By now you’ve probably seen the new Sydney Roosters jerseys for 2014. This writer is especially smitten with the white “away” jersey:
It’s a common marketing tool among sports clubs the world over. Every couple of years you update the uniform, and with that update comes the merchandising sales. Understandably it’s an easy way to build up the coffers through diehards like myself who are more than willing to shell out $160 for a new jersey — especially when you consider my most recent white jersey was the victim of a particularly hideous spaghetti bolognaise spill.
But this is a once-every-three-or-four-year proposition, and the NRL is missing out on a shitload of money by sticking with the weird tradition of keeping jersey numbers aligned with the positions the players are named in on a Tuesday afternoon.
So in the first installment of ” If I were Dave Smith” we tackle the biggest issue the NRL is facing at the moment — securing revenue that isn’t derived purely from television and ticket sales.
One way to do this is through individually-selected player numbers.
Let me explain.
Michael Jordan is synonymous with the number 23. So synonymous with it was he that when he returned from his baseball sabbatical and wore number 45 (it was his childhood number), the very sight of it was jarring.
His return was slow, as you would expect from being out of the game for 18 months. But Nick Anderson of the Orlando Magic — after the Magic defeated the Bulls in Game One of the semifinals — commented that MJ ” didn’t look like the old Michael Jordan”. Jordan promptly changed back to number 23, mid-playoffs, and paid the accompanying $10k-plus fine for changing his number during the season.
Michael Jordan has been retired for over a decade. His number 23 jersey still sells on NBA.com for US$300.
That’s the power of marketing; of having a jersey and something as simple as a number so synonymous with a single icon.
Now this is a long story that I could have made much shorter by simply asking you this question: how much would you be willing to pay for a Sonny Bill Williams [insert number] jersey?
Or for that matter — how much would you pay for a Brad Fittler number six jersey — especially if the NRL had the option to retire numbers?
Australian rugby league trialled individually-selected numbers back in the Super League competition, but once the ARL and SL combined to form the NRL, the “gimmick” as it was known back then was abandoned in favour of the traditional one-through-17 numbering system.
One can only assume that it never really took off because the Super League jerseys were fucking atrocious to begin with — a paint-by-numbers across-the-board abomination bereft of style and substance. But only in the rugby codes do we really get this fascination with making sure the fullback wears a certain number on his back.
However, before we get to the reasons why we should change to individually-selected player numbers, I’ll give some reasons why they haven’t done it yet.
Tradition: “I don’t need a car, I have a horse”.
Along with the phrase “loyalty is dead”, nothing pisses this writer off more than the use of the word “tradition” to justify the status quo or as an excuse to revert to it.
We hear the bleeding hearts every year yearning for the Sunday afternoon Grand Final because that’s the way it always was, despite crowds and ratings proving otherwise; we hear the nut jobs in certain sections of the media yearn for the good old days of the top five, even though we have a 16-team competition nowadays.
(By the way, the argument that “half of the teams shouldn’t make the playoffs” is just nonsense; all the US sports and almost every tournament around the world uses a top eight format and most of the time half make the playoffs. The NBA has 30 teams and 16 make the playoffs, for fuck’s sake, and that league prints money like a mint.
It’s an argument brought up whenever there is an absence of outrage in the rugby league media, and it’s a shit argument to begin with. The money derived from the television ratings and gate receipts by having three extra teams in the finals series justifies moving on from “tradition”. But I digress.)
Traditionally, a fullback was a fullback, a lock was a lock, a winger a winger. You could therefore ascertain the player’s position simply by the number on their back, and rarely would they stray from that role.
But we have just seen a second-rower play five-eighth with the number 12 on his back. We’ve seen a decade of front rowers running at centres like they’re second rowers, we are seeing wingers get involved at dummy half on the fourth tackle and we have seen fullbacks across the board step in and play like five eighths.
The “number for position” era is essentially over.
Why individually-selected numbers makes sense.
Firstly, there is nothing more confusing than seeing a random dude in the warm-ups and having to ask “who is that in number 22” — and having to find out off Twitter that Brian Smith has recalled Justin Carney at the last minute. But if number 22 was his number throughout the year — or number 55, 17 or whatever number he chooses — we’d know instantly.
But that is the practical part. Where the key benefits come in is through revenue.
Let’s say SBW chose number 23. Fans could buy jerseys with “Williams” on the back emblazoned with the 23, and those fans don’t even have to be fans of the Roosters or rugby league. They could just be fans of Sonny Bill Williams, those who collect memorabilia of the man who has over 300,000 Twitter followers. They could be rugby fans looking for a new look, or fans of his boxing, or whatever.
If that doesn’t make sense, go to a Sydney Kings game and see how many people are wearing Magic Johnson jerseys. Or how many people are wearing Shane Heal jerseys, even though he played with the club more than a decade ago and now coaches them.
SBW would choose the number, and be stuck with it. And now, the club can market SBW jerseys as opposed to the blank jerseys that someone doesn’t necessarily feel the need to update any time soon.
Looking at it another way: If I had just purchased an Anthony Minichiello jersey and the club just announced SBW had signed with the club, I wouldn’t hesitate — I’d be down at the Easts shop within seconds, getting a Sonny Bill jersey even though I had just shelled out for a Mini number one.
This doesn’t account for the diehard, rugby league nerds of the world. Those who love Boyd Cordner could nab his number 33, or fans of Sam Moa could purchase his number 99.
And would there be anything better for this writer than buying the jersey of cult hero Dylan Napa, number 66?
For what it’s worth, here is an image of two jerseys hanging up in the 26 Rounds office:
The jersey on the left is Carmelo Anthony’s. Non-NBA fans may have heard of him.The guy on the right, non-NBA fans have definitely NOT heard of.
It belonged to Steve Novak, who came off the bench for 15 minutes a game for the Knicks and only shot three-pointers, and who was traded the year after I bought it.
I bought it because I am an NBA nerd. And I am a bigger NRL nerd than basketball nerd, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that — if individually-selected numbers were instituted in the NRL — those two jerseys could be replaced with SBW’s number 23 Roosters home jersey and Dylan Napa’s number 66 Roosters away jersey.
The NRL — and the clubs — could really be onto a marketing bonanza if they let NRL players pick their own numbers.
But it goes beyond simply selling the jerseys.
Remembering the greats.
With all due respect to James Maloney, Braith Anasta, Jamie Soward and Josh Lewis, there is only one person who deserves to be remembered as the Roosters’ number six.
God. Freddy. Bradley Scott Fittler.
His number should never be worn by another Rooster ever again after leading this club through its “decade of excellence” and becoming at one with the club and its fans. He’s the number six who kicked a 40/20 in ’02, who took an intercept off Joey and who we could depend on when brilliance was needed.
I repeat: his number should never be worn by another player in Roosters’ history. It should be retired; and for that matter, so should Arthur Beetson’s and Dave Brown’s and Dally Messenger’s.
Players such as James Maloney would not have the option of picking that number ever again. But given his personality, he’d probably pick 69 and be stoked with the honour.
It’s another way for clubs to honour the greats, and for fans who may have never witnessed said great to realise how special those players whose numbers were retired were to the team.
A retired jersey only goes to the true greats of the club and from a marketing perspective there would be nothing more special than a jersey retirement ceremony for a former great before a game or at half time; a kind of “post-humous” version of the farewell lap at the last home game of an athlete’s career.
(As an aside, the arguments about who should get their number retired would make for great discussion. Would Kevin Hastings deserve to have his number seven retired? What of Russell Fairfax’s number one — especially considering the career Mini has had in the same jersey? Would Adrian Morley deserve it? Craig Fitzgibbon? What about SBW — considering he’ll only have played two years in the Tricolours?
But I digress. Again.)
The Roosters were on the right track this year when they handed out commemorative pendants of the club’s 12 (well, now 13) premierships, something they will continue to do this year.
If they were given the opportunity to market the retirement of Brad Fittler’s famous number six jersey at the start of one of the games, they’d nail it.
Maybe they should just say “fuck it” and retire his jersey anyway, with James Maloney and the five-eighths that follow forced to forever wear the number 18 or higher. Sorry BBQ; but you are wearing God’s jersey.
It’s like someone other than Joseph wearing the amazing technicolour dreamcoat — if you aren’t Joseph, well, people are going to think you’re just some pimp:
If this came into being, no doubt some in the media would claim it was yet another shameless money grab from clubs preying on poor families. But that argument would be another piece of fake outrage manufactured to sell papers. After all, no one is forcing anyone to buy six different jerseys for their children.
The facts are clear — fans are buying the jerseys anyway, so why not allow them to buy the jersey of their favourite player, one they can treasure long after that player has retired?
And why not allow the clubs a bit more marketing power by promoting the individual with more than simply a generic jersey?
And why not allow the nerds — like me — to get their hands on a James Maloney 69 jersey as well as a Napa 66 special?
To see the number 50, for example, on the footy field would be jarring, it would be weird — but those feelings would dissipate after a year, maybe less.
From a marketing perspective, it just makes sense. What doesn’t make sense anymore is the illusion that SBW is merely a second rower because he wears number 12, or that Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is “just a winger” because he wears number five on his back.
We’ve moved beyond that system. And the NRL can move with it and create another revenue stream for clubs that are struggling.
The Roosters won the premiership, yet operated at a loss this year. Something doesn’t add up. The game needs other forms of revenue, and merchandise has long been an underused form of income for clubs.
This could be one way to expand the potential of the merchandising for clubs and to close that operating costs gap.
What do you think? Should the NRL bring in individually-selected numbers?
Let me know why/why not in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook — and vote in the poll below.