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Crime fiction writer Val McDermid knows a thing or two about football shirts. Long-time supporter of Scottish League 1 football club, Raith Rovers, McDermid wanted her name on the back of her team’s strip. Instead of forking out around £1 a character for a personalised version, she took a different approach – she paid £20,000 plus VAT, per season sponsorship.

“I think I’m the only writer doing this,” she explains. “I was on the board at Raith and, like many lower division Scottish football clubs, money has always been a challenge. We had one shirt sponsor but they didn’t want to continue, so it was beneficial for me to step in. It’s been great. I’ve really got a lot of bang for my bucks from it and raised my profile as an author. I realised it had really gone far and wide when I got a call from The New York Times.”

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But while McDermid went to great lengths to have her name emblazoned on shirts, other fans have to settle for replica versions of team strips. Even this can cost dedicated supporters hundreds of pounds to keep up with changing football fashions. McDermid believes big clubs' shirt prices are often “pitched ridiculously high” for fans who are being “gouged” in their efforts to show their support.

South of the border shirt politics are even more contentious. And really big business. The growing cost of replica kits (replicas are the official ones sold in club shops and other high street sportswear chains), and the increasing regularity with which the elite football teams alter not only their first-choice but also their second and third-change strips, is a sensitive issue for clubs, especially those that feature in the English Premier League. 

The price of replica shirts has come a long way since Leeds United became the first club to sell a replica shirt to fans in 1973, for the princely sum of £5. An adult shirt from the side today costs more than ten times that amount at full price.

Kit inflation

Since the season of 2011/12, Premier League fans have faced an 18.5% increase in shirt prices, with the average adult shirt costing £50.90 in 2017/18, according to research by Peter Rohlmann, a marketing analyst who specialises in football merchandise. Kits for children have increased in a similar way, with a junior replica shirt costing 19.8% more last season – an average of £40.25 – than it did six years earlier. 

According to the BBC's annual Price of Football survey, Premier League champions Manchester City, along with Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, sold the most expensive adult shirts last season, priced at £60-£66. United also sold the most expensive junior shirt, priced at £51.78.

But it is not just the cost of the shirts that is changing – the number of strips released is also increasing. In the summer of 2017, 10 clubs released three different strips for the season. Third kits were originally used in case of a clash between a team's away kit and a home club strip. But now clubs are introducing third kits more and more. For instance, Newcastle United had four kits in 2011/12 – home, away, a third and a Europa League kit.

The Hammers 2016/17 home kit on sale. A navy Thames Ironworks Commemorative Kit was created for the official opening of London Stadium against Juventus (Credit: Getty Images)

Special edition kits are on the rise too. West Ham United F.C., for example, had a special edition 'Thames Iron Works F.C.' kit to mark their move to the London Stadium in Stratford, east London. And at an eye-wateringly expensive £110, a blue 1968 commemorative kit for 2018-2019 from Manchester United sparked a backlash from fans when it was unveiled in May.

While prices have soared in the Premier League, they are far from being the most expensive football shirts around. In fact, fans in other parts of Europe pay more. In Italy, fans pay an average €76.54 (£66.91) per shirt, while in France and Germany it can cost fans €78.03 (£68.21) and €81.34 (£71.10) per shirt respectively.

The difference, argues Rohlmann, is that the prices in the UK have increased step-by-step each season.

"The reasons for the continuous rise in kit prices are varied," he explains. "The huge increase in kit supply sponsorships goes hand-in-hand with the target of refinancing the spending on these deals by a permanent uplift of replica prices for fans."

Wearable billboards

Rohlmann is analysing what appears to be a shift in the kind of sponsorship deals done by Premier League sides and shirt prices. As an example, Manchester United currently have a 10-year kit deal with Adidas worth £750m, in which the sportswear manufacturer pays money to the club up front to secure a licensing deal. While traditionally sponsors might have bought rights to sponsor everything from stadiums to socks, most modern deals focus on giving the sponsor the right to use the club’s intellectual property, and through the club, players’ image rights.

The kit manufacturer is able to set the price of replica kits so that it can earn a concrete return on their investment sponsorship. This contrasts with trying to calculate something like “brand value,” “exposure,” and “engagement” as way of assessing a return on their investment.

These deals are also increasingly determining the design of new shirts each season, says Chris Stride, a statistician at the University of Sheffield who has studied the evolution of replica football kits.

Val McDermid has a long connection with Raith Rovers - her dad was a player scout and she says to many she'll always be 'Jim McDermid's lassie' (Credit: Tony Fimister)

"Football shirts have transitioned from a sportswear product whose primary purpose was for players to play in, through a period in which they became profitable replica sportswear for children, to becoming leisurewear for young adults, and then for adults of all ages," Stride says. "So designs now are influenced by the tastes of that mature adult market, with shirts often having a nostalgic angle."

Stride argues this has led to flashy, intricate designs becoming less common due to the preferences of the adult market, but also because these plain designs are also less likely to clash with the many logos and sponsorship brands the shirts now carry.

“The innovation in football shirts has shifted from design to marketing tactics,” says Stride. “Though most clubs now change their home shirt design every season, changes often consist of just minor details, small flashes, collar styles or trim.”

