Football shirts used to be simple. Most clubs had a home kit, an away kit, and latterly, a third kit to change. You would pick a favorite and then wear it until the prints would peel. Rinse and repeat every other season.
Things are now much different. There are still home, away, and third kits, but the past couple of years have also seen the explosion of fourth, retro, and limited edition kits. Long gone are the days when the jersey would be launched on the back of an awkward-looking player who had been roped in after training. Instead, the elite clubs roll out glitzy, streetwear-indebted shoots with models that you probably recognize from the pages of Highsnobiety. Others are more creative, with often bizarre pop-culture banter potential – I'm thinking the time Southampton FC channeled Fyre Fest.
Keeping up with what's going on is difficult. Take Juventus, for instance. Since leaving Nike for adidas in 2015, the Italian giant has readied 25 outfield designs, including a special edition Riyadh jersey, as well as Three Stripe-brokered collaborations with Pharrell's HUMAN RACE and Palace. Meanwhile in France, PSG — Nike's longest-running kit deal – initially had three shirts for season 2020/2021, before teeing up a Fortnite-friendly Jordan fourth and a 50th anniversary home alternative.
These are but two examples of complimentary releases from the big two sports brands, which aren't averse to fashioning their elite clubs with capsule collections; see the Air Max line-up of last year, or the infamous EA Sports collaboration that adi soon brought into reality.
This year, the market has careened further out of control. Nowhere more is this exemplified than Serie A leaders Napoli, which, under the direction of controversial chairman Aurelio De Laurentiis, has released an astonishing eight kits. The southern Italians have always sought to experiment in the market (remember how it tapped Marcelo Burlon last year?) but new releases such as last month's special Halloween effort point to a relentless drop strategy that the football marketing world has never before seen. This Sunday, it played out a 1-1 draw at home to Verona in a special Maradona motif jersey — yours for a mere €150 ($170).
Napoli might be out in front when it comes to the sheer volume of releases, but they're not the only club in the business of marking tenuous landmarks. In Germany, there's the annual Karnival and Oktoberfest festivals, which you can celebrate with respective Köln and Bayern Munich kits. Then you have Spain, where Barcelona played out El Clásico earlier this year in a commemorative kit (quite why they chose this particular January derby as the moment to do so remains unclear). These are just the tip of the football product iceberg: I've lost count of the amount of anniversary and "black-out" shirts I've seen in the past 12 months. And that's before you get to the myriad amount of pre-game and lifestyle gear.
Fundamentally, it's a knock-on effect of hype culture, which football is not immune to. It would be remiss not to mention that this site has been complicit in propagating that.
Football, as the cliché goes, is a business at the end of the day, and clubs will always try to milk the fans of all they're worth, be it through product, ticketing, or nowadays, ropey-looking BitCoin schemes. The jersey's planned obsolescence is vital to most clubs' very existence because they rely on the annual revenue generated by sales. With that in mind, from a hard-nosed business standpoint, it's understandable why a club like Napoli would try and cash in on their famously fervent support.
But where does it all end up? Talking literally from a product perspective, a lot of it will go to landfill (those pointless Barca tops I mentioned before are selling at markdown on the club website, you'll be unsurprised to learn). Even if the likes of Nike, adidas, and PUMA have begun utilizing more sustainable materials for their bigger clubs, a lot of their smaller rivals aren't quite there yet. It's difficult to follow the supply chains, and it's unclear whether campaigns such as Move to Zero are being rolled out across the board.
The environmental aspect is one thing, but it's also about giving rank and file supporters a fair crack of the whip. "If you can't afford it, then don't buy it," might be the obvious answer, but such logic rarely applies in the case of football. Unlike fashion brands, the appeal is emotional. Good luck telling a kid in Naples they're the only one of their friend group not getting the new Maradona jersey this Christmas.
We've seen some great kits and accompanying launches in recent times — Venezia and Kappa led the way with an activation that didn't feel forced, and there was clear international demand for a fourth release. Yet it's impossible to deny that others are scraping the barrel. Do we end up at a point where every club has its own luxury kit? Or how about a new drop to mark commercial holidays such as Valentine's Day? When does four releases a year become five, and five become six? Fans are famed for their loyalty, but like everyone else, still have a breaking point. Football would do well to remember that.