New Category? Athleisure Commandeering Coach Couture

It used to be, wayyyy back in 2020 before the pandemic and “bubbles” and “wubbles,” that coaches, none more so than those in hoops and hockey, stalked the sidelines in bespoke attire. Nattily dressed in custom suits, often adding designer shirts, ties and shoes, perhaps even with a matching pocket square, coaches competed against one another as clothes horses.

Many became known for their fashionable looks as much as coaching acumen.

Chapeau clash: Cowboys coach Tom Landry, in his trademark fedora, chats with Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips, in his trademark Stetson, before a game in 1979 John Iacono

The same used to be true in football, when the CowboysTom Landry or Alabama‘s Bear Bryant, or even the all black look of Jerry Glanville or the rancher style of Bum Phillips, were the talk of the football world. Some, like the aforementioned, even crossed over into the fashion and pop culture world.

That changed with the times, most notably in the ‘90’s for the NFL and NCAA football, as sportswear apparel companies anted up and coaches started to dress down along the sidelines.

Now it seems that look has evolved quickly on basketball’s benches as well, yet another byproduct of the pandemic. Coaches again may be driving fashion trends. This great impetus for “athleisure wear” may even quickly carve out a new sponsorship category.

Suits—in hoops, at least—no longer make the man (or woman). Trendy, well-fitting casual wear does.

Suits disappeared from grown men’s agendas in March of 2020 and I hate to break it to you, they are never coming back.

—Lily Checketts, The Sports.ish

Always slick Pat Riley crouches while coaching the “Showtime” Lakers in 1988 Tim Defrisco

Just to revisit, the move to bubbles last year for the NCAA, NBA and WNBA brought a marked change in clothing for coaches. Gone were the unwritten, and in some places written, rules of well-dressed sideline attire anchored in conservative haberdashery.

Coaches, packing for life in the bubble, decided to join the work-at-home Zoom crowd. It was time to leave the suits and ties in the closet. Good looking, comfortable sweats and similar apparel, even some from rising brands, made it onto the court.

The clothes horse went into the barn, you might say.

By almost all accounts—28 of 30 NBA teams by our count—the door may be closed for good. Comfort and style is in, buttoned up is out, and both brands and fans are noticing.

Long-time NBA coach Doug Moe was known for a comfortable look that was not one you would find featured in GQ

“Suits disappeared from grown men’s agendas in March of 2020 and I hate to break it to you, they are never coming back,” said Lily Checketts, founder and creator of The Sports.ish, a platform dedicated to bringing sports to very casual fans that looks at the pop-culture, fashion, human-interest side of the game to make sports more fun. “The world of athleisure and streetwear has exploded, providing comfort and style in one. Almost every big name designer has produced a line in the past two years specializing in comfort. Coaches switching from the outdated suits to the in-style streetwear is a perfect exposure opportunity for many of these new brands. Fans can see the fit on the sideline and say, ‘I like those pants, where can I get those pants?’”

Checketts should know a thing or two about the growing category, growing up around the intersection of sports and fashion. Her brother, Nate Checketts, is in fashion as the founder of Rhone, one of the most engaged and growing brands in “performance-driven clothing,” the hybrid of casual and athletic wear suitable for work. And, let’s not forget her dad, Dave Checketts, ran Madison Square Garden when New York’s Knicks were at their 1990’s best, and a dapper Pat Riley (above, left) was at the helm, so she has more just than a feel for fashion, then and now.

Villanova coach Jay Wright waves to fans after winning his 500th game on Jan 6, 2022 Maggie Mengel/Villanovan

And while athletic brands—starting with the biggest, such as Nike, adidas, and Under Armour—have scaled back their overall endorsement deals with most NCAA coaches, they continue to provide apparel, at least with sweatpants, polos and quarter-zips for many coaches…for now.

Is that good enough? Or is perhaps a new category—and potential revenue stream—emerging through a loophole?

After all, if Villanova’s Jay Wright (left), always atop any best dressed list for coaches on any level with his impeccable taste and closet full of Armani suits, can go to the stylish side of leisure wear on the bench, why can’t this stick?

A promotional piece from the NABC for Coaches vs. Cancer

Even the annual “Coaches vs. Cancer” promotion, put on by the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) and the American Cancer Society, where NCAA basketball coaches traditionally wore sneakers with suits to raise awareness has taken a turn. This past week, coaches stayed casual and donned black polos and quarterzips to bring attention instead. Wright was one of several dozen coaches to make the switch, further reinforcing that the smart and casual may be here to stay.

“It’s new territory that was long simmering but now has come to the top by what happened during the pandemic, and it’s not just coaches but we are seeing it across all of society,” added Chris Lencheski, a professor at Columbia University and veteran sports marketer. “The NBA had led the way in a ‘dress code’ for both coaches and players under David Stern and it actually became a cottage industry for players and some coaches. Now the better fitting, more casual look has taken over, and it too can be a cool category that can maybe even be split away from apparel companies into a new and more defined area.”

Is a new sponsorship revenue stream emerging through a (fashion) loophole?

On the NCAA side, it remains primarily tradeouts for now, but the dollars should be there at least on the NBA side(lines).

Iona’s Rick Pitino was a rare site at the 2021 NCAA Tournament in his suit, tie and pocket square Michael Conroy

Indeed, as Lencheski pointed out, the dress for success look for NBA coaches did come with sponsorship. Most coaches participated in a leaguewide deal with Men’s Wearhouse and a master tailor, Joseph Abboud, to customize their suits. Some, like legendary rumpled coaches Doug Moe (above, right) and Don Nelson (below, right) stayed tieless—or in Nelson’s case with mock turtlenecks—until retirement, but most fell in line. That is, until the bubble hit and blew the corporate clothing line out the window.

Analysts valued the athleisure market as a $284.7 billion industry in 2020, with sales up 84 percent since the pandemic began and heading towards $549.4 billion in revenue by 2028.

So where can all this go? A gaggle of coaches, including Iona’s Rick Pitino (right), have vowed to never abandon the suit, but will the majority find success—and sponsorship—in a casual setting?

One example is evident this week in Mobile, Ala., where performance-driven menswear brand Swet Tailor teamed up again with the Reese’s Senior Bowl, exclusively sponsoring the off-the-field wardrobe for 130-plus players, coaches of the New York Jets and Detroit Lions and other game staff.

In 2021, Los Angeles, Calif.-based Swet Tailor was the first brand the Senior Bowl brought on to handle all non-field related apparel in the game’s history. Despite overtures from traditional shoe and apparel companies to take the space, the Senior Bowl officials heard the overwhelming support from players and coaches in year one of the partnership to go a different route and bring Swet Tailor back once again.

Swet Tailor founders Adam Bolden (left) and David Kranz (center) pose with Reese’s Senior Bowl players on Jan 30, 2022

“We dedicate a lot of time listening to customers, especially players and coaches who love our brand, and it’s clear that the idea of being on the sideline, or in front of the camera, in a suit is passed,” added Swet Tailor CEO Adam Bolden. “Why feel stiff and uncomfortable when they can look great and feel great at the same time? There’s no stigma in dressing and looking well, and that doesn’t always mean a jacket and tie these days, but it also doesn’t mean wearing sweatpants and a tee shirt. We have taken all that into consideration with our products, and the response and the results have been tremendous.”

Don Nelson goes tieless coaching Golden State in 2006 Jed Jacobsohn

Swet Tailor, which Bolden co-founded in 2015 with David Kranz, has ridden this casual movement to at least double its revenues each year in business. That was no different in 2021 which saw another record sales year for the company.

Although they have yet to break through with formal coaching relationships, many have quietly started to don their smart looking clothes, following along with some of the formal partnerships on the broadcast side with voices like Rich Eisen and Mark Sanchez. (Sanchez is also an investor in the company.)

Bolden said interest amongst college, NBA and some WNBA coaches, is very high, and official deals could be coming as soon as March Madness.

Is fashion, just not in formal suits but athleisure instead, a viable category for coaches?

Given their visibility on the sidelines, as well as their longevity as community, and organization, coming at a time where player movement is more fluid than ever, Lily Checketts answers with a resounding yes.

Nick Nurse in a much less comfortable pre-pandemic, pre-athleisure squat
Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder and his Vans on the sidelines Jan 19, 2022 Scott G Winterton

“Fashion has become a huge part of NBA players identities, let’s let the coaches show us their personal style a bit more as well,” she added. “I’ve always been impressed with Utah Jazz head coach Quinn Snyder’s style (right). He’s made a seemingly seamless transition from stylish suits to an all black ensemble of a polo, skinny jeans, and awesome shoes—always great shoes. He tends to stick with the all black streetwear and it keeps the professionalism of the look, while providing more comfort than previously felt in a suit.”

How about a coach who could use help? Checketts quipped, “(Raptors head coach) Nick Nurse (pictured pre-pandemic on left and present day at top) could benefit from some great athleisure—simple colors and a cut that fits him. He never rocked a suit all that well so this could be a big opportunity in his fashion game.”

While we are seeing some ebb back to pre-pandemic traditions in sports, there are a host of best practices that were forced to mature, and have led to new categories and engagement for teams, with brands never involved before., Top Shot, FTX and the like are here to stay, for example. Whose to say brands like Swet Tailor, Athleta and even Lululemon won’t also be mainstays for coaches in an emerging area as well.

After all, you are what you wear.

Chris brings deep sports business experience to his role as publisher of TMR. He first put his sales, experiential marketing, PR, sales and valuation skills to work in sporting goods retail in 1986. He has since worked for brands and agencies across all major league sports, plus golf, college athletics, marathons and motorsports. Chris is also the proud founder of Painless Networking.