As an archaeologist, I am interested in culture change, and that includes changes in conventions, expectations and practices. Sometimes, these can happen over amazingly short time-spans (archaeologically speaking).
One change that I’ve noticed over the past few decades, which is a short time for an archaeologist, is that especially at playoff games, almost the entirety of the audience wears a team jersey, or at least some form of team branded merchandise. It wasn’t always like that. That’s culture change, and it’s interesting to me.
I’m interested in why, of course, but today I’ll just focus on establishing that there has indeed been a change, and trying to learn a bit about its chronology. There’s a lot more to do on this, and in much greater detail, but at least this is a bit of a start, and hopefully it can continue at some point (if anyone wants to do a master’s degree counting team jerseys in pictures of hockey game audiences, email me).
1980 vs 2022, or before and after
This is what game 7 of the series between the Calgary Flames and the Dallas Stars looked like on my television last Sunday (Figure 1). All that red in the audience is not a coincidence. Those are all Calgary Flames team jerseys.
By contrast, here is a picture (Figure 2) of the audience in the 1980 Stanley Cup Finals-deciding game 6 between the New York Islanders and the Philadelphia Flyers. The game was played in New York at Nassau Coliseum. I have circled two definite and one possible Islanders shirts, and two of the caps may be team merch as well, but it is inconclusive. A couple of guys are wearing unbranded, blank hockey jerseys as well. One of them is wearing one of the suspected team-related caps.
What happened between 1980 and 2022? To find out, I looked at pictures of crowds in the finals (deciding game when possible).
A bit of social context
Before I look at the data though, I have to note something about wearing commercially branded clothing in general. While it is now almost ubiquitous, it used to be quite rare until recently, and even socially unacceptable.
At least some people my age will share my experience of wearing a commercially branded item for the first time. In my case, it was actually in the early 80s, so it matches up with the time frame we are looking at here. I got home with a Ford Motor branded baseball cap, a few of which my friend had received as a gift and handed around. My father looked at me with a disapproving expression and asked me how much I was getting paid to wear it.
I have heard others tell similar stories, and some may therefore think it is apocryphal and just floating around, but I can confirm that it actually happened to me and not just to someone else I heard about. I decided I would still wear it when I played ball at the park. So in a sense, I have a dim personal awareness that the branded clothing barrier in general was broken by rebellious kids in the early 80s.
Timing the change
Looking at the crowds at finals games (that’s the kind of mind-numbing work archaeologists do, to paraphrase Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes), there is really nothing to report until 1990.
This picture (Figure 3) of the 1990 deciding game between the Boston Bruins and the Edmonton Oilers shows that a majority of the crowd are wearing what looks like a Bruins shirt made of that very flimsy material you can wear over your street clothes.
I wonder if it was some kind of promotion, with shirts handed out to the audience at the entrance to the game. If any of my more experienced (not to say older) Boston-based readers have the inside scoop, I would be grateful to hear the story. In any case, while this is an example of a mostly merch clad audience, it doesn’t seem launch a trend or to stick right away. In the 1991 series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Minnesota North Stars, the crowd is back to it’s pre-merch normalcy.
By the 1992 final in Pittsburgh (Figure 4), I am seeing a few more items of official team merch, but also what I intuitively see as a higher than expected frequency of Penguin yellow in the stands if no one is wearing it intentionally. I haven’t counted, but as one of my old profs used to say, I used the “look and you will see” statistical method to get preliminary results.
By 1995 (Figure 5), the trend of wearing team merch is getting well established. This new option exists notably because of a change in the cultural landscape: collared shirts, jackets, ties, and blouses, which still dominate the 1980 crowd, are no longer expected or worn as everyday outfits. Note that in the 1990 picture that features the flimsy Bruins shirts, many in the crowd are wearing them over their regular clothes, even over their shirts and ties.
And now, of course, the team jersey is de rigueur at play-off games, and is even becoming dominant at regular season games, so that anyone who doesn’t wear one could feel slightly out of place. Frequency dependent copying can explain how trends become fixed once a good portion of the crowd follows them, but the initial establishment of such an expensive trend (to the wearer) is interesting in itself, given the obstacles. If anyone has thoughts on how the trend originated in the first place, I’m happy to chat.
7 thoughts on “Seasonal Stanley Cup Playoffs post: Culture change, and… when did everyone start wearing merch to the games, anyway?”
Cool! Look for a correlation with ticket prices as a proportion of some benchmark like the price of a cart of groceries, or adjusted for inflation. I suspect that the ticket prices have gone up in such a way that they’ve selected for people who have the means to pay for very expensive merch.
That’s a good idea. I also thought about looking at rock concert merch-wearing in parallel. If the timeline is the same, it would point to an outside factor. If one follows the other, I could look at connections.
Interesting! I am guessing that one driver of increased merchandising is deliberate marketing of team gear to fans. Both the individual franchises and the League itself have driven this, in my anecdotal experience of attending MLB and NHL games since the ’80s. It used to be you had to go to a general sporting goods store to buy a Yankees or NY Rangers hat or shirt. Now there are Yankees-owned gear stores in midtown Manhattan and a large Rangers store in Madison Sq Garden itself. And you can buy online, so you don’t need to live there to shop there.
Thanks for that. Availability is definitely something to keep in mind.
I am guessing these guys would have a lot of info on the trajectory you’re investigating here: https://uni-watch.com/
Also, I was thinking that it’s more than just availability, but the intentional peddling of gear by the individual teams; by the leagues; and by the manufacturers (Nike, Majestic, Adidas, etc.). Plus, the leagues manufacture new gear specifically to amp up sales (e.g., in MLB now they have “City Connect” uniforms; they have unis with player nicknames for the Williamsport game; they had the “Field of Dreams” throwback game uniforms for sale; they have camouflage to cater to the military fetish; they have pink for breast cancer awareness, stars and stripes for Memorial Day, Flag Day, Labor Day etc); and they have third strip and throwback uniforms or special editions (e.g., for the Winter Classic in the NHL). It’s all about money!
Oh yes, it’s become quite an industry, and a sophisticated one. Wasn’t always that way. Thanks for the link.
Another thing to consider, at least in the States, is in regard to who wears a jersey with another man’s name on it. Sports fans are more often than not, men. Traditionally, thinking more of high school sports, it was the player’s girlfriend who wore their jersey to school and/or events. Then come the 80’s and a whole relaxation of macho norms that began the previous decade comes into play. It’s now safe for a man to wear a jersey with another man’s name on it. They won’t be ridiculed or believed to be queer.