OAKLAND, Calif. — When 19,956 fans enter Oracle Arena for Game 3 on Wednesday, gold “Strength in Numbers” T-shirts will be on every seat in the building.
A majority of those fans will pull that T-shirt on, creating a sea of gold that has become a substantial component of Golden State’s homecourt advantage.
The shirts didn’t get there by magic.
“A lot of planning and a lot of people are required to make it happen,” Warriors chief revenue officer Brandon Schneider told USA TODAY.
At the start of the playoffs, the Warriors procured 400,000 T-shirts from vendors across the country.
“We only do gold shirts for the playoffs,” Schneider said. “God forbid there were no shirts available. It would be a problem for us. We hold the shirts. It’s quite an undertaking.”
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From securing thousands of shirts to printing team slogans on them to getting them on arena seats, playoff T-shirts have become custom at NBA games, and teams have to go through logistical gymnastics to make it happen.
“We probably are a little bit more intense about our T-shirt giveaways because they’re an integral part of our playoff campaign,” Philadelphia 76ers chief marketing officer Katie O’Reilly told USA TODAY. “It’s wonderful to take care of our fans in the arena. Every giveaway on every seat really adds to the game atmosphere and entertainment. It is an experience for everyone, and it really adds to that home-court advantage especially in the playoffs. It really is an important element.”
With Golden State’s “Strength in Numbers,” Milwaukee’s “Fear the Deer,” Philadelphia’s “Phila Unite,” and Toronto’s “We The North,” NBA teams have mastered the art of turning slogans into T-shirt giveaways at playoff games.
The Warriors’ “Strength in Numbers” mantra didn’t even come out of a marketing meeting. Golden State coach Steve Kerr described his team that way in his first season with the team in 2014-15.
“This is how our team wins,” Schneider said.
It is unclear precisely when the phenomenon of draping T-shirts on seats became a thing. Rally towels have been around for decades, but as for shirts awaiting fans on seats for an NBA playoff game, the 2007 Warriors’ playoff run is a good starting point.
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The Warriors made the playoffs that year for the first time in 13 seasons, and there was “so much excitement within the organization and fan base, we really wanted to make that first playoff game special,” Schneider said. “We said, ‘Let’s create this really special environment with this giveaway and show our appreciation for our fans.’ ”
Golden State has had T-shirts on seats for every home playoff game since.
“We didn’t plan on doing it for other games because it’s a lot of work and it’s an expense,” Schneider said. “But because it was so incredible, we did it throughout the playoffs. We feel it’s a big part of what brings people together.”
‘Feeling of unity’
Acquiring about 40,000 T-shirts for a minimum of two playoff games isn’t simple. The Bucks use a dark green for some T-shirt giveaways.
“We’ve got vendors all over the country who have forest green shirts,” Bucks chief marketing officer Dustin Godsey told USA TODAY. “Forest green is not the most common color either, so we’ve had to start placing calls out to vendors and have them hold as many forest green shirts as they have so if (we) need to make a quick turn, we can get those printed.”
It’s a little easier for Philadelphia to get red or blue shirts – this year, the Sixers used blue for every game – or Toronto to procure black or red.
Still, O’Reilly acknowledges that not every vendor has 20,000 T-shirts available on short notice, even in basic colors. So teams use multiple vendors to make sure they have enough, and teams order one size – either large or extra large.
“As much as it’s a T-shirt that you hope people are going to wear afterward, it’s as much about that feeling of unity in the building,” Godsey said. “You want as many people as possible to wear that shirt in the moment.”
From blank shirt to team slogan
The shirts are delivered to a local print shop that can turn the work in short time.
There are complications, or at least hurdles. It was Game 3 of the second round in the Sixers-Raptors series, and the Sixers didn’t have Game 6 shirts printed because they didn’t know if they would have a Game 6 at home.
“We have to plan in advance but we have to be incredibly nimble because we don’t always know what our playoff schedule looks like,” O’Reilly said.
Once it was determined the Sixers had a Game 6 at home following the fourth game, O’Reilly told the vendor to print the shirts.
In Golden State’s case, it makes different T-shirts for each round, and because they have three different imprints on the shirts – one on the front, one on the back and one on the sleeve – it takes 24 hours to print each design on 20,000 shirts. That’s three days.
“This has been a tough postseason for shirts especially since we finished all three series on the road,” Schneider said.
Here was the scenario for Golden State at the end of the conference semifinals:
► Had the Warriors lost Game 6 to Houston on a Friday, they had Game 7 at home at 12:30 p.m. on a Sunday. Had they won, they had a Game 1 of the conference finals at home against Portland at 12:30 p.m. on a Sunday.
Since the sleeve and front of the shirt are different for each game, there wasn’t enough time to wait until the end of Game 6 against Houston to see which shirts needed to be printed. The Warriors printed two batches – 20,000 for a Houston game and 20,000 for a Portland game.
The shirts that didn’t make it to the seats? The Warriors use them for various giveaways in the Bay Area.
Getting shirts on seats
For the Bucks, the shirts arrive at the arena in 118 boxes filled with 144 shirts each. A mini-fork lift delivers palettes of boxes to spots around the arena.
Godsey corrals team employees via email: “Hey, starting at 1:30, we’re hanging these out and would love to have your help.”
They head from corporate headquarters to Fiserv Forum.
“They come in, grab a box, grab a map and head to a section and just go,” Godsey said. “Everyone has their own methods. Some people straighten out on (a) chair and go chair to chair. Others empty a whole box out. Everyone has developed their own style.”
It takes Bucks staffers about an hour to complete the job. However, it can take longer if the group has to stop while a team is on the court.
On one playoff day, the Sixers needed six hours start to finish, waiting for teams to finish practicing. The Warriors don’t own Oracle Arena so they have to work around events, such as concerts, and wait until they have access.
Just 90 minutes before the Celtics hosted the Bucks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, workers raced to put shirts on seats before doors opened. There was a Northeastern University graduation ceremony at TD Garden earlier in the day, and the staffers couldn’t access the arena.
“When our fans walk in the building, they would never know about any complications,” O’Reilly said. “That’s all that matters as long as a T-shirt is waiting for them and they have the best experience.”
And what if a T-shirt is not on a seat when a fan arrives? No problem.
“We’re stocked for extras at our guest services booth,” Godsey said. “No questions asked. Here you go.”
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt