NBA sleeved jerseys: ugly but here to stay

Nov 4, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; A general view of Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) and his ripped jersey sleeve in the third quarter against the New York Knicks at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 4, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; A general view of Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) and his ripped jersey sleeve in the third quarter against the New York Knicks at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports /

Nobody likes the NBA’s ugly sleeved jerseys. But unfortunately they’re not going away anytime soon.

There has been a lot to love through the first few weeks of the 2015-16 NBA season. The Golden State Warriors, on a quest to prove that last year’s championship was no fluke, look borderline unstoppable. Russell Westbrook is racking up highlights with ease. Kristaps Porzingis, booed loudly on draft night, is slowly becoming a hero to lanky dorks everywhere.

One thing that hasn’t been lovable, though, is the NBA’s continued insistence on trotting out the sleeved jerseys that nobody likes. Seriously, NBA, stop trying to make the sleeved jerseys cool. They are not and never will be.

When the league’s best and most marketable player rips the sleeves off his jersey in anger, as LeBron James did in Cleveland’s home opener, that’s a pretty big sign that the sleeved jerseys are a lackluster gimmick. James has complained about the jerseys before, but actually tearing the sleeves apart on national TV is a whole new level of dislike. It’s an act of rebellion impossible to misinterpret.

After the game James took a diplomatic approach. “I mean, if the fans love them, I love them,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

While it’s nice of James to attempt to put a positive spin on things, the facts are that the fans don’t really like the sleeved jerseys. Ever since the ugly uniforms were unveiled a few seasons ago, they’ve been the butt of innumerable jokes. Whenever a team rocks sleeved uniforms for a game Twitter becomes flooded with comments such as these:

(Those are just the tweets we can republish here. Some of the others veer a bit more into the, uh, profanity-laced territory.)

While you can certainly find some people willing to defend the jerseys, the overall fan reaction seems to be one of either mockery or disgust. Even worse, the jerseys aren’t exactly flying off the shelves, at least according to Uni Watch’s Paul Lukas. (It’s worth mentioning that other reports, including one from Adidas, say otherwise.) When you have a product that is routinely mocked, a product that your fans have little interest in buying, it is pretty safe to say that said product is a failure, at least on some level.

But don’t think it’s only random fans and LeBron James doing the complaining. The sleeved jerseys haven’t exactly been a hit with other players, either. Dirk Nowitzki has said he doesn’t like them:

As has Roy Hibbert:

Robin Lopez has even suggested — jokingly, of course — getting fire involved:

Going beyond even the simple crime-against-fashion angle, players have taken issue with how the sleeved jerseys hinder basic movements. Here’s what sharpshooter James Jones told

"I think they’re probably designed by guys that didn’t play basketball. Then second, our game is a game of above-the-head movement. You’re shooting the ball, grabbing a rebound, reaching, posting up, trying to defend and block a shot. Everything you do is above your head. So to have sleeves, especially restrictive sleeves, formed sleeves, it’s kind of tough. It’s a Dri Fit material to help keep you cool but in order for it to do the things it’s supposed to do it has to restrict you."

Jones’s point about the actual material parallels what an anonymous player was cited as saying to Ric Bucher last season:

"“They do not wick sweat away from the skin well You end up with a wet, cold, sticky shirt. In Milwaukee (or any other cold-weather city), you will freeze your tail off.”"

A similar complaint was made by Shane Battier in 2013:

Look, it’s easy to understand what the NBA is going for. Fans love to buy gear, but playing pickup hoops in a replica NBA jersey just isn’t practical, not unless you don’t mind ruining an expensive purchase with sweat and grime. Also, let’s be honest, most people don’t exactly have the sort of build that looks good in a baggy tank top. (Yes, you can rock a shirt beneath your jersey, but that’s never a good look.) Yet even if the jerseys make sense conceptually, the fact that they are pretty widely reviled is a sign that they either need to be redesigned or discontinued.

But will the NBA actually end the sleeved jerseys anytime soon? It’s unlikely. Let’s be realistic: the league is hellbent on selling as much merchandise as possible, and the sleeved jerseys don’t have to be great sellers in order to justify their continuation. Plus — *adjusts tinfoil hat* — they are a part of the NBA’s long-term plan to eventually put ads on uniforms. In fact, it’s not much of a conspiracy theory at all. Take it from Adam Silver himself, who had this to say at the 2014 IMG World Congress of Sports (via

"I think it’s inevitable. [Having ads on jerseys] just creates that much more of an opportunity for our marketing partners to get that much closer to our fans and to our players. It gives us an opportunity just to have deeper integration when it comes to those forms of sponsorship. … Increasingly as we see Champion’s League and English Premier League televised in the U.S., I think it’s going to become more acceptable and more commonplace for our fans as well."

Silver’s point about European soccer leagues is an interesting one. It is true that soccer fans have no qualms with ads on jerseys, having grown utterly desensitized to them. But ads on jerseys have a more defensible purpose in soccer than they would in the NBA. Because the sport isn’t plagued by endless TV timeouts, soccer requires having ads on jerseys as a way for sponsors to reach fans. It’s a necessary evil. There’s no guarantee that U.S. basketball fans would be as receptive, especially since the idea of ads on jerseys represents such a blatant, shameless cash-grab.

The NBA’s plan is simple: get the fans acclimated to seeing the extra fabric so later you can fill that excess blank space with advertisements. So even if fans don’t like the sleeved jerseys, and even if players find the them a tad uncomfortable, the NBA has little reason to terminate the product. Ads on uniforms will happen, and no amount of Twitter jokes about how the sleeved uniforms look like pajama tops will put a stop to capitalism’s march.

It’s unclear what it will take for the sleeved jerseys to go away. They look hideous — everyone can agree on that — but so do plenty of non-sleeved uniforms, so appealing to good fashion sense is kind of a non-starter. Even if players say they don’t fit well, the numbers don’t indicate that the sleeves cause overall shooting percentages to drop. Really, it appears as if the sleeved jerseys, even though they are utter fashion missteps, are here to stay, which is unfortunate. Basketball is a beautiful game. There’s no reason — well, besides money — to make it ugly.