The crowd goes wild: After years of traditional fan gear, MLB is letting its freak flag fly
When Josh Macuga walks into Sonny McLean’s, a sports bar in Los Angeles that caters to Boston fans, “the place goes wild,” he says.
Macuga, a comedian and YouTube host, isn’t that famous. It’s his statement pants that prompt the reaction: outlandish red, white, and blue argyle trousers, festooned with the Red Sox letter B.
“Any time I have them on, people give me high-fives,” Macuga said. “Kids want to take pictures with me.”
Sartorially speaking, baseball has always been the most buttoned-down of the major sports. Fan garb rarely strays far from standard-issue T-shirts and caps, emblazoned with team logos.
But now, as they chase a younger audience, the 150-year-old majors are letting their freak flag fly a bit, licensing brands that are offering brasher statements and a more fashion-forward attitude.
Think skorts. Think yoga pants. Think sports coats emblazoned with team logos.
Loudmouth Golf, the maker of Macuga’s outrageous pants, was one of many official Major League Baseball license holders peacocking on the floor of the MLB Retail Summit in the Prudential Center this spring. The company featured a line of flamboyant Red Sox blazers, for a cool $495 apiece, as part of its new Cooperstown Retro Collection.
At a booth nearby, Stance Socks, which provides the official sock of the major leagues, was unveiling its goofy mascot line, including a knee-high number with Wally the Green Monster. A company rep, Tzvi Twersky, said players such as Mookie Betts and Christian Vázquez have been strutting the brand’s wackier designs on the field. It gives their staid uniforms a bit of pop, he said.
For the non-cleats-wearing rest of us, Joshua Klein, of Eastland Shoe Co. in Freeport, Maine, was showing off deck shoes plastered with baseball logos. The company has been stepping up its efforts to cater to diehard team loyalists. “They want to be seen as being fans,” he said. “They want to be head to toe.”
All this is quite a departure for baseball fashion, said Marty Brochstein, a senior vice president at the Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association.
“At one time all the leagues, including the MLB, were very, very strict and almost didactic about their logos,” Brochstein said.
But baseball has been more willing to relinquish control, he said, as leagues have come to appreciate the marketing opportunities that retail brings.
“It’s as much about the wearer being a billboard for the sport as it is about the revenue generated by that piece of apparel,” he said.
Unfortunately for the MLB, it’s been approximately two decades since wearing licensed sports apparel was considered cool, said Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst with NPD Group. Think Will Smith sporting his Phillies baseball jersey when he won a Grammy in 1998, or the popularity of that once-ubiquitous relic of the early ’90s, the Starter jacket.
A decade ago, MLB had something approaching a fashion moment — if you can call it that — when the pink-hat trend took off as the league began to finally acknowledge female fans, Powell said. But since then, the only really ubiquitous piece of fan merchandise has been the baseball cap.
The leagues, though, need to turn younger heads.
“MLB has the oldest average fans, and when you look at the demographic trends,” Powell said, “they’re not making any more boomers.”
According to 2017 Nielsen television ratings, the average baseball viewer was 53, compared with the National Football League’s 47, and National Basketball league’s 37. When Nielsen asked fans to pick words they associated most with the league, one of the top responses was “traditional.”
And so, over the last 18 months, the league has been seeking to license merchandise with brands that appeal to a younger generation, said Noah Garden, MLB’s executive vice president.
These efforts dovetail with commissioner Rob Manfred’s mission to reinvigorate the popularity of youth baseball through the Play Ball campaign, which supports youth baseball and softball teams. Helped along by parents’ concerns about head injuries in contact sports, the effort seems to be working: “We’ve seen youth baseball [participation] grow at a rate that’s faster than the other sports,” Garden said.
At the official Red Sox team store at Fenway Park this week, Scott Saklad, the general manager and buyer, pointed out the merchandise he has brought in especially for millennials, women, and children.
On display were dresses, skirts, and pants from New Bedford-based Refried Tees ,which uses recycled fabrics from overstock baseball jerseys and T-shirts. The brand plays well to twentysomething women who want unique, eco-conscious items that stand out from a sea of T-shirts. Women, Saklad said, are also drawn to the onesies and infant T-shirts from the brand Tiny Turnip, a new line of licensed MLB children’s wear designed by players’ wives. Co-branded Red Sox/Carhartt hats have been a huge seller since they debuted last year, and the $140 Tommy Bahama Red Sox Hawaiian shirts have been a hit with dads.
The team store owners, who also own the ’47 clothing line, just took steps to create an official licensing partnership with Citgo for a line of T-shirts that have no baseball logo at all, just the blazing red triangle that’s synonymous with Fenway Park.
That type of thing would have been unheard of just five years ago, Saklad said.
“We’re trying to bring as many elevated brands as we can to the store and things that aren’t everywhere else,” he added. “Back when we started everything was very vanilla, and now we’ve added a lot of different ingredients to the mix.”
Adam Grossman, the Red Sox chief marketing officer, is upbeat about the introduction of flashier apparel in the nation’s oldest Major League ballpark. (Boston Globe owner John Henry is also principal owner of the Red Sox.)
“Many of our younger fans are more open to experimenting outside of traditional styles, and MLB licensees are responding to the demand,” he said in an e-mail.
Saklad however, isn’t sure how far fans will be willing to push their fashion limits. He hasn’t begun stocking Loudmouth pants, for example. “People want to be seen with the loud things but they don’t want to pay the loud prices,” he said. (The pants retail for $105.) “I don’t know how far they’re going to go out of their comfort zone.”
Massachusetts native Scott “Woody” Woodworth, who founded Loudmouth, would beg to differ. His gear is in 12 ballpark team stores now, and he sees a fashion wave coming. “I think stores discovered there’s a piece of real estate on someone's body that we haven’t sold fan gear for, and that's bottoms,” he said.
Macuga concurs: “I’m a very big supporter of the pants movement, because I’m a sweater, I can’t wear a jacket” to make a fashion statement, he said. He owns 22 pairs.
“Put on some Loudmouth pants and walk into a park,” Woodworth said. “It’s transforming. You’ll end up on the Jumbotron.”