Inside the ‘Free Tom Brady’ economy

T-shirts are hot sellers for multiple vendors.

“Free Brady’’ has become the summer’s most popular slogan in New England.
“Free Brady’’ has become the summer’s most popular slogan in New England. –The Boston Globe

The New Hampshire primary is six months away, but another, more visible campaign, centered around a quarterback and a breathable fabric, is already raging in New England.

In May, the NFL suspended Patriots quarterback Tom Brady four games for his role in the Deflategate scandal. Soon after, several vendors began capitalizing on the notion of some fans that Brady had been wronged, profiting off the sale of merchandise imploring the NFL to “Free Brady.’’

“They’re selling great,’’ said Chris Wrenn, founder of Boston-area sports apparel company Sully’s Brand, of the T-shirts in support of Brady.

Wrenn’s company sells apparel that isn’t officially licensed by teams or leagues. The shirts’ contents tend to be driven by the sports news cycle.

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The Free Brady shirt, which has been a massively popular shirt for Sully’s this year, has had a long shelf life. Brady’s role in the Deflategate scandal started after reports surfaced that the Patriots were suspected of using under-inflated footballs in January. The saga hasn’t left the headlines since.

Wrenn did not offer specific sales details, but said the shirt has been among his company’s most popular offerings throughout the spring and summer. It’s been aided by the poor recent performances of other Boston sports teams—the Red Sox haven’t much incented people to spend money on memorabilia this season.

“It’s something we’ve had to depend on this year,’’ he said.

When the NFL announced last week Brady’s appeal had failed and that his suspension would be upheld, Wrenn said, it meant another big boost.

“The day the decision came down, it was a stellar day for sales,’’ Wrenn said. “It was definitely more than half [total sales].’’

Wrenn said he had a deal in place to provide shirts to big retailers ahead of last week’s announcement. The deal was contingent on Brady not winning his appeal of his suspension, he said. If Brady’s suspension had been wiped out, there would be no shirts to ship.

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The upholding of the suspension inspired Karen Melanson to pick up some shirts to sell on her own. Melanson sells sports memorabilia outside Fenway Park on Red Sox game days.

She decided to grab some Free Brady shirts to add to her offerings after hearing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would double down on the suspension, sending Deflategate into the legal system. Her goal: to cash in before it reaches its conclusion.

“It’s clearly a novelty,’’ she said. “It’s only going to last so long, until there’s a court decision. It’s get-in-and-get-out,’’ she said outside the park Sunday.

David Portnoy, the founder of Barstool Sports, said he has sold about 10,000 Free Brady shirts, making it among the most popular in his website’s history.

“They went on sale the minute Goodell suspended him,’’ Portnoy said. He added that another Patriots-Deflategate shirt—saying “They hate us ‘cause they ain’t us’’—has had similar success. “Both are huge numbers compared to others,’’ he said.

Other T-shirt retailers are selling their own variations of the Free Brady mantra. Prices range from between $15 to $25, depending on the seller. Other fans are making their own. Watching Brady work out in person at Patriots training camp last week, a fan named Trevor said he and three friends each paid $10 to have their own Free Brady shirts made.

Trevor (front) and others paid to have their own Free Brady shirts made. —Steve Silva, Boston.com

Renée Richardson Gosline, a professor of marketing at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, said “underground’’ or “push cart’’ retailers who sell unofficial sports memorabilia, generally make merchandise based on special occasions or news events. As another example, she pointed to shirts sold outside Fenway Park last year before Derek Jeter’s final game, commemorating the long-time Yankees shortstop’s career.

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Officially licensed merchandise, meanwhