The secretive, and surprising, world of printed Premier League football shirts

Gregg Evans

Football shirts are not just fashion accessories for diehard supporters — they are seriously big business.

With the Premier League’s popularity continuing to grow exponentially, and a global audience eager to buy into the ‘product’, a replica team jersey emblazoned with the name and squad number of a star player is an ideal marketing device.

But how does this niche, yet crucial, corner of the English top flight’s commercial arm really operate?

The Athletic travelled across the country, and spoke to industry experts, many of whom asked to remain anonymous as they did not have permission to speak about commercially sensitive matters, to find out more.

Our conversations revealed:

  • Which player is the most requested at each Premier League club
  • Why players never ‘pay off a transfer fee’ in increased shirt sales
  • Rival teams appeal to each other for help in a football retail WhatsApp group when specific letters run low in club shops
  • Why the length of a player’s name matters (and not in the way you might think).

What’s certain is the shirt-selling business is booming in the run-up to Black Friday and Christmas as new ideas around design and marketing help attract a wider audience. And for as long as the Premier League flourishes, that interest will not wane any time soon.

The first myth to debunk is that players are worth signing for their commercial appeal alone.

Clubs hire footballers for their playing ability and how they fit into the team, not how good they look on an advertising board, although that certainly helps.

The second is that expensive players recoup a large sum of the transfer fee involved by boosting shirt sales.

“The uplift is not always that high,” says a member of the commercial team at a successful Premier League club. “When Cristiano Ronaldo rejoined Manchester United it was a bit different. The same when Erling Haaland joined Manchester City, but most big-money signings fail to have a major impact on sales unless they have a core following from a big country or go on to become a superstar in their own right.”

Even Jude Bellingham, who topped the list of most shirts sold in October behind Haaland and Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappe, will not realistically pay off a significant chunk of his €103million (£89.6m/$112.2m at current exchange rates) fee, or balance out his reported €20m a year wages at new club Real Madrid, through sales of ‘Bellingham, No 5’ replicas.

“The idea that any player sold a million shirts and paid for his transfer is just nonsense,” Steve Martin, chief executive of marketing firm M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, said this month.

That England midfielder Bellingham is helping sell more Real Madrid shirts, getting their sponsors’ names in front of more eyes and extending their global reach, is obviously favourable, though.

Club owners have a strong interest in sales figures and some want to know exactly how many shirts bearing player names and numbers are shifted per week. Marketing teams also plan content and campaigns around their most popular players, all the more important given that younger fans often follow stars rather than teams.

Breaking down the most popular shirt sales at each club — which The Athletic has sourced through a combination of talking to media teams, commercial departments and operatives in club shops — confirms what many would suspect, but also throws up a few surprises.

Most popular player shirts by Premier League club

At the home of the Premier League and European champions, it is not a shock to see Haaland and Jack Grealish feature prominently inside the superstore at the Etihad Stadium.

Haaland, 23, pulls in huge numbers after helping his side to the treble last season and his No 9 shirt, the first you see when walking inside the City Store, is the most purchased. Fanatics, a global digital sports platform, tells The Athletic that Haaland has sold the most shirts across Europe through their site this year, but that Bellingham is quickly catching up.

Manchester City’s club shop is dominated by Erling Haaland shirts (Gregg Evans/The Athletic)

Specific numbers around shirt sales were not disclosed by clubs or retailers when requested by The Athletic, but at City, this has been a record year for the retail department, highlighted this summer when their new shirt was bought every 12 seconds on the day of release — the busiest 24 hours of trading they have ever recorded.

Across town at United, the days of queueing outside Old Trafford to get a printed ‘Ronaldo 7’ shirt may be over but there’s continued love towards local hero Marcus Rashford.

Down in London, Arsenal have one of the biggest shirt printing displays in the country with a huge section named “Your Shirt, Your Way” in their club shop. Declan Rice is a popular recent request following his £105million summer move from West Ham United but lags way behind his club and England team-mate Bukayo Saka and Arsenal’s captain Martin Odegaard.

Arsenal’s club shop (Gregg Evans/The Athletic)

In Liverpool’s plush multi-storey megastore at their Anfield stadium — a thriving retail operation even on non-matchdays — thousands visit each week and are greeted by rows of shirts and other merchandise on arrival. The club website said in September that summer arrival Dominik Szoboszlai was the most requested name in the printing department in the early months of this season, although other online retailers have since said the club’s long-time top goalscorer Mohamed Salah still leads the way overall.

