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Carmelo Anthony made some headlines the other day by overtaking Kevin Durant in the scoring race by fractions of a point, in the same game where his Knicks stole an important road victory from Durant’s Thunder in OKC. But over the NBA three-day weekend, he also overtook another superstar for a less-recognized, but arguably even more interesting honor: That of the best-selling jersey in the NBA. Melo’s No. 7 for the Knicks overtook LeBron James’ No. 6 for the Heat for top honors, up from the No. 4 spot he held the year before.

Jersey sales rankings are an interesting thing in sports, since it’s the closest thing most leagues have to something resembling, say, a Billboard singles chart — something that comes close to measuring pure popularity, without making any attempt at an objective ranking of player skill or whatever. There are other factors at play besides how popular the player is, sure — how popular the team is plays a big part, and for the more discerning jersey shoppers, there might be aesthetic concerns with the color schemes and logos, and possibly semiotic concerns with the signifiers of the player and team represented. But other factors aside, if there’s a better way to measure player popularity in the NBA, I dunno what it is.

So what does it mean that Melo took over from LeBron? Well, first off, it’s worth pointing out that LeBron was not actually No. 1 in jersey sales at the end of last year’s regular season. As a matter of fact, he was all the way down at No. 4, possibly a result of his dip in popularity after losing in the 2011 Finals, and with the initial surge of sales from when he switched teams in the 2010 offseason having died down. It says something about the year LeBron is having (and the postseason/Olympics he had as well) that he had climbed up to No. 1 at all, showing that without the distractions of his choker reputation and the fallout from “The Decision,” LeBron’s play has been stellar enough (and his PR efforts smooth enough) to allow him to be an arguable candidate for the league’s Most Popular Player honors once more.

But now LeBron has fallen to Carmelo, and I think the reasons are two-fold. One, this has been the best season of Anthony’s career — both in an individual sense (highest PER ever, possibly his first scoring title) and in the team sense, as he’s on pace to at least challenge the 54-28 record his Nuggets team had in 2008-’09, and even then the recently arrived Chauncey Billups got the lion’s share of the credit. There’s a sense of pride in Carmelo and the Knicks — especially in New York, obviously — that always had to be tempered with “yes, but…” type qualifiers about Melo’s bonafides as a team player, his ability to win, etc. This is arguably Melo’s first year of unreserved true superstardom, and it makes sense that his jersey sales would reflect that.

And the less sweeping, narrative-oriented (but equally important) factor is the team Melo plays for. In the last five years, even the lean ones, the Knicks have always had a player in the top 15 of jersey sales, with such non-stars as David Lee, Jeremy Lin and even Nate Robinson making the cut in different years. Anthony is surely a big enough name to spur jersey sales no matter where he plays for, but without the Big Apple backdrop, it’s unlikely he’d be able to challenge superstars like LeBron and Kevin Durant. (Even during that make-good 2009 season in Denver, ‘Melo only finished No. 15 in jersey sales, an insulting seven spots below NateRob.)

It’s far too little, too late for Melo (or anyone else) to pass LeBron in the MVP race, but this seems like a fair consolation prize. Plus, it’s a tight jersey. I love the Knicks orange-and-blue, and No. 7 feels much more solid a number for Anthony than his old No. 15. (Not to mention the number’s history in classic New York sports, of which George Costanza would undoubtedly approve.) Maybe I’ll pick one up myself next time I’m at MSG. Or I would if the combination of Knicks tickets and a Carmelo jersey wouldn’t cost me about a fifth of my yearly income. Approximately.

Anyway, some other things I found mildly interesting from this year’s Top 15, which you can see in full here:

  • Derrick Rose, still in the top five. Talk about brand loyalty. Even though Rose’s year of rehab was enough to drop him all the way to No. 23 on ESPN’s player rankings, the Chicago faithful have kept him one of the NBA’s top five jerseys — he was No. 1 last year, by the way — without ever once seeing him actually suit up in it this year. Pretty impressive.
  • Jeremy Lin, not around at all. In terms of jersey sales one-hit wonders, it seems like Jeremy Lin is basically the Dexy’s Midnight Runners of the NBA. After making it all the way to No. 2 at the end of last year on the back of Linsanity in New York, a move to Houston and a less sensational season has dropped him off the list entirely this year. Not surprising, but I bet you’d have to go back pretty far in the jersey-sale archives to find another example of a guy who fell from top five to not mentioned at all in a year’s time.
  • The Big Three, hanging on by a thread. A former perennial presence in the year-end top 15s, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen (now in Miami, obviously) have fallen out of the top 15 altogether, and Paul Pierce just barely makes the cut at No. 15. Garnett’s fall from this list the last two years is pretty interesting, since he’s still played at a fairly high level, and usually stars of his stature can stay towards the top on name and reputation alone. After all of his alienating on-court antics, do people just not like KG that much anymore?
  • Chris Paul, passing Blake Griffin. Chris leaped from No. 15 to 9, while Blake dropped from 9 to 10. Griffin seemed well on his way to being one of the league’s most popular players with his breakout rookie season, but regardless of whether or not you think the introduction of Paul to the Clips has hampered his potential production, it does seem to have hampered his potential star power, as he’s featured much less during games, his counting numbers have started to drop, and even the dunk highlights aren’t quite as non-stop as they were in his first year or two. It’s Chris Paul’s team now in all senses, and it makes sense that the jersey sales numbers should reflect that.
  • Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, not having the impact you’d expect in Los Angeles. You’d think preseason that Nash and D-12 replicas would sell like hotcakes in Los Angeles, the one town to rival New York for jersey sales inflation. But, telling of the degree to which the two have actually contributed to team success this year, neither even crack the top 10 (Dwight a fitting No. 12, Nash not on the list at all), and both are still well below Kobe Bryant at No. 4. As always, Kobe eats first in Los Angeles.

Comments (8)

  1. You missed an important point, and that’s the source of the data. These figures only include NBA.com and the NBA store in New York. Not being able to include either in stadium purchases or third party stores ignores a huge section of jersey sales.

    The number I’d be really interested in is road team sales: which players have the highest selling jerseys in stadiums that aren’t their home stadium. These are the things I think about…

    • Fair point. But I think most stadiums only sell jerseys of their home team–that was my impression in most of the arenas I visited, anyway–so I don’t think there’d be much info to go on there. There are probably plenty of other national NBA jersey retailers who could go into the calculations, though.

  2. It’s also worth noting that the Knocks updated their jerseys this year, likely resulting in many fans going out and buying said updated jersey. I’m sure it’s impossible to measure that kind of impact, but it has to play a role in there.

  3. “Not surprising, but I bet you’d have to go back pretty far in the jersey-sale archives to find another example of a guy who fell from top five to not mentioned at all in a year’s time.” Thank you for the great Jay-Z reference.

  4. Wouldn’t all time jersey sales be more of a comparison – I realize career lengths of players would skew the numbers but so does this as people would not buy the same players jersey year after year. I have a Wade jersey I bought a few years ago – even though he is my favourite player I would not buy his jersey every year. I would buy oneI don’t already own.

  5. or how about NY is just a bigger city then miami?

  6. also, even though it doesn’t mess with your arguments, I don’t think jersey sales are a good measurement of player popularity in the first place. like you and some commenters have said, there’s a whole lotta stuff factoring in here (which is what the article is kinda about), but there’s also a whole lotta guys not buying jerseys at all. everybody over the age of, say 40. or dudes with no money. or dudes with a lot of money who just buy every jersey and not just one. or just regular white dudes from europe like me – my fav is Rubio but I’d rarely wear his jersey because I’d look stupid in it and no one ever wears nba jerseys in public here, so I don’t buy one. etc etc. you get the point.
    still, great article, and one of your main arguments (melo = true superstar now) is pretty plausible I think.
    best way to measure popularity IMO: a specific survey, or since that apparantly doesn’t exist, a combo of jersey sales and all star votes and facebook likes (still underrepresents old dudes though).

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