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Monday, May 27, 2024

Nike’s Failed Attempt at ‘Innovating’ MLB Uniforms Leads to an About-Face

  • Nike is set to make a series of changes to the MLB uniforms after unrelenting criticism.
  • The issue is arising amid a series of broader problems for the sports footwear and apparel giant.
Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports

A change is going to come—again—to MLB uniforms, and this time it was all but inevitable. 

The MLB Players Association has informed its membership that a series of modifications will be made to the uniforms, no later than the start of the 2025 season, according to a memo originally obtained by ESPN. Changes will include a return to a larger letter on the backs of jerseys, fixing mismatched jerseys and pants on teams’ gray uniforms, and returning to the prior tailoring options for pants. 

“This has been entirely a Nike issue,” the union’s memo read in part. “At its core, what has happened here is that Nike was innovating something that didn’t need to be innovated.”

The abrupt about-face follows more than two months of turmoil that had dogged the league since the much-debated introduction of Nike’s Vapor Premier jerseys in spring training, as well as pants with fewer customization options for players. Since that initial rollout, problems have included the see-through nature of the pants, a pooling of sweat on some players’ uniforms during games, names that are more difficult to read, and pants that have more easily ripped after sliding on the base paths. 

“We cautioned Nike against various changes when they previewed them in 2022, particularly regarding pants. MLB had been, and has been, aware of our concerns as well. Unfortunately, until recently, Nike’s position has essentially boiled down to: ‘Nothing to see here. Players will need to adjust,’” the MLBPA wrote.

Over the past 10 weeks, MLB and Nike have repeatedly appealed for patience from both players and the public. But ultimately, the status quo was almost certainly not sustainable, in part as social media outcry continued both on the look and composition of the uniforms. 

“We recognize that, for players, this has taken too long, and was entirely avoidable,” the memo said. 

Industry sources tell Front Office Sports there is not yet a more precise timetable on the implementation of the uniform fixes, as the adjustments must be finalized and then produced at scale. While those steps are taken, several MLB teams are continuing a rollout of long-planned City Connect alternate uniforms, with the Rays becoming the latest to do so Monday. 

Bigger Issues

The placement of blame squarely on Nike for these problems is not surprising, as the company was the one that designed the new uniforms, with Fanatics essentially acting as a subcontractor in the production of the jerseys of pants. But the MLBPA also has a far larger business relationship with Fanatics. 

The union has a minority equity stake in Fanatics, as does the league, and the company was the MLBPA’s second-largest licensee in 2023, paying $44 million. 

The MLB uniform issue is just the latest hit for Nike, with the sports footwear and apparel giant also grappling with a $2 billion cost-cutting program that includes multiple rounds of layoffs, criticism about a separate set of uniforms of the U.S. Olympic team, and a broader malaise across the entire category. 

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