A decision was made this year to cut back on shirts pre-printed with players’ names and numbers that Liverpool order, largely because of their transformational summer where several long-serving squad members left the club, but also because of the growing trend to buy a basic shirt early in the summer and then get a name and number added on the back once the season gets underway and squads, and shirt numbers, are more likely to be set.

Industry insiders say there’s also a shift towards supporters choosing to have their own name and choice of number printed on their club’s shirt, with a greater desire for ‘authenticity’ among younger fans.

So why was Szoboszlai so instantly popular among Liverpool supporters?

Most of it was down to his form following a £60million move from RB Leipzig in Germany, his attractive playing style, increased orders from his homeland of Hungary, and — yes, really — the length of his 10-letter surname.

According to those who know about these things, ‘Szoboszlai 8’ “fits beautifully” on the back of a shirt and has a “perfect ratio” of different letters. While that may sound far-fetched, it shouldn’t be forgotten that being easy on the eye is a crucial element to the success of a printed football shirt.



Why the world loves football shirts

Outside Luton Town’s dated but charming Kenilworth Road stadium sits an equally battered building that serves as their club shop.

The sign welcoming supporters inside is weathered — and only a small queue, plus the amount of people holding shopping bags, indicates there’s something worth seeing if you accept its invitation.

The entrance to Luton’s club shop (Gregg Evans/The Athletic)

Yet clearly the dog-eared appearance is not putting people off.

A mixture of locals — many of whom were also here when Luton were a non-League side in 2014 — and tourists, jumping on the bandwagon following their promotion to the Premier League earlier this year, have sent shirt sales rocketing.

The top-flight newcomers have seen “record, unprecedented demand” for shirts this season, so much so that pre-orders alone were worth more than 50 per cent of their overall sales for 2022-23.

During a visit last month, a family from China purchased merchandise and wasted no time adding it to their matchday outfit. It’s fashionable to wear a Luton shirt and also heartwarming that midfielder Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu is still the most requested name on purchased shirts, having been at the club long enough to have represented them in the top five divisions of the English game.

Luton were initially unable to fulfil all their pre-orders this summer, which isn’t surprising, as it’s difficult for clubs to predict how many shirts they will sell the following season, especially if there’s a chance of changing division.



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For clubs relegated from the Premier League, the fate of Leeds United, Southampton and Leicester City this year, it becomes even harder to forecast.

How many shirts they sell depends mainly on their progress. An insider at a club that have experienced many highs and lows over the last two decades says: “Most clubs would agree that they will know a base level of how many shirts they will sell to hardcore supporters. Then you have the elements of success, or how appealing the shirt is.

“The risk is always ordering too many and then having to sell them off at a reduced rate. It’s why ordering a stack of pre-printed shirts is another major risk.”

Shirts have been modified considerably over the years and clubs are becoming more daring with both the designs and the fonts they use for players’ names and numbers.

Premier League and EFL clubs have to use the same generic division-wide typeface for these when playing league games but in European competition or the two domestic cups, they are free to pick their own, which sees many add a creative twist, such as using a second font or even a bespoke colour.

In 2021-22, Manchester City came up with a typeface that mirrored a digital scoreboard as it marked 10 years since the title-clinching ‘Aguerooooo’ moment — a stoppage-time goal famously captured on the clock as being scored at 93:20.

Manchester City’s FA Cup shirts in 2021-22 had a ‘digital’ font for the players’ names and numbers (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

“Back in the early 1990s, clubs would use whatever the manufacturer gave them, but now it’s regimented (only) for league games,” says Andy Bowman from Elms Marketing, a firm specialising in the supply, customisation and personalisation of sportswear. “Every club has their own font for European games.

­“There are so many designs out there and that’s what is making shirt-printing more appealing for supporters. It’s become more of a cult now.”

The demand from supporters also dictates clubs’ strategy, so Brighton & Hove Albion decided to cater for their growing number of Japanese supporters by creating an area within their club shop, as City did for Haaland, specifically for popular winger Kaoru Mitoma.

