“[When they saw our Griffins gear], strangers would walk up to us and say, ‘That’s Zion’s school’ or ‘Do you know Zion?’ ” Deems said.
As his star grew, Williamson became the most notable example of the rise in cultural relevance of high school basketball jerseys. In recent years, high school and college campuses have filled with new-school prep threads of young NBA players such as Lonzo Ball (Chino Hills in California), Ben Simmons (Montverde in Florida) or Markelle Fultz (DeMatha in Maryland) to go alongside old favorites such as LeBron James (St. Vincent-St. Mary in Ohio) and Kobe Bryant (Lower Merion in Pennsylvania).
Williamson’s Spartanburg jersey seemed to outpace them all, and his path to popularity — viral videos, social media accessibility and power of personality at a time when high school sports have never been more prolific — embodied the drivers of this movement. The wave is expected to grow with the stars of tomorrow because with expanded TV coverage of high school sports and the ubiquity of highlight videos, fans are more familiar with these jerseys than ever before.
Experts attribute this jersey renaissance to Generation Z — post-millennials born after 1997 who often celebrate the individual over the institution — which in sports translates to an admiration of the player more than the team. Many of them view jerseys as “literally wearing your achievements on your back,” Saisangeeth Daswani, a senior adviser at the international trend forecasting firm Stylus, wrote in an email.
“While [high school basketball jerseys] previously have been a symbol of belonging and fitting in,” Daswani said, “hyper-personalisation [sic] of the garments is turning team jerseys into status symbols that showcase being ‘in the know’ of lesser-known teams.”
These fans are able to express their appreciation of players with massive popularity while remaining niche. Last week, one Toronto Raptors fan took this to the extreme by showing up to Game 5 of the NBA Finals wearing the jersey of the tiny Iowa Catholic high school of Toronto Coach Nick Nurse.
This resurgence provides a window into the unofficial jersey market created in part because high school players cannot profit from their own likeness and maintain their amateur status. It has also resurfaced the same problems posed in the early 2000s by unauthorized replicas.
Throughout Williamson’s time at Spartanburg, the school understood there would be attempts to monetize the jersey, but it never attempted to. South Carolina High School League bylaws do not state whether it’s permissible for schools to profit from a student’s name, image or likeness in a similar fashion to how colleges sell jerseys which, while marketed as team apparel, slyly bear the number of a popular player.
Dan Rascher, an economist who has consulted on lawsuits challenging NCAA rules, said college athletes will be able to profit from their name, image and likeness “very soon” but that it’s unclear what impact that would have on younger athletes. High schools are regulated on a state-by-state basis, creating a situation that Rascher referred to as “the Wild West.”
For now, the issue remains a legal gray area, left up to state athletic associations that, Rascher added, often aren’t prepared to operate like businesses.
Enter Sean Kelly, 22, one of the roughly half-dozen third-party vendors unfettered by amateurism paralysis who filled the demand for Williamson’s high school jersey.
In 2016, the Rutgers University freshman dropped out because he saw the same jerseys again and again, often at parties, and suspected he could make money selling different ones. He founded Jersey Champs and mined music, movies and memes for ideas. His first big seller was a commemorative jersey of Harambe, the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla who was killed and went viral. Last year, he said, he sold nearly $1.2 million in jerseys.
As Jersey Champs grew, Kelly relied on social media to monitor trends and market products, catered to his base of students by limiting the cost of most jerseys to $50 or less, and grew big enough to open a shop on AliExpress, the Chinese online marketplace popular with jersey-buying teenagers in the United States. He found a niche in high school basketball jerseys, a market he called “not competitive” because none of the mainstream brands produced them.
In August 2017, after rapper and basketball superfan Drake repped Williamson’s Spartanburg jersey, Jersey Champs marketed one of its own. Thirteen days later, Jersey Champs tweeted it was one of its “best sellers” and restocked soon after.
Last month, Kelly said in an interview that he sought Spartanburg’s permission before producing the jersey and received “the green light.” The school denied approving any licensing requests, including one from Jersey Champs. Kelly claimed he had proof in a confirmation email but did not provide it.
By March, Williamson was leading the Blue Devils through the NCAA tournament, and jerseys were flying from the store. The week before the Final Four, sales peaked. From March 31 to April 5, Jersey Champs sold 3,294 Williamson jerseys worth $156,283.99 in revenue, according to internal data Kelly shared.
Rascher, the sports economist, said that if Spartanburg had signed a licensing deal comparable to others in its situation, and if the NCAA allowed an athlete to profit from his name, image and likeness, Williamson, after hypothetical agent fees, would have received about 8 percent, or $12,502, from one vendor selling his jersey for six days. This does not include sales from his Duke jersey, for which there is no known estimate.
Williamson, who declined to comment for this story, is coming to grips with his own marketability. Last week, he filed suit in federal court to void a marketing deal he signed in late April. Still, it won’t help in the high school jersey market, where his jersey has continued to sell at a high level, according to Kelly.
Even as the high school jerseys become bigger business, in pop culture they remain a purer expression. At first, fans bought the Spartanburg jersey because that’s the only place Williamson had ever played. Later, it simply became cool.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the 2019 ACC tournament was held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
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