My sleepwear options change on a nightly basis. Sometimes I wear a white, longsleeve Texas Longhorns T-shirt with one of my orange pairs of J.Crew pajama pants. Sometimes it's a Napoleon High School Tennis t-shirt with forbidden gym shorts, or one of my many sports jerseys (few of which are actually mine, save the 1984 Bernie Kosar Miami Hurricanes throwback and the 1998 Carolina Hurricanes Sean Burke jersey). A trip through my closet is like a trip to the ultra-discount store, which is not coincidence as I obtained many of these items at the ultra-discount store.
|This image courtesy the STARTER JACKET FETISH SITE. No, srsly.|
Last night, I wore one of those "borrowed" jerseys, namely a New Jersey Devils belonging to my brother (Hot Dog Man, you haven't been looking for your Devils jerseys, have you?) The back of the jersey notes that it was manufactured by Starter, which made me wonder,
"What happened to Starter Jackets (and related clothing)?"
Once the domain of athletes, gangsta rappers, and actual gangstas (and gangsta wannabes) Starter clothes have virtually disappeared from Foot Lockers and Champs Sports locations nationwide. Where once an Oakland Raiders Starter jacket identified one as an "O.G.," now the thugs and ballaz are wearing NASCAR gear (or at least they are here in St. Petersburg) proving that even the uneducated are capable of understanding irony. In the early '90s, Starter jackets found their way to the nightly news, as people were regularly shot and killed for their bulky, unattractive sportswear. The story of the rise and fall of Starter appears to be as-yet untold on the internets, so here I am, telling it.
Michael Wilbon says that throwback uniforms are today what Starter Jackets were in the late 1980's. The source of the success, he alleges, is the same: hip-hop culture.
Starter was once the darling of the sports world, having exclusive contracts with, among others, Major League Baseball; in 2000, MLB switched contracts to Majestic Apparel, and that seems to be the beginning of the downfall (though, notably, the New York Yankees consistently wore their old Starter Jackets throughout 2000 ).
Contemporary news articles most often feature Starter Jackets in descriptions of crime suspects, such as:
Police were seeking a black man, 24, with a dark complexion, wearing a blue Starter Jacket with white lettering (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 27 August 2000)
Police say the gunman is a black male in his late teens, wearing blue jeans and a blue Starter Jacket (Little Rock Democrat-Gazette, 25 September 1997)
His accomplice was described as 25-30 years old, 6 feet and 200 pounds. He was wearing a ball cap and a University of Miami Starter Jacket (Columbus Dispatch, 21 June 1999)
A man wearing a black Starter Jacket, blue jeans, and brown boots got out of the car with a gun drawn, punched the victim in the side of the face and demanded money (Newark Star-Ledger, 17 April 2003)
Elyria police Detective Chuck Gallion said Steckman used candy, beer and Starter Jackets to persuade pre-adolescent boys to have sex with him (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 16 September 1997)
Starter Corporation was founded in New Haven in 1971 by David Beckerman. By the mid-90's, it was selling $365 million in sports apparel. Did the association with crime (both in suspects' descriptions and murders over the jackets themselves) lead major sports organizations to end their affiliation with Starter?
As it turns out, Starter faded into obscurity for a several reasons:
1. The hockey and baseball labor stoppages of 1994.
Hockey didn't start its 94-95 season until January, and baseball's season ended August 12th -- making for a quiet sports autumn. Starter, which had exclusive contracts with both, saw earnings fall $33.3 million in 1994 and the company never recovered. While the $4.8 million deficit did improve to a meager $1 million profit line in 1995, shareholders weren't impressed, and the company that went public at $21.50 a share was staring at $5 a share only two years later. It's possible this is mere coincidence, but the association is striking.
2. Starter made inferior merchandise but sold it at upscale establishments.
because its products sucked. "No one ever bought a Starter Jacket because it was the warmest jacket out there," explains a retailer, "They bought it because it was a cool brand." Nike and Reebok were much better-prepared to produce quality athletic apparel, and were prepared to sell it at discount prices -- something Starter refused to do.
3. Brand extension instead of brand expansion.
Starter could have mitigated its problems by seeking new markets for athletic wear (a brand expansion) like non-licensed performance apparel (a role now filled by Under Armour) or non-mainstream sports (soccer, Arena League). Instead, they extended their brand to children's wear by Disney, school supplies, and socks.
In 1996, Brandweek wrote "Once the ship is righted, the vision is a Starter that could look a lot like Nike or Reebok."
As it turns out, Starter declared bankruptcy in 1999, and was purchased for $46 million by a consortium led by, yes, Value City (bringing this post around full-circle if you bothered to click the link in my introduction).
So that's where Starter went.
Wilbon, Michael. "Throwback jerseys: An old fashion statement." Washington Post, 6 February 2003: D01.
Robbins, Lenn. "Wrong Yankee Jackets? Sew What?" New York Post, 18 October 2000: 069.
Lefton, Terry. "Starter: In licensed athletic apparel, Starter owned authentic." Brandweek, 9 September 1996: 52.
Jacobsen, Michael. "Performance ANXIETY." Sporting Goods Dealer, 1 January 2004.