What Happens to Losing Team T-shirts and Other Merchandise?

Lots of sports fans have had their hearts broken (lifelong Cubs fan here), and others have experienced their teams winning it all (I remember the Bulls’ 72-10 season) and even bought a t-shirt or other merchandise commemorating the season.

Coming up in about a week, the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers will compete for the Super Bowl crown. The championship shirts, hats, and other merchandise have already been designed, and the t-shirts and hats players and coaches will wear are probably being printed now. Items for the public to purchase are also probably on their way to stores around New England and Carolina, even though about half of those items will never be sold.

Just last year Seattle Seahawks fans were crushed when the New England Patriots intercepted the ball just outside the endzone to end a Seahawk Super Bowl repeat bid. You can see what the t-shirt would have looked like below.

So what happened to all the merchandise for the Seahawks? Is there a place in this world where the 2007 New England Patriots beat Eli Manning’s New York Giants and went a perfect 19-0? Short answer: yes, and those shirts are serving a pretty valuable need in other parts of the world.

Read on to find out where these shirts go, who orders them to begin with, and if you’ll ever be able to buy a 2007 Chicago Bears Super Bowl t-shirt.

A Little Bit of History

I remember watching Michael Jordan win his sixth NBA championship in 1998. I was at my grandma’s house in New York, and I called my mom back home telling her I wanted one of those championship hats (ugly, I know).

I had to wait until that October to get one for my birthday, something that I probably wouldn’t wait to do today. It seems like more and more retailers have professional sport teams’ championship gear ready for sale the day after the winning team is crowned, and for good reason, as merchandise can bring in close to $1 billion a year.

All retailers, both large and small, know how valuable it is to have merchandise available as soon as possible. So much so that producing championship shirts for both teams competing is worth it even though half of the shirts won’t ever be sold.

For years, the NFL actually destroyed the losing team’s merchandise after the Super Bowl. As to why the organization did that, I can only speculate it’s so the t-shirts weren’t sold in the U.S. later on down the road. I’m pretty sure those would become a collector’s item. Soon the NFL realized the incinerator wasn’t the best way to get rid of the merchandise and decided to give all those items a better home.

Where Does the Merchandise Go?

Starting in 1996, the NFL partnered with World Vision, a Christian charity based in Pittsburgh, to distribute the clothing to different third world countries around the world. The losing team’s gear would be repacked and sent to Pittsburgh, which is then sorted by both size and type of clothing. So a t-shirt would likely go to a warmer climate like Nicaragua, and a sweatshirt would end up in a country like Mongolia, which has a colder climate.

World Vision has reported that, during its partnership with the NFL the organization, they would receive about 100 pallets of merchandise from the league annually. That equates to about 100,000 articles of clothing worth about $2 million. Here’s a picture of children wearing a Patriots 19-0 Super Bowl Champion shirt in Guatemala.

Each year during the partnership, World Vision chose different countries and areas around the world to receive the clothing. For example, somewhere in Zambia, children were given Chicago Bears Super Bowl items from 2007.

Starting with the 2015 Super Bowl, the NFL ended its relationship with World Vision and instead partnered with Good360, which works with 40,000 other charities (including World Vision). The organization, based in Virginia, also collected merchandise from other stores that have ordered championship merchandise and distributed it. The NFL said Good360 has a wider reach in terms of working with different charities and can distribute the items more efficiently than World Vision.

It’s actually not that easy to find pictures of these types of shirts and other apparel. A few people were able to snag photos of the items, and thanks to social media, I was able to find a few Twitter and Instagram posts showing recent NFL Super Bowl shirts. So I apologize if you’re a Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos, or Patriots fan, but they were the only examples I could find that we could post here. Being a Chicago Bears fan, I guess it’s only fair if we have a picture of the 2007 failed Super Bowl attempt. You can see that photo and other examples here.

Who Prints the Merch?

If you notice, the pictures in this blog you’ll see that the championship gear for the losing team looks similar to the winning team gear. Since the designs for the championship gear for all the major sports and college teams are nearly the same between the teams, the actual designing is done before the season even starts.

According to World Vision, the NFL works with different manufacturers around the country and prints about 300 shirts and hats for both contending Super Bowl teams, as well as for other companies and even individuals licensed by the NFL who order thousands of items as well. Here’s an Instagram picture from 2014 of Denver Bronco merchandise being packed up for World Vision. The Broncos lost the Super Bowl to the Seahawks that year.

Back in 2011, a licensed merchandiser for the NFL, MLB, and NCAA rented areas near St. Louis and Arlington, Texas, when the Cardinals and Rangers were playing in the World Series. The idea was that he wanted to be in the best place possible to sell the championship merchandise for whenever the series was over. It usually works; he said he almost always sells out of the merchandise he orders.

After the Cardinals won in St. Louis, the t-shirts labeling the Rangers champions were kept in their boxes and shipped back to MLB offices…never to be worn in the US. If you’re wondering if he would sell you some of the losing team’s items after the champion is crowned, think again. Since the individual leagues grant the licenses to sell merchandise he said he could lose that license if he doesn’t return the losing team’s items. He said he’s even been offered $500 for a t-shirt before, but refused because it wasn’t worth the risk.

What About Other Sports?

The NFL has the most information online of what it does with wrongly printed items, but I was able to dig up a little information on the other major sports. Both the NBA and the MLB have worked with World Vision to distribute clothing before.

Major League Baseball has partnered with World Vision since the mid-1990s to distribute any counterfeit or mislabeled clothing, but didn’t start sending over World Series items until 2006. The NHL will occasionally send some of its items to charitable organizations to be distributed around the world. A limited amount of Stanley Cup championship gear is produced by the NHL every year, and the losing team’s gear is still actually destroyed.

Here’s one more of the Broncos championship t-shirts getting ready to be shipped around the world.

While it’s unlikely you’ll ever get your hands on a losing team’s shirt or cap, there have been examples of companies jumping the gun in celebrating teams that have actually lost, like when the Miami Herald ran an ad in declaring the NBA’s Miami Heat champions in 2011. The only problem was the San Antonio Spurs won that year. And this webpage on QVC still advertises a Patriots 19-0 shirt. I was a little sad to see they aren’t available anymore.

So yes, someone right now in some part of the world could be wearing a 2015 World Series Champion New York Mets shirt. For Mets fans feeling sorry for themselves, remember, no one is wearing a World Series Champion Chicago Cubs shirt because I’m pretty sure the world would cease to exist if that ever happened (2016 is our year!).