Last week, I shared my research on soccer apparel trends at three Disney theme parks over four days. I spotted supporters representing 14 of the 20 English Premier League clubs (54 people total) and 7 out of 20 MLS clubs (22 people total). Manchester United, with 13, and Orlando City, with 7, topped each list. But neither came close to the number of people, mostly children and tweens, sporting Barcelona apparel.
They were hard to miss: Most were 8-year-olds zipping around in various shades of Day-Glo. The parents likely approve of these alternate jerseys because they make the kids easier to locate at crowded theme parks. On Halloween, I saw a few kids in full kits dressed as Barcelona Messi, Argentina Messi and Adidas Messi-brand Messi. The next day, Nov. 1, I decided to count Barca vs. Real Madrid shirts. It was the sartorial Clásico.
I spotted 10 different people wearing Barcelona clothing (including a few more full-kit wanker kids) vs. just 3 Real Madrid supporters. The highlighters were out in force again. But over the course of the trip, I also saw a number of people in plain Barcelona apparel without Nike, Qatar Foundation or UNICEF logos.I hypothesize that if you take the subway in New York City for a few days you will see more off-brand Barcelona ball caps, duffel bags and t-shirts than any other soccer club. Much like the Yankees’ NY, the Barcelona crest represents more than a sports team. In Barca’s case, the crest is an aspirational brand that signifies creativity, skill, free-spiritedness and multiculturalism. The Barcelona brand transcends ethnic and economic lines so that you might see Central American construction workers riding the 7 train, Bushwick hipsters sitting in Maria Hernandez Park and WASPy Upper East Side tweens leaving prep school in the same knit Barcelona hat.
A lot of people, companies and events have influenced Barca’s success in the US, but which individual, company or organization is most responsible for the surge in Barcelona’s appeal among Americans?
Here are the nominees:
- Lionel Messi for his sublime skill and seemingly good-natured personality.
- Pep Guardiola for managing the beautifully successful tiki-taka.
- Johan Cruyff for developing the Barcelona youth system model.
- Nike for its instantly recognizable, flamboyant kits.
- Adidas for its Messi promotion
- EA Sports FIFA video games for sticking Messi on the cover and exposing more Americans to soccer
- UNICEF for featuring on Barcelona’s chest and lending the club some feel-good appeal as the club began gaining traction in the US.
- beIN Sports for its Barca-centric coverage and announcer Ray Hudson for his multiple Messi-induced orgasms
Those all seem pretty obvious. But any discussion of Barcelona’s commercial success has to include Marshalls, TJ Maxx and Ross, the ‘brand names for less’ stores that fill their racks and flood the Northeast with Barcelona apparel. Marshalls and its ilk have fostered a feedback loop: Barca is successful and popular. Their clothes are cheap and easy to find at Marshalls. People buy the clothes. Barca becomes more popular. Repeat.
Soccer dominates the athletic section at Marshalls. There are more Barcelona clothes than Mets, Yankees, Giants, Jets or Knicks stuff at the NYC stores. Here are some of the Barcelona pieces I saw at the Marshalls on the corner of 125th St. and Lenox Ave. on Monday, November 16:
Two brands, Rhinox Group and HKY sportswear, seem to produce all of the weird Barca clothing. Oddly, though they are responsible for much of Marshalls’ athletic section, HKY doesn’t seem to have a website. The link included on their tag is dead
Rhinox Group is located in Los Angeles and their mundane website explains that the company also has a licensing agreement with Real Madrid (plus Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal). As Madrid tries to compete with Barcelona in the U.S. market, their off-brand products also feature prominently at the Marshalls on 125th and Lenox:
When I posted my MLS apparel spotting piece on the MLS subreddit, a user posted “Go back in a couple of months and I bet you’ll see significantly more Revs jerseys.” Someone else responded: “Why? Because they’re on sale at Ross?” I found that exchange very funny because it’s so true. Those stores are the go-to place for Americans looking for cheap soccer apparel.
My advice to any club trying to break into the US market: Be like Barca and get your apparel into Marshalls, Ross and TJ Maxx.