MLB’s City Connect uniforms have changed the future of fashion in baseball

MLB’s City Connect uniforms have changed the future of fashion in baseball

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  • Joon LeeESPN

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      Previously a Staff Writer at Bleacher Report
      Cornell University graduate

This season’s seven City Connect uniforms were polarizing among fans, but Major League Baseball considers them a success.

The Nike alternates, according to league officials, are not only here to stay — there will be 23 others by the end of 2023 — they are helping to set the stage for even more radical designs in the future.

In April, the Boston Red Sox became the first team to unveil a City Connect uniform, with a jersey that tossed out the color of red completely in favor of yellow and blue, a homage to Patriots’ Day and the Boston Marathon. The Red Sox were followed by the Miami Marlins, who paid tribute to Cuba’s Sugar Kings; the Chicago White Sox, who went with an all-black pinstriped look and a gothic “Southside” font; the Chicago Cubs, who gave a shout out to the Wrigleyville neighborhood that surrounds their ballpark; the Arizona Diamondbacks, who created gold uniforms with “Los Serpientes” emblazoned across the chest; and the San Francisco Giants, who gave a nod to the Golden Gate Bridge. The final team on this year’s list, the Los Angeles Dodgers, revealed its take on Thursday.

While the looks rattled some traditionalists, they proved to be a hit. Not including the Dodgers’ late-breaking addition to the series, each team’s jerseys sold out. As sales surpassed projections, the league couldn’t keep City Connect merchandise in stock, in small part due to global supply chain issues. Those strong sales — and all the buzz the series has generated — have MLB teams looking at their uniforms in a different way.

“They’re getting a little more aggressive where they’ve been a little more traditional,” MLB chief revenue officer Noah Garden said. “They see what’s happened. They see the conversation that’s out there. They see the overwhelming positive support and they see it attracting an audience they want to attract, which is a younger demographic that is more fashion forward, loves the game, but may not be as traditional.”

Some teams, like the Marlins and Diamondbacks, are incorporating the uniforms into their regular mix. All 30 MLB teams are expected to have a City Connect jersey by the end of the 2023 season. The popularity of the inaugural group of uniforms has clubs jumping headfirst into the series, including some of the most conservative teams. According to league sources, the New York Yankees — whose uniform, with some minor exceptions, has remained untouched for generations — initially expressed hesitation about City Connect designs. Now, sources said, they are aggressively pursuing an alternate.

Even the Dodgers’ “Los Dodgers” look — at first glance, the least risky of the series to date — took a leap of faith.

“The City Connect uniforms were familiar by design, as any changes to our uniform are significant. The Dodgers uniform has gone largely unchanged since the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958,” said Dodgers executive vice president and chief marketing officer Lon Rosen. “We don’t have a third jersey, we don’t wear different jerseys based on days of the week or the pitchers’ preference, so an all blue uniform with spray paint accents and anything but our iconic L.A. cap are drastic changes for us.”

Other teams, sources said, have already scrapped plans for more conservative City Connect designs in favor of more fashion-forward looks.

“It’s definitely more open from clubs, definitely more engaged in the process and definitely more excited about their launch,” Garden said. “Now we’ve got clubs that were like, ‘I’ll do it three years down the road,’ to, ‘How do I do it next year?'”

While some have criticized City Connect as a cash grab, Garden disputed that, saying that merchandise sales represent a small portion of the league’s overall revenue. City Connect, Garden said, is more about using fashion to better market the sport.

“When I look at merchandise, I look at it less about how many we’re selling, because at the end of the day that number, in relation to ticket sales and everything else we do, is really not a huge number,” Garden said. “It’s more about marketing the product. When you see somebody with a Yankees hat on or a Yankees jersey on, or a Red Sox hat or jersey, they’re marketing the product for us. The more people wearing that product, the more relevant you are.”

In recent years, the league collaborated with brands such as Supreme, Ralph Lauren, Aimé Leon Dore, Kith and Awake NY to bring baseball products into the streetwear and fashion world. The success of those collaborations and City Connect is accelerating the league’s plans in those spaces.

While the NBA took an all-in approach to uniform design, starting with the 2017-18 season and completely revamping the on-court fashion of the sport through the City Edition collection, MLB has taken a much slower, more cautious approach. Dr. Brandon Brown, a clinical assistant professor of sports marketing at New York University, said that the partnership between Nike and the NBA is a case study in how MLB could approach changing the fashion culture in baseball. When MLB brought in Nike as its official uniform supplier in 2019, the hope was to bring the baseball uniform into the 21st century. But it won’t happen overnight.

“If [MLB’s] fans were only younger generations, I think they would make more of an approach to go all-in. But because they understand they have older generations, they can’t go all-in,” Brown said. “I think it’s a first step. They’re not outright going to change their entire personality, but they’re at least changing their approach to get in touch with the younger generation.”

Brown said MLB’s vision for City Connect taps into regional identity, in an attempt to attract those who might not normally consider buying a baseball jersey.

“People always want to showcase an identity. Region is such a big part of that,” Brown said. “I love Jay-Z’s quote, where he said, ‘I made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can.’ Wearing the Yankee hat doesn’t represent, necessarily, that you’re a Yankee, but it represents the fact that you’re a New Yorker. So jerseys, in essence, don’t just celebrate the team, they celebrate where you’re from.”

It’s also an attempt to court Generation Z.

“That’s why these City Connect jerseys are so important,” Brown said. “They do something different, and that’s what the Gen Z culture connects with, being different. MLB wants their teams to be in the mix of conversations. MLB wants their teams to be in the mix to represent city identity.”

It hasn’t been only City Connect. MLB has experimented with its uniforms in recent years to mixed success. At this year’s All-Star Game, an event in which each player has historically worn his own team’s uniform, the league unveiled uniforms for the American League and National League squads. Those received a lukewarm reception. The league’s Players Weekend has also pushed boundaries, with nicknames on the back of jerseys — including emojis — though the most recent, monochromatic black-and-white designs from 2019 were widely panned.

But the momentum isn’t slowing. Much of the change in on-field fashion has been pushed by the players. A younger generation of stars, including Fernando Tatis Jr., Mookie Betts, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Tim Anderson and Ronald Acuna Jr., are reinventing the game’s sense of style. Anderson played a consulting role in the rollout of the White Sox uniforms, which have been among City Connect’s most popular.

“We wanted to do something cool and be authentic,” Anderson told The Athletic in May. “I think this is as authentic as it gets. Having Southside on the front is relatable. Using that term makes it a lot more realistic for people who actually grew up on the South Side and been Sox fans their whole life. I think it’s definitely real relatable, real cool and real dope.”

The game has seen flashier socks, the rise of chains, the use of painted bats during the Home Run Derby and the rise of sneaker culture in the sport, something that’s even extended to the footwear of umpires. Garden said that MLB is considering further loosening the rules around self-expression, and that painted bats could soon find their way into regular-season games the way colorful custom cleats have. That will only push uniform fashion further.

“We always have to make sure that anything we do continues to remain tasteful and doesn’t take away from the product on the field, but yeah, all that stuff’s on the table,” Garden said. “I think all that stuff should be on the table. Again, I think it’s all positive. I think that that trend will continue.”

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