The 26-year-old is not quite in Son Heung-min territory — the Tottenham Hotspur striker and captain, who is holding the fort following the summer departure of Harry Kane to German champions Bayern Munich, is a leading shirt seller for his club and the game’s most-popular Asian player worldwide.

For years, Son has been the poster boy of the South Korea national team and, according to Fanatics, is the fifth-best shirt-seller across Europe since the start of the season.

One of Son’s international team-mates, Hwang Hee-chan, also sells more shirts than anyone else at his Premier League club, Wolverhampton Wanderers. Revenue from South Korea has increased 1,264 per cent for Wolves in the two years since his signing — this summer, one wholesaler ordered 1,500 of their shirts, all with “Hee Chan 11” on the back.

Wolves’ Hwang Hee-chan is hugely popular (Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

Global stars mean a global marketplace, even for some of the Premier League’s smaller clubs.

When Christian Eriksen joined Brentford for a six-month spell in January 2022, there were kit orders from 21 countries, including Greenland, South Korea and Australia, within the first 24 hours of his arrival. It was Brentford’s biggest day of kit sales trading outside of new shirt launches and 30 times the usual demand of that time of year.

Often, it’s bulk orders or unusual demand (rather than poor planning) that leaves club shops short on particular numbers and letters.

There are countless examples of club shops running out of stock, from Barcelona’s shortage of Ws when Robert Lewandowski signed in summer 2022 to Manchester United’s lack of Rs after Angel Di Maria’s arrival in 2014 for a British transfer record. Aston Villa experienced the same problem when they signed former Chelsea and England captain John Terry three years later.

Nowadays, though, staff at rival clubs help each other out when issues are flagged in a “football retail” WhatsApp group that gets busy during transfer windows.

It’s a long way from the time Chelsea ran out of Zs during Gianfranco Zola’s time there at the start of this century — the only other Premier League club even stocking that letter were Leicester, because of their Turkey international Muzzy Izzet.

In those days, if a club were short on stock, all they could do was place another order and wait, which often led to a lot of missed sales. “Sometimes a player might request 150 personalised shirts, and that can also leave us short,” says one club shop retail manager.

The further down the pyramid you go, the more important it becomes as budgets are stretched tight — a point underlined by Wigan Athletic head of retail Sam Swanton’s memory of the 2020-21 League One season.

“(Midfielder) Viv Solomon-Otabor came up to me at the end of the season and asked for 10 shirts,” he says. “He’s got five Os in his name, so that’s 50 Os, and I was running quite low as the fonts are changed every two seasons.”

Most clubs now charge supporters a flat fee for adding names up to either 12 or 15 letters. Fortunately, Netherlands international Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink — a shirt-printing department’s nightmare as he insisted on having his full surname included on every shirt sold — is now retired.

Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink – a big-name striker (Kim Jae-Hwan/AFP via Getty Images)

“Printing is really popular,” adds Wigan’s Swanton. ​​“This sounds strange, but the size of the surname and how it fits on the shirt also appeals. Take Callum McManaman, for example. His surname sits within a millimetre of each seam on either sleeve on shirt sizes small to large, it just fits perfectly.”

It’s also true that an ugly shirt can sell out when a team perform well in it, and likewise a good-looking design remains on the rails gathering dust during periods of struggle. There’s a huge market for retro shirts but also the quirky, unusual third kits that are growing in popularity and now worn as fashion items at music festivals.

Undoubtedly, though, the big money is made on the back of success, when the interest is much larger.

West Ham United, for example, have sold more shirts bearing the name of Jarrod Bowen, not just because he is a star player, but also because he scored their winner in the Europa Conference League final last season. The same applied to Leicester City and Youri Tielemans after his goal won them their first FA Cup in 2021, and Birmingham City and Obafemi Martins after his League Cup final winner against Arsenal a decade before.

Speaking of Birmingham, they were involved in one of football’s strangest stories in 2020 when they decided to retire the No 22 shirt in honour of Bellingham after he left for Germany’s Borussia Dortmund in a deal that made him the most expensive 17-year-old in football history.

Now, as the most popular shirt-seller in Europe, that decision — even if bizarre and muddled at the time — is more justified.

The Real Madrid star is the perfect example of what club owners are looking for — a star performer with a clean-cut image and insane commercial appeal.

Sadly for them, there aren’t many like him around.

(Top image design: Eamonn Dalton)

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