Trends & Features

Connected shirts: why sportswear brands are pulling at an increasingly popular thread

Every shirt has its own story. Some stories are the stuff of legend such as Portuguese winger Paulo Futre’s battle for number 10; other stories are embedded into the numbers themselves through digital technology.

When Futre discovered on the first day of West Ham United’s 1996/97 Premier League campaign that he had been given the squad number 16, instead of his preferred 10, he threw his shirt back in a team coach’s face.

“Next thing, Paulo was in my face, too,” recalls Harry Redknapp , West Ham’s manager at the time. “‘Futre 10, not 16,’ he said. ‘Eusebio 10, Maradona 10, Pele 10; Futre 10, not ****ing 16.”

Technology has come a long way since Futre’s tantrum and the felt lettering of the late 90s.

Now, every Premier League team’s shirt is digitally connected and can tell its own story. It’s nearly invisible to the naked eye, but the smart tech hidden within the names and numbers – and even the league’s lion logo on the sleeves – means fans can scan their own shirt with their smart device and see exclusive content on the Premier League App. That includes a hidden quiz that tests their Premier League knowledge, competitions, and more.

These ‘Smart Numbers’ are the work of the Embelex division of global team sports label and branding manufacturer Avery Dennison. Avery Dennison has supplied all names, numbers and sleeve badges to each of the 20 Premier League clubs for both the shirts worn by the players on the pitch, and the ones sold to the fans in the stands since 2019. Put simply, these heat transfers, embroidery, and patches help bring brands, institutions and sports teams to life. You buy the replica shirt: Embelex makes it a gateway to a lot of cool things.

And that gateway is more important than ever for sports marketing.

A new era of engagement

When the pandemic forced the public to stop attending live sports events, it launched a renewed appreciation for the value of engaging with fans digitally, changing sports marketing forever. Now, image recognition technology, QR codes, NFC (Near Field Communication) and other emerging digital triggers are increasingly used to drive consumer engagement through printed graphics on apparel and packaging. Why? According to a report by GWI, between one-fifth and one-quarter of 16 to 44-year-olds in China, Europe and the U.S. say QR codes in-store providing product information or payment would improve the retail experience. Embelex will make 15-20 million connected pieces – a letter, number or name block – in the next year alone. And there is much more to come.

In March 2022, the Premier League announced it would extend its partnership with Avery Dennison until the end of the 2024/25 season. In this new era of digital fan engagement, it’s no surprise that sports clubs, leagues and sportswear brands are locking-in long-term deals that will enable them to find different ways to engage with fans beyond the stadium.

While there might be 50,000 smartphone cameras pointed at the players, now that fans are back inside the grounds, it’s not just high-stakes moments and goal celebrations that are shareable. There’s also a trend for sharing the personalisation of sportswear for occasions and teams on social channels such as TikTok and Instagram. A total of 43% of sports fans in the US follow athletes, players or teams on social media, according to an Avery Dennison study. And according to GWI consumer insights data, a third of global sports fans want brands to offer customised or personalised products.

One more stat to consider: Lionel Messi, in his first season at PSG, was responsible for 60% of shirt sales for the club following his high profile move to the club. As a result of the popularity of Messi’s No 30 jersey, PSG has overtaken Manchester United for the highest number of kits sold.

Fueling the growth is the increasing consumer demand for personalisation and hyper-relevance. Global research by Accenture found that 84% of consumers are interested in personalised products, and many would not hesitate to pay more for them.

It’s trend data like this that has forced brands to rethink the way they engage with fans. By giving brands and manufacturers access to the latest technology, Embelex is leading the industry in the personalisation and customisation of products. Emotional, relevant connections can be sparked with digital triggers.

The anatomy of a connected shirt

Premier League squad numbers – and names on shirts – were first introduced in the 1993/94 season. It might have stoked the fire in Paulo Futre, but it was a smart marketing move. Fans could go a step further than pledging allegiance to their team: now they could wear their favourite player’s name on their backs, or even step into an imagined reality with their own.

Embelex’s ‘connected jersey’ gives fans another alternative reality, thanks to three digital triggers. Each one is a unique interaction point between consumer and brand. In terms of reimagining sports apparel as an ‘interactive creative canvas’, it’s a perfect hat-trick.

First, users can scan the player number on the back of the jersey using the Avery Dennison Smart Reader, a widely available app. Second, a QR code on the neck label can be scanned by a smart device with a built-in camera. And third, an NFC hem label can be scanned either by an NFC-ready enabled device that can read the chip by simply holding the top of the device over the chip, or using an NFC reader app.

These triggers unlock a range of imaginative possibilities and use cases. It doesn’t always have to tell a story. The tech can also be informative, providing transparency about materials, product features and even a care guide. So, there is no excuse for names and numbers peeling off the back of a shirt after one hot wash too many.

Today, there is still a legal requirement for a garment to carry a physical care and content label that communicates product information, though this is expected to change as legislation adapts to a new world. Avery Dennison believes the label can unlock opportunities that benefit both consumers and brands, as well as being a force for good. Its Digital Care Label features a QR code that consumers can scan to unlock a branded digital experience, where they can learn the material composition, how to care for their garment, and more.

What about messaging with a different purpose? Common Goal is a non-profit organisation working to provide access to sports to underserved communities. Athletes and managers sign up to be a part of Common Goal and in doing so pledge to donate 1% of their salaries. Common Goal then routes the money to high-impact NGOs. The organisation’s first football kit features an Embelex heat transfer QR code on the inside of the shirt that drives fans to a ‘thank you’ message from co-founder and former Manchester United midfielder Juan Mata.

Embelex technology makes it easy to put messages in garments. And, with the right partner, they can produce only what is needed and when – reducing physical waste and carbon emissions in the production process. A digitally-connected garment can also play an important role in the circular economy.

A QR code can provide clear instructions on how to recycle a shirt you no longer want, or is no longer wearable. It can also tell you that the shirt you have bought is authentic – not a cheap imitation. Avery Dennison partners with Certilogo, the digital authentication platform, to make that possible. That makes it traceable, and also enables the resale market – particularly for garments in the luxury space. The next buyer can immediately authenticate it with a scan of their phone.

Limited editions
On the subject of true originals, Avery Dennison has designed and produced the official shirts presented to each inductee into the Premier League Hall of Fame. A modern take on a classic hooped shirt, with subtle graphite colours, the limited-edition shirts cannot be bought by fans. They do, however, have a chance to win one if they scan the names, numbers and sleeve badges on their club Premier League shirts to access a hidden quiz that tests their knowledge of all things Premier League.

“It has been an honour to design a bespoke shirt that pays homage to the football legends of seasons past,” says Simon Allen, regional commercial director, team sports, at Avery Dennison. “The shirt design reflects modern and technological elements, while referencing the classic style of shirts seen over the years. With our smart technology, the Premier League can engage with everyone who receives one of these specially-crafted shirts.”

Like all of Avery Dennison’s Premier League products, the Hall of Fame shirt is produced at its specialised low-carbon facility in western Norway, and its state-of-the-art facility in Vietnam.

The range of embellishment products and services for fashion, footwear and apparel brands, sporting organisations, teams, and beyond means organisations across different industries are using this technology more and more. The custom apparel market is set to grow by $1.13 billion from 2020 to 2025, progressing at a CAGR of 5.79% according to the latest report by Technavio market research.

There is a real opportunity for innovation that brands can jump on, to secure a place in the future world of interactive digital marketing. Apparel that can help tell a brand’s story. That’s what Avery Dennison calls “made to mention” – or, as Paulo Futre might put it: shirts worth shouting about.

Author note: Jeremy Bauer, Global Commercial Director, Embelex at Avery Dennison RBIS

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