The 2014–'15 NBA season concluded with the Golden State Warriors hoisting the championship trophy after defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers, so it shouldn't be a surprise, then, to find Warriors star and league MVP Stephen Curry atop the list of jersey sales this week, overtaking LeBron James. Right?
On its face, Curry's rise to the top of NBA jersey sales makes sense, given his electrifying postseason performance, leading the Warriors to their first title since 1975. But are jersey sales a key metric of a player's stature in the league, or is it a mere popularity contest? In any case, jersey sales can’t be taken at face value. Such specificity in a consumer’s selection of a jersey — a specific player's last name and number on the uniform of a city’s professional team — suggests that some thought, some reasoning, is involved.
At the end of the regular season, jersey-sales rankings were as follows:
1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
3. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
4. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
5. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls
Four of the five names are hardly surprises, given that James, Curry, Durant, and Rose all competed in the playoffs this year, and each one is a former (or in Curry's case, current) MVP winner. If anything, Bryant, the aging superstar and member of the Lakers team, with 61 losses, who missed the playoffs as part of the team’s worst season in franchise history, might look like the odd player out. Yet Bryant finished the regular season with more jersey sales than Durant, the 2014 league MVP, and Rose, 2011 league MVP and perhaps a fan sentimental favorite, given his three consecutive knee injuries (and if sentiment doesn't explain Rose’s position on the charts, perhaps Beyoncé is the key). If you exclude his own season-ending injury in 2013, in which he played only six games, Bryant finished this season with his lowest PPG since 2000, and the lowest FGA in his entire NBA career. Perhaps Bryant, elder statesman at this point in his career, rode the jersey-sales wave on the strength of years and MVPs and championships past, almost like a lifetime achievement award.
And if one were to equate jersey sales with popularity — and by extension, with likability — then LeBron James, once upon a time, would've been the exception. After "The Decision," when James left Cleveland for the Miami Heat (leaving behind, ironically enough, Cavs fans who set his jersey aflame in effigy), few players were more loathed than he was. Yet, his #6 Miami jersey topped sales at the end of the 2010–'11 regular season, his first year with the Heat. Was Allen Iverson ever universally liked? Depends on who you ask, maybe. Few players were as polarizing to the public as AI — yet while he never topped the list, Iverson appeared in the top 10 list for five years, according to The Bleacher Report, and peaked at number two.
What appears to be the case is consumers seemingly make the same considerations when buying a jersey. In spite of the differences between players, ranging from position to city they play in to personal background and "narrative" that can be told during an ESPN profile, there is obvious commonality: typically high-offense, highly athletic players; perennial All-Stars and championship contenders; bold or polarizing personalities that attract mainstream fans’ attention.
It helps to be highly visible, too. Warriors player Andre Iguodala, a 10-year veteran and former All-Star, was key to Golden State's championship run. His offense and, more importantly, his defensive play against LeBron James earned him the Finals MVP trophy. Yet his jersey sales didn't even crack the top 15 by the end of the postseason. (But Cavs backup guard Matthew Dellavedova did, at number 14. Perhaps it's helpful to be accused of being a dirty player.) Iguodala is mild-mannered, the type of player who puts in the work and is willing to play a supporting role if it proves beneficial to the team. If jersey sales are any indication, perhaps it doesn't pay to be a team player. And yet, Iguodala now has more rings than both Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant, for whatever that's worth.