t seem to be recessing in any way. In the background, the Premier League Charter appears to have been quietly disposed of. The official Premier League website was given a facelift as part of their re-branding prior to the 2016/17 season and any article or mention of the charter can no longer be found with them. As long as fans are happy to find the money to spend, the picture can’t expect to change any time soon. Going forward hopefully a stronger stand can be taken in attempt curtail the behaviour of clubs and sponsors to avoid them taking advantage of supporters in the expectation of cheap profit.