Other Lessons in This Course
- History of Sports Merchandise
- The 10 Most Iconic Promo Items in History
- History of Promotional Products
- History of Fidget Spinners
- History of Tote Bags
- History of Pens
- History of Modern Trade Shows
- History of Stress Balls
- History of Lunch Boxes
- History of T-Shirts
- History of Koozies
- History of the Frisbee
- History of Coffee Mugs
- History of Pencils
- History of Reusable Water Bottles
- History of Logo Design
- History of Keychains
- History of Backpacks
- History of Sunglasses
- History of Baseball Caps
- History of Flashlights
- History of Sticky Notes
- History of Sports Merchandise
- History of Lip Balm
- History of Wedding Favors
- History of PopSockets
- History of Cell Phone Wallets
Whether you catch a game ball, wear a t-shirt from the cannon, or hold your foam finger high in the air, people absolutely love going home from the stadium, field, or arena with a souvenir. These fun mementoes are a way to show allegiance to our favorite teams, and next to hot dogs and cold brews, they’re also the most exciting part of any tailgate.
When did sports arenas start selling souvenirs? What were some of the first items you could buy? We’re taking it all the way to the end zone as we discuss the history of sports merchandise!
Bowman Trading Cards were introduced, which were baseball cards that were sold separately from tobacco tins. This brand was founded by Jacob Warren in Pennsylvania and was well-loved by fans for over 30 years.
Topps took the market on baseball cards. The first packets cost only a nickel and contained six cards and a piece of bubblegum. These were a huge hit with fans young and old, with the brand still going strong today.
Screen printing was extremely popular for sports teams. Keychains, baseball hats, t-shirts, and many other products could be printed with the team’s logo, name, or mascot thanks to this technology.
Danny Gilmore created special bobbleheads for the Los Angeles Dodgers. These novelty items were sold directly at Gilmore Field for $3 each and eventually went on to be a favorite of the San Francisco Giants.
Steve Chmelar, a 16-year-old student at Ottumwa High School, built a giant finger from papier-mâché to support his school’s basketball team. Seven years later, his invention inspired the iconic foam finger.
Geral Fauss took a break from teaching the students at Cy-Fair High School to create the world’s first #1 fingers for sale. They were made from wood with the number one painted on the front.
Dairy Queen took their branding to a new level with baseball helmet sundaes. These fun keepsakes were unique since they brought more exposure to the MLB and the ice cream shop.
Team jerseys started being sold at retail stores. A heat transfer process called Vinflex made it easier to add the lettering and numbers, which in turn, helped stores order larger quantities.
Roger Nielsen got angry over a call against his team, the Vancouver Canucks, and waved around a white towel in rage. Soon after, fans started buying Terrible Towels, the first rally towels on the market.
Tim Derk invented the t-shirt cannon for the San Antonio Spurs. Derk wore a giant coyote costume and launched free custom t-shirts to the crowd at the AT&T Center.
The New Era Cap Company, the leading manufacturer of baseball caps in the United States, started offering team hats in a variety of colors. This change came after director Spike Lee asked for a red New York Yankees cap.
The Summer Olympics in Sydney were celebrated with simple souvenirs featuring the “Millennium Man.” The logo was designed by Michael Bryce and was inspired by the Sydney Opera House.
The New England Patriots defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in one of the closest games in recent memory. Fans were able to buy footballs to toss around during the tailgate.
The Boston Celtics became champions of the NBA Finals. This event was celebrated with stylish rings featuring the players, including fan favorite Kevin Garnett.
The Chicago Blackhawks blew fans away with these replica pendants. This necklace was sold to fans online and in retail stores for a modest $20 after the team won the Stanley Cup.
The St. Louis Cardinals offered 1967 World Series beer steins for the first 30,000 fans to come to their game against the Washington Nationals. This drinkware featured their team name, as well as Budweiser’s signature logo.
The Philadelphia Eagles celebrated their first Super Bowl win in history. Fans went crazy with stylish hats, t-shirts, hoodies, and more featuring the phrase “Fly Eagles Fly.”
When Were Baseball Cards Invented?
