History of Sports Merchandise

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Promo Expert

Published: April 22nd, 2019

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!

Quote

Nowadays, licensed sports products help not only to strengthen the identity ties between professional sports teams and fans, but also to generate significant revenue around the world.

– Georgios Nalbantis author for the Journal of Sport Management

Hour Glass

History of Sports Souvenirs Timeline

Whether it’s starting a fantasy team, holding season tickets, or streaking across the field, a good sports fan goes all out to show their support. Check out some of the branded items die-hards have loved over the years!

  • 1927

    Source: https://gogts.net

    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.

  • 1952

    Source: http://collectorsworldva.com/

    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.

  • Mid-1950s

    Source: https://www.mlbshop.com/

    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.

  • 1963

    Source: http://vintagebobbleheads.us

    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.

  • 1971

    Source: https://en.wikipedia.org

    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.

  • 1978

    Source: http://www.randomn3ss.com

    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.

  • Late-1970s

    Source: http://www.sportsdesignblog.com

    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.

  • 1980s

    Source: https://www.racked.com

    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.

  • 1982

    Source: https://www.cbssports.com

    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.

  • 1990s

    Source: https://sports.yahoo.com

    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.

  • 1996

    Source: https://www.ycmc.com

    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.

  • 2000

    Source: https://www.pinterest.com

    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.

  • 2005

    Source: https://www.amazon.com/

    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.

  • 2008

    Source: http://www.icollector.com

    The Boston Celtics became champions of the NBA Finals. This event was celebrated with stylish rings featuring the players, including fan favorite Kevin Garnett.

  • 2013

    Source: https://www.collectors.com

    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.

  • 2017

    Source: https://www.stadiumgiveawayexchange.com

    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.

  • 2018

    Source: https://www.nflshop.com

    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.”

What is Sports Merchandise?

Sports merchandise is any item featuring a professional team’s logo, mascot, or name. If you go to the store after the Super Bowl, World Series, or NBA Finals, you’ll see t-shirts, hats, keychains, and much more featuring the winning team. That’s all sports merchandise!

The NFL, MLB, and NBA sell more sports merchandise than any other organization. Fans buy apparel and other logoed products throughout the year. Think of a jacket with the Cubs logo on the front, a keychain with the Vikings helmet, or an orange and purple blanket for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Aside from this gear, which is available in retail stores or online, fans can also get sports merchandise right at the field, stadium, or arena. Souvenirs like foam fingers, bobbleheads, baseball caps, and jerseys are a great way to remember a fun day cheering on your favorite team. Just look at how awesome these Michael Scott bobbleheads are from a 2018 Kane County Cougars game!

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.

http://www.antiquetobacco.com

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.

http://www.tanmanbaseballfan.com

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.

https://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/

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.

etsy.com

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!

http://www.bobbleheadhall.com
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Goodman lived to see ‘novelties’ eclipse peanuts and hot dogs, and even to see Dodgers merchandise colonize those parts of the world that remined blissfully ignorant to the Dodgers themselves.

– Steve Rushinauthor of, The 34-Ton Bat: The Story of Baseball

Did you know?

National Bobblehead Day is celebrated on January 7th in the United States.

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.

http://www.jdrf.org
Did you know?

The Guinness World Record for most people waving foam fingers simultaneously was achieved by Rowan University.

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!

https://www.si.com
Did you know?

Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson sell more jerseys than any other player in the NFL.

Who Invented the T-shirt Cannon?

Source si.com

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.

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Sports are part of the fabric of the society in which they are played – and always have been. They are supposed to be a simple pleasure.

– Cait Murphy, author of A History of American Sports in 100 Objects

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.

Source The Salem News, Salem, Ohio

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.

Source The Salem News, Salem, Ohio

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.

https://ftw.usatoday.com

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.

https://ftw.usatoday.com

Why Do We Love Souvenirs at Sports Games?

The word “souvenir” is a French word that means “to remember,” and nothing sums up the reason we love sports merchandise more. Many of us have fond memories of watching the game with our friends or taking our grandfather to the stadium for the first time. There are even those who propose to their future spouse on the JumboTron! Souvenirs capture these special moments in our lives.

Wearing a t-shirt with your team’s logo or keeping a Super Bowl keychain on your ring is a great way to build a community. Fellow fans will recognize you as one of their own, and in turn, you might get invited to some pretty exciting tailgates.

Stats for Success

According to Transparency Market Research, licensed sports merchandise is expected to reach $48.17 billion by 2024.

Fans spent over $70 million only 24 hours after the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016.

More than 60% of the 2016 games in the MLB had an increase in ticket sales when they featured bobblehead giveaways.

The Philadelphia 76ers have the world’s largest t-shirt launcher, which fires 100 tees in 60 seconds at the Wells Fargo Center.

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 Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

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.

References

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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

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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

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Nalbantis, G., et. al. (2017, September 1). The Demand for Licensed Merchandise in Sports – On the Purchase Channel Choice. The Journal of Sport Management.