Andy Larsen: Kyle Kuzma is right about Nike’s NBA jerseys. Is there a better way?

The release of this year’s “City Edition” jerseys has been a disappointment to many fans, who have expressed their displeasure online.

(Utah Jazz) The Utah Jazz's rebranded jerseys were released last year to mixed reaction. But beyond the Jazz, Nike's jersey offerings league-wide have begun to disappoint some fans and players alike — including NBA forward Kyle Kuzma.

Nike had a brilliant idea. Or so they thought.

They knew that thousands upon thousands of sneaker buyers love to buy limited-edition Nike shoes. Sneakerheads, casual and fanatic alike, from around the country do whatever it takes to buy the latest shoe drops. They’ll line up outside of Foot Locker stores for the chance to buy a pair for hundreds of dollars. They’ll participate in app-based lotteries to get the latest colorway. They’ll even create bots to snap up the shoes so they can sell them on eBay.

For Nike, creating thousands of iterations of their shoes and then artificially limiting their sale has been very profitable. And so when they signed their eight-year, $1 billion deal with the NBA to become the league’s apparel partner, they figured they’d apply the same approach to team uniforms.

Each team would have at least four jerseys every season, labeled as “Icon,” “Association,” “Statement,” and “City.” The “City” uniforms would become a completely new design every year; the “Statement” ones every two years. Playoff teams would get a new design in their “Earned” uniforms. Teams that played on Christmas got new uniforms. Nike would also release old designs as “Classic” edition uniforms. Nike calculated that because so many of these designs were limited-time opportunities, fans would snatch them up, just as they do with shoes.

They were right — kind of. The NBA told Sports Illustrated that from 2016 to 2022, jersey sales jumped up by double-digit percentages in five of the six years. They’ve outsold the jerseys made by the previous supplier, Adidas.

But Nike did miscalculate in one important way: That the seemingly infinite enthusiasm that fans have for new sneaker releases could last for jerseys, too.

The reaction to the Cavaliers’ “City” jersey release was tepid at best, with some fans calling them “garbage” during a live release.

But that’s been typical to Nike’s jersey releases this year — by Monday, all 30 had been released.

It appears none are beloved. Most have received middling-to-negative reviews, though NBA champion Denver’s “5280″ design is inspiring widespread ridicule online.

To some degree, it seems like Nike has simply run out of good ideas. The minimalism on display in the jerseys has left fans uninspired.

And to be honest, the anticipatory joy of new releases has more frequently turned to fear. An Atlanta-based sports graphic designer went viral this summer discussing the problems in a Twitter thread — using the Jazz’s black, white, and yellow set as one example:

In short, good and bad ideas alike are simply cycled through too quickly, in favor of unimaginative and boring designs.

I acknowledge that I’m not a fashion expert. Maybe this stuff is good, actually. I mean, I’m not seeing a lot of support for it on social media, and indeed a lot of derision ... but perhaps there is a quiet majority that just is eating this up somewhere.

But former University of Utah player Kyle Kuzma (now with the Washington Wizards), who has been noted league-wide for his fashion efforts, raised an even more salient point when discussing the Clippers’ new (and perhaps even more questionable) “City” jersey. “Nike is ruining the nostalgia of jerseys, every year it’s a new jersey and what gets lost is brand identity,” he said.

Here’s the key difference between sneakers and jerseys: people buy shoes that will make them stand out. People buy jerseys to signal that they’re part of a fan community — to fit in. Releasing jerseys that have no ties to that fan community, in color or design, defeats the purpose.

That also was at display in the latest uproar over Nike’s and subsidiary Jordan Brand’s decision to try to sell a shirt to Jazz fans with the Michael Jordan “Jumpman” logo soaring over the Utah Jazz’s wordmark. The design makes absolutely no sense to anyone who knows the history of pro basketball in Utah, naturally, Nike did it anyway. Even ignoring that, it’s not like the design of the shirt is inspired, either. It too is minimalist boredom.

In the end, it seems like Nike is just trying to do too much — trying to release more gear with more different designs than they have the ability to support. Whether it’s T-shirts or jerseys, the gear doesn’t seem to fit what fans of individual teams actually want.

I’m not sure how to fix this.

Focus grouping the gear would seem to be an obvious step, to allow representative fans the chance to weigh in on the designs before they’re released to the wider public.

But most of all, the biggest problem here is in the approach. In an effort to sell as much stuff to NBA fans as possible, to garner Nike shareholders’ ever-raising profits ... tradition, identity, and community have all been sacrificed. Ironically, Nike’s “City” jerseys have worked to reduce the ties a city’s fans have with their team, not bolster them. The “Statement” jerseys do anything but make a statement.

Clearly, the NBA’s partnership with Nike hasn’t been the unmitigated success it could have been. The deal ends in 2024, and it’s unclear whether it’ll be extended or the NBA will find a new jersey partner.

NBA fans — and especially Jazz fans — deserve better gear. We’ll see if they get it.