Imagine being in Great Britain back in 1987. You probably knew about the Super Bowl; maybe you even stayed up late to watch it. But did you and other Brits really know anything about the NFL? Did you even care?
I would have guessed that the answer was no, but apparently that wasn’t the case, because a UK company was producing a line of gumball-style mini-jerseys (or “shirts,” as they called them) in 1987. Each pack came with a little keyring thingie, allowing fans to make their own NFL keychains.
I learned all this from UK reader Dan Tearle (co-founder of the excellent Illustrated NFL site). He gave me the full story on the UK keychains:
The mini-shirts came out in 1987 after the success of a range of gumball helmets the year before. The jerseys were made of a thin plyboard and paper-coated. They came with a keyring as well as the four bubblegum balls for 35 pence. The display board was a mail-away offer for 99 pence. The shirts had team logos or wordmarks on the front and No. 85 on the back.
I believe these uniform designs were based on uniforms from possibly a couple of years before. The sleeve striping on the Saints jersey, for example, was pre-1986, despite having been released in 1987. This led me to think perhaps they’d been released in the States a couple of years prior and had only just made their way over to England due to the NFL’s mid-’80s boom in popularity.
There were also a few other quirks:
• The Bears jersey had the “GSH” memorial initials on both sleeves.
• Inexplicably, every Bill s jersey had the sleeve stripes printed in black on the reverse side.
• The Patriots jersey had truncated stripes — in 1987!
The pictures from my set show how the shirts were prone to getting very battered very quickly, although mine have also been involved in numerous house moves, etc. Sadly, I’m now missing the Redskins, Broncos and Seahawks. I’m pretty sure they literally fell apart several years ago.
The offer for an “authentic” NFL team shirt was another mail-away deal. NFL Properties really pushed merchandise on us, and their own jerseys were absolutely everywhere. I still have the same 49ers shirt that I had back in 1987. I don’t think these were ever released in the States. All 28 teams were available, although less fashionable teams were very hard to find. The jerseys were very lightweight and the graphics were heat printed, so the numbers tended to start cracking after the first wash. But they were all the new fan could get at the time, so we snapped them up at around £11 a time!
All the jerseys carried the number of a popular player at the time, although sometimes these changed. For instance, the original Redskins jersey was No. 7, but in 1986 it changed to No. 81, for obvious reasons. I actually know pretty much all the player numbers they used.
As a newish fan back then, I found all this stuff very exciting. They really got me interested in the uniform aspect of the teams, too. I’d love to make some updated versions of these keyrings myself!
Fantastic stuff, Dan. It’s fascinating to hear how the NFL was being marketed across the pond 25 years ago. And I really love how the mini-jerseys have the team logos on the front, making them seem more like hockey sweaters. So cool!
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