Mike Rowbottom

There was a short and simple response on Twitter recently following British Rowing’s invitation to pre-order "your #GBRowing Team white polo shirt" in time for Christmas.

"But I don’t row for GB!" said Bill Sullivan, aka @Bowsidebilly. “Why don’t @BritishRowing bring out a GB supporters shirt. I’d happily buy that.”

That response, which drew likes from, among others, GB Rowing’s triple Olympic champion Andrew Triggs Hodge, draws a distinction that has become increasingly blurred in sporting circles, particularly since the Premier League waxed large.

Whoever had the idea that, in order to be a true supporter of a sporting team or individual, you had to wear an identical shirt, was a commercial genius.

That "whoever" may have been Bert Patrick.

Patrick was the man whose sportswear company, Admiral, signed a revolutionary deal with The Football Association (FA) in 1974 to produce the official England kit. They paid The FA £15,000 ($20,000/€17,000) a year for the right to include the company logo on the shirt - and to sell exclusive replica shirts to supporters at £5 ($6.25/€6) each. Or £9 ($12/€10) with shorts and socks.

The then England manager, Don Revie, was well acquainted with Patrick’s entrepreneurship having signed Admiral on for a similar deal with his club, Leeds United, before he took over the job with the national team.

In 2014 Patrick told the Daily Telegraph: "Before that, the fans took scarves, rattles and bobble hats to matches. If you wanted a Leeds shirt, for instance, you’d buy a white shirt and you’d buy a badge and ask your mother to sew it on.

"I saw an opportunity for fans to wear the same kit as the team."

Forty years on, for Admiral, read Nike. Last December it was confirmed that England would continue to wear the Nike kit until 2030 in a 12-year contract extension reported to be worth in excess of £400 million ($550 million/€450 million) to The FA.

Graham Rix at the 1982 World Cup finals in a shirt bearing the badges of England - and Admiral ©Getty Images
Graham Rix at the 1982 World Cup finals in a shirt bearing the badges of England - and Admiral ©Getty Images

But it’s not just about the money. (Oh yes it is! Says The FA, says the Rugby Football Union, says every current member of the Premier League…)

In order for all those millions of pounds of fans’ money to have been paid over the counter down the years there has to have been the leverage, the traction for the idea that it is a necessary demonstration of faith.

The official englandstore site is currently offering home England shirts at the reduced price of £48 ($64/€55), down from £60 ($79/€68). Just in case you were interested, the men’s England stadium top in home colours offers "optimal sweat management with Dri-FIT technology and mesh fabric". Ideal for the packed bar.

And there’s more. "The replica design mirrors professional match kits, giving you the same fluid performance aesthetic with a woven crest for team pride."

And there’s more. "Personalise your shirt for £12 ($16/€14)! Choose a player name or enter your own name and number - max letters 12, max numbers 2."

The invitation to "Get Personal" spells out the heart of the matter: "Personalise your kit and become your hero."

Of course this is a figure of speech. No one believes that, as they pull a shirt bearing the name and squad number of their number one player over their own sagging frame, they become that player. Do they?

The argument against, most usually, football clubs exploiting their faithful by producing an ever-changing series of overpriced shirts has been made many times in recent years - and with good reason.

These arguments have resulted in a certain amount of tinkering and moderating, but the essential dynamic remains the same. And it is not hard to see why all sports seeking to maintain or extend their standing would seek to encourage the same dynamic among their followers.

But the deal seems to sit less well in some sports than others – which is, one can only suppose, a reflection of the particular followers of that sport.

Not even Hero the Hedgehog was wearing a replica shirt at this summer's IAAF World Championships in London ©Getty Images
Not even Hero the Hedgehog was wearing a replica shirt at this summer's IAAF World Championships in London ©Getty Images

While covering this year’s International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships at the arena which hosted the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and which now permanently houses West Ham United, I passed every day the West Ham club shop which had become a temporary selling point for British Athletics merchandise.

In contrast to the claret and sky blue hardware further inside the shop, bearing the names of Noble, Kouyaté, Sakho et al, the shirts at the front were generic, bearing the British Athletics crest and in some cases the latest hashtag REPRESENT, but not mimicking the actual team kit. And certainly not bearing names such as Farah, Pozzi or Muir.

Five years on from London 2012, home athletics supporters filled the Olympic Stadium once again, wearing, perhaps, such generic t-shirts, but more usually simply casual wear, perhaps featuring red, white or blue. Some had Union flags draped over their shoulders. Some waved flags - with Jamaican flags being at least as numerous as Union Jacks.

Essentially, it’s a different fan culture and it’s hard to see it changing. The same goes, one suspects, for rowing.

Is this healthier? It certainly leaves such supporters wealthier…

One final thought. The urge to “become your hero” is profound. For generations, within and without sport, people have admired and emulated others. But that has usually involved, say, behaving more like them, or - in sporting circles - trying to play or compete in a way that effectively pays homage. Perfecting a Cruyff turn for your Sunday League team, for instance. 

Or working on a Farah-type surge in your club running. That takes a bit of genuine input. 

And it’s free.