The number of strips is also rising. In the summer of 2017, 10 clubs released three different strips for the season. (Credit: Getty Images)

Following the money

It is hardly surprising that football shirt design has become so driven by marketing and sponsorship. Football clubs have three key revenue streams: match-day earnings, media, and commercial sales (where shirt revenue is often the biggest component.) The 20 clubs in the English Premier League smashed their record for combined shirt sponsorship deals for the 2017-18 season by generating £281.8 million, according to Sporting Intelligence data, an increase of more than £55 million on the previous year.

But who is raking in this all cash? The reality is that while fans may like to moan about the clubs, a very small group of manufacturers actually take the biggest slice of the replica kit earnings in the UK. These are Nike, Adidas, Puma and to a far lesser extent smaller kit suppliers like New Balance. On average, “Nike earns more in three months than every Premier League club combined will earn next season,” says sports lawyer Jake Cohen.

Welsh player Gareth Bale cost a then-world record £86 million when he joined Real Madrid from Tottenham Hotspur F.C. 2013 (Credit: Getty Images)

Typically, around 5.8% of the cost of a £60 replica shirt is the cost of the fabric, sewing and shipping, according to Rohlmann. About 11.5% of the sale price is profit for the manufacturer while the club receives just 3.6% of the sale price as its licensing fee. Retailers take a considerable chunk of the pie, with 22% of the shirt price accounting for their profit. The rest of the price is gobbled up by VAT, distribution and marketing costs, he says.

More kits

But while clubs may be taking a smaller cut than most people might think, how do the fans themselves feel about the rising costs?

The sale of replica kits is important to the clubs as a way of establishing a link with fans that can last through the ages. "I've got a five-year-old son," explains Darren Bernstein, lecturer in football business and marketing for the University Campus of Football Business (UCFB) based at Manchester and Wembley. "We always say football is generational and you pass your club on to the next generation. 

"I'm a fan of [lower league] Bury and I want my son to be a fan too, the shirt is part of that process of 'passing down'. I'm quite happy to invest in that in order to pass the baton on, and that baton just happens to be a shirt.” 

Maybe this explains why there's no real public outcry over the rising costs of replica shirts. The Football Supporters Federation says it does not receive many complaints about the cost of replica kits.

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"Many fans do feel kits are expensive and changed too often although they're not necessarily 'essential' items like match tickets," explains an FSF spokesperson. "A fair solution might be for manufacturers and clubs to incorporate a ‘sell by’ date into the kit's label. Then fans who buy a kit know exactly what they're getting and how long it will remain current." This is something Raith Rovers already do.

The FSF represents supporters in England and Wales, fans who are able to go to games far more frequently than the millions of overseas devotees who follow the Premier League. Simon Mitton, a colleague of Bernstein's at UCFB, suggests there are other factors involved in selling shirts overseas.

"Let's take Tottenham, as an example, trying to build a relationship in south-east Asia with a 13 or 14-year-old kid in Thailand," says Mitton, who is a senior lecturer in football business and programme development lead at the UCFB. "That kid's first connection, apart from watching Tottenham on TV and checking out what the club is doing on the social media platforms, is getting the brand new Tottenham shirt delivered to him in Thailand.”

Another trend is for fans to buy the shirt bearing the name of a particular player. For some supporters, it is the status of these superstars that is more important than the club on the front of the shirt.

“For example, they might buy a Cristiano Ronaldo Real Madrid shirt, a Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal shirt and maybe even a Cristiano Ronaldo Sporting Lisbon shirt,” says Mitton. “They'll actually purchase shirts around that player icon they follow." 

But with millions of football shirts being sold worldwide, is it really possible for a star player earn back their transfer fee in shirt sales alone?  It appears this is a myth.

This extra competition might mean that the average kit prices do not increase as much or at all in the future

An individual star player’s transfer fee will never be paid for by their shirt sales alone, says sports lawyer Jake Cohen. He argues that if you imagine a Colombian star player is bought by a Premier League club, Colombian football fans are a particularly committed fan-base who very actively buy shirts, so their buying could represent say £2-3m in shirt sales. But this is just a slight shift in overall sales and isn’t going to come close to meeting the £10 million and upwards transfer cost.

But an elite player's association with a manufacturer can be an important factor when it comes to the transfer market. Dynamic Welsh playmaker Gareth Bale cost a then-world record £86 million when he joined Real Madrid from Tottenham in 2013, but he has been in and out of the team this season, leading to reports that he may be on the move. According to Mitton, there are only three possible places he could go - Bayern Munich, Juventus, or Manchester United.

“The reason for that is they all have Adidas-produced shirts and Bale is an Adidas athlete,” he explains. "If you are a brand that buys a relationship with a club, you've also got to have that player iconography underneath to support the drive of the buying function."

For those fans struggling to keep up with the ever-changing football shirts and the names of the players on the back, Peter Rohlmann believes there could be some good news on the horizon. With the two biggest brands - Adidas and Nike - only able to focus on supplying kits for a few very lucrative clubs, it is giving other smaller manufacturers like Puma, Umbro and New Balance the opportunity to partner with other large and attractive clubs.

"This might be a chance for kits with prices that are not as high as those of Adidas and Nike," he predicts. "This extra competition might mean that the average kit prices do not increase as much or at all in the future."

None of the 20 Premier League clubs we approached for comment on shirt sales were available to comment on this story.

 This article was amended to correct the spelling of Colombian.

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