Today, sports merchandise is a giant industry that results in millions of dollars every year. When baseball was first getting started in the United States, however, it was the tobacco companies that were big business. Brands like Goodwin & Co., Yum Yum, and Four Base Hits took advantage of America’s pastime by putting baseball cards in the packets. These were tiny paper cards that featured a famous player with stats, a mini bio, and a team picture. The oldest known one is an 1865 card featuring the Brooklyn Atlantics amateur club.
According to ESPN, this souvenir ended up being sold at an auction for $92,000 in 2013. Then there was the Ty Cobb baseball card, which is one of the rarest and most valuable in the world. This card was part of a brand of cigarettes aptly named, Ty Cobb Cigarettes.
Collectors loved finding new baseball cards, which encouraged customers to buy more cigarettes. This was so successful that in 1927 a brand called Bowman started producing commercial baseball cards, the first sports collectibles in the world. These were sold separately from the nicotine, meaning collectors didn’t have to ruin their health to get a nifty baseball card. Rather, the collectors could just get a cavity by buying cards from Topps instead as they offered chewing gum with their baseball cards for over 60 years. The brand is still going strong today.
Whether they wanted a smoke or a sweet, people absolutely loved collecting baseball cards for over 100 years. Today, this tradition has significantly declined, but nostalgic folks can rest easy knowing there are other options! In 2016, Topps introduced BUNT, which is an app featuring digital trading cards that allow you to see player levels, scoring updates, and collect vintage cards.
New World of Souvenirs
Before the late 20th century, people didn’t have money to spend on extravagant souvenirs. Few could even afford to go to games at all, let alone buy foam fingers and logoed t-shirts. Baseball cards were a fun way to spend time, but the sports merchandise industry as a whole wasn’t exactly booming in sales.
That all changed in the 1970s. Sports memorabilia started becoming extremely popular, and the timing couldn’t have been better. The US Men’s Olympic hockey team pulled off a miracle on ice in the midst of Cold War tension, Michael Jordan started playing in the NBA, and the “Super Bowl Shuffle” was sweeping the nation. America needed great souvenirs to match all this excitement! As a result, many great items started being sold at stadiums, arenas, and fields.
Who Invented Bobbleheads?
The first mention of these fun novelty items is credited to Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat,” which was written in 1842. The story alludes to a plaster cat that wags its head back and forth. Following this mention, many bobbleheads, or “nodders,” “bobblers,” or “wobblers” as they were also known, were mass-produced in Germany in the mid-18th century. Many sources note that the first bobblehead for a sports team, however, came much later in 1920. The rumor is that the New York Knicks offered a bobblehead at this time, though the team wasn’t established in the NBA until 1946.
Bobbleheads had been on people’s radars for years, but it was the Los Angeles Dodgers that helped them catapult to stardom. Danny Goodman, an entrepreneur from Milwaukee, originally introduced the novelty item to fans at Gilmore Field in 1963. The early versions looked like Goodman himself, with chubby cheeks and a permanent smile on their faces, selling for $3 apiece. The market was so enormous for these collectibles that Goodman started looking at other souvenir items to print with the Dodgers logo, including piggy banks, towels, pennants, plastic helmets, pillow cases, lighters, bandanas, and money clips.
With the low cost of plastic and screen-printing, it was easy for the Dodgers to sell a wide variety of logoed items to fans. In turn, other teams saw how powerful this sports merchandise was in not only building a fan base, but increasing revenue at their home fields. Players like Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente got their own bobbleheads and souvenir stands started opening at other home fields.
Fans still have a special place in their hearts for custom bobbleheads. According to a report by SB Nation, 334 bobblehead giveaways occurred at major league ballparks between 2010 and 2013, with the Giants hosting the most. A few years later, the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum opened its doors, with thousands of visitors coming through every year to see bobbleheads of everyone from Carlos Gomez of the 2014 Brewers to the cast of “The Big Bang Theory.” These fun giveaway items will always be a great way to increase the fan base of organizations, players, shows, and more!
Who Invented Foam Fingers?
Go to any baseball stadium, football field, or basketball court, and you’ll see a wave of #1 fingers held high and proud. This simple souvenir first made its appearance in 1971 when Steve Chmelar wore a papier-mâché model at a basketball game at Ottumwa High School. Fast forward seven years and the first #1 fingers were available for sale at Cy-Fair High School in Houston. Geral Fauss was a teacher there at the time and wanted to create something to raise money for the Industrial Arts Club. His original design was made from wood with the #1 painted on the front.
These wood fingers were a huge hit with the students, inspiring Fauss to reach out to an even bigger audience. He loaded up a camper van and slept overnight in the parking lot at Cotton Bowl Stadium, waiting for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to take on the Texas Longhorns. In the morning, he would go to the game and convince the concession manager to sell the fingers for a 60-40 split on any money earned. The fingers completely sold out.
The success in Dallas was enough for Fauss to quit his day job as a teacher and start his own promotional products company, Spirit Industries. With this new company, Fauss experimented with different designs for the finger until finally settling on the polyurethane foam model we know and love. A year later he took 5,000 foam fingers to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans where they sold out once again.
Spirit Industries is still in business today, with over 50 employees and nine companies under license to create the foam finger. Meanwhile, the foam finger has earned a spot in the National Football League Hall of Fame and continues to be popular with fans. The product has even gone beyond sports, being used to promote charities and a variety of other events and causes.
When Did Team Jerseys First Come Out?
Team jerseys couldn’t be found in retail stores until the late-1970s. Over time, the phenomenon grew, and now you’ll see babies, kids, grown adults and even dogs wearing jerseys with the last names of athletes like Aaron Rodgers and Derek Jeter on the back. Maybe it’s a chance to pretend you’re a professional, but more than anything, wearing a team jersey is a way for fans to prove they are loyal to one team and one team only.
The first advertisement for sports jerseys could be found in an ad for The Sporting News in 1971. The ad was buried deep within the publication and offered customized jerseys starting at $10.50 each, a far cry from the average $35 to $100 a sports jersey costs for fans today.
Toward the end of the decade, team jerseys were sold in retail stores like Cullen’s Sporting Goods and Cosby Sports. These stores could order in bulk thanks to an early heat-transfer process called Vinflex, which made it possible to add the individual letters and numbers without having to sew everything together. Now you’ll see these sports jerseys at stores and online, as well as knockoff versions sold from a van in the parking lot before the game!
Who Invented the T-shirt Cannon?
Going to watch a sports game became a more interactive process than just sitting in your seat and cheering on your team. That’s why Tim Derk invented the beloved t-shirt cannon for the San Antonio Spurs in the 1990s. He dressed up as a coyote and wielded the powerful 90-pound cannon at the AT&T Center to the delight of thousands of fans in the stands.
This item literally launches customized t-shirts into the crowd, giving them a free memento from the stadium. When fans wear this tee, they will be reminded of a great day watching their favorite team, and in turn, remind other people to go check out a game. The great Paul McCartney was even pictured cheering when he caught a t-shirt at a Brooklyn Nets game in 2016.
The t-shirt cannon encompasses everything we love about going to a game. It’s a powerful promotional item that has brought additional exposure to many teams across the country.
A Sweet Treat: Promotional Baseball Helmets
You don’t even have to be a sports fan to be exposed to sports souvenirs. Take for instance Dairy Queen, which combined people’s love of baseball and ice cream in the late 1970s. The popular ice cream shop offered their sundaes in a small plastic helmet featuring various MLB team logos. These “bowls” were inspired by the plastic batting helmets that were originally sold by Danny Goldman at Gilmore Field.
This marketing effort was genius. Dairy Queen fused together two things people love during the summer: ice cream and baseball. As a result, the plastic helmets brought more exposure to these sports teams and increased business at Dairy Queen.
You will still see sundaes in plastic helmets at some Dairy Queens in the United States, but it’s more common to get this sweet treat right at the ball game. In 2014, the Chicago White Sox sold a giant helmet that contained 4 scoops each of vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, as well as bananas, whipped cream, cherries, and chocolate sauce. Hungry fans could get these fun treats at U.S. Cellular Field for $17.
The key takeaway here is that fandom is a prevalent feeling. Just because you’re not at the field or watching the game on TV, doesn’t mean you’ve stopped loving your team. Dairy Queen saw an opportunity to capitalize on this love, and now people collect these fun plastic helmets and think of delicious ice cream at the same time.
The Bottom Line
Sports merchandise builds a community, preserves cherished memories, and shows how loyal you are to your favorite team. Go ahead and hold your foam finger high in the air to celebrate these fun souvenirs!
Alyssa is the Lead Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. As a promo expert, she's uncovered the world’s first custom tote bag, interviewed the guy behind rock band ACDC’s logo, and had a piece published by the Advertising Specialty Institute, a leader in the promotional products industry.
Transparency Market Research. (2016, October 20). Licensed Sports Merchandise Market to Reach US $48.17 Billion by 2024. Retrieved July 31, 2018, from https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/licensed-sports-merchandise-market-to-reach-us4817-billion-by-2024---a-new-research-report-by-transparency-market-research-597749011.html
Rovell, D. (2016, November 4th). Cubs Championship Gear Setting Merchandise Records. Retrieved July 31, 2018, from https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/17965234/chicago-cubs-championship-gear-already-setting-merchandise-records
Garcia, A. (2016, April 25). Tom Brady is NFL’s No. 1 Player in Merchandise Sales. Retrieved July 31, 2018, from https://money.cnn.com/2016/04/25/news/tom-brady-nfl-player-sales/index.html
Paul Fraser Collectibles. (2015, August 9). Sports Memorabilia Collecting – A History. Retrieved August 9, 2018, from https://www.justcollecting.com/miscellania/sports-memorabilia-collecting-a-history
Guinness World Records. (2017, February 4). Most People Waving Foam Fingers Simultaneously. Retrieved August 10, 2018, from https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/115909-most-people-waving-foam-fingers-simultaneously
Spross, J. (2015, September 4). How the Ubiquitous Foam Finger Reveals the True Nature of American Entrepreneurship. Retrieved August 10, 2018, from https://theweek.com/articles/575372/how-ubiquitous-foam-finger-reveals-true-nature-american-entrepreneurship
Buchanan, L. (2013, February 13). Loud and Proud. Retrieved August 10, 2018, from https://www.inc.com/magazine/201302/leigh-buchanan/loud-and-proud-foam-finger.html
Layden, T. (2016, February 1). We Are What We Wear: How Sports Jerseys Became Ubiquitous in the U.S. Retrieved August 10, 2018, from https://www.si.com/nfl/2016/02/01/mlb-nba-nhl-sports-jersys-rise-popularity
Loverro, T. (2013, August 2). The Power of the Jersey. Retrieved August 10, 2018, from http://www.sportsonearth.com/article/55532342/
Rushin, S. (October 2013). The 34-Ton Bat: The Story of Baseball. Little Brown Book Company: New York, NY.
Malach, M. (2015, November 13). Why Do Sports Teams Give Out Bobbleheads? Retrieved August 13, 2018, from http://mentalfloss.com/article/70384/why-do-sports-teams-give-out-bobbleheads
D’Souza, R. (2016, August 2). Bobbleheads Still Prized by Baseball Fans, Drive MLB Ticket Prices. Retrieved August 13, 2018, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/russdsouza/2016/08/02/bobbleheads-still-prized-by-baseball-fans-drive-mlb-ticket-prices/#5417cbd0303f
Kennedy, P. (2013, June 21). Who Made That T-Shirt Cannon? Retrieved August 13, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/magazine/who-made-that-t-shirt-cannon.html
Rappaport, M. (2016, March 25). How the T-Shirt Cannon Became the Ultimate In-Game Promotion. Retrieved August 13, 2018, from https://www.complex.com/sports/2016/03/how-the-t-shirt-cannon-became-ultimate-in-game-promotion
Chase, C. (2012, November 1). Sixers Unveil World’s Largest T-Shirt Launcher. Retrieved August 13, 2018, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/gameon/2012/11/01/76ers-t-shirt-gun-big-bella/1673909/
Wilson, M. (2014, June 8). T-Shirt Launchers Literally Have Come a Long Way, Baby. Retrieved August 13, 2018, from https://www.expressnews.com/news/local/article/T-shirt-launchers-literally-have-come-a-long-way-5537839.php
ESPN. (2013, February 7). Rare 1865 Card Fetches $92.K. Retrieved August 13, 2018, from https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/8921014/rare-1865-baseball-card-fetches-92k-auction
Nalbantis, G., et. al. (2017, September 1). The Demand for Licensed Merchandise in Sports – On the Purchase Channel Choice. The Journal of Sport Management.