In April, NFL owners approved a rule change that will allow more players to wear single-digit numbers—once reserved exclusively for quarterbacks, kickers and punters—after teams ran into a shortage of available numbers in the 20-49 range last season.
The relaxed restrictions could inspire some NFL veterans to reclaim their college roots, but not without a cost. A veteran wishing to switch his number this fall would need to buy out the existing retail inventory of his uniform before being allowed to make the change.
Many rookies, on the other hand, will be able to wear their old college numbers without paying up for it. First-year receivers Ja’Marr Chase and DeVonta Smith have already taken advantage, both choosing to wear their college numbers of 1 and 6, respectively. The continuity of keeping your jersey number the same throughout your career can come with obvious marketing benefits.
“If a guy is good and he has that number, it creates a foundational aspect of marketability,” said Jim Cavale, founder and CEO of college-athlete brand marketing firm INFLCR. “Most athletes incorporate their number into their brand. And athletes are now starting to think about themselves as a brand more and more. The more college athletes think about themselves as brands before they become pros, I think there would’ve been an issue where if they have to change their number, they’re going to have to disconnect from the branding work they’ve done.”
Jersey numbers often play prominently in a star athlete’s off-field identity—like Tom Brady, with his TB12 brand; Deion Sanders, who hosts a podcast called 21st & Prime; and Lamar Jackson, whose clothing brand Era 8 Apparel launched in 2018.
Plenty of college stars, however, were forced to change their numbers in the NFL because of the old jersey number restrictions. Now some have begun to flirt with the idea of donning their old digits. Running backs Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey and Ezekiel Elliott have each said they would consider making the switch. For the Vikings’ Cook, however, he decided not to change his number after learning he’d have to pay nearly $1.5 million to buy his remaining unsold jerseys, according to Pro Football Talk. That said, the rules allow a player to plan a switch for the 2022 season without having to buy out the inventory. Additionally, free agents joining a new team this season can change their numbers without penalty (like wideout DeSean Jackson, who will go from 10 with the Eagles, to 1 with the Rams).
While jersey numbers are easy identifiers, they are hardly unique. And as Casey Muir, senior director of client management for Octagon Football, points out, there are many other ways athletes can distinguish themselves. “Can a number be a brand identifier? Sure,” he said. “It can if you build the brand the right way from the start, but I think it’s going to be unique to each individual player.”
Consider placekicker Rodrigo Blankenship, who gained prominence at Georgia not for his number (which, incidentally, changed when he joined the Indianapolis Colts) but because of the glasses he wears, known as “rec specs.” He has built a brand around the item, often hashtagging tweets with #respectthespecs.
Both Muir and Cavale agree that the biggest winners of the rule change aren’t the players, but rather the fans.
“There’s going to be a huge uptick in jersey sales,” said Muir. “The NFL is already the king of jersey sales, but it’s going to go through the roof this year.”
INFLCR’s Cavale added: “I think you could argue that while there’s an overlap of fans who like college and pro, there are a lot of fans that only like one. And this brings [them] together, and it overlaps an audience that’s bigger and more potent for the athlete to carry on with them to the next level.”
Though the cost may be heavy, a number of NFL players, including Budda Baker, Darius Slay, Leonard Fournette, Robert Woods, Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown, Patrick Queen and DJ Moore, have picked up the tab to change their numbers. In this case, for the league’s rookies, it pays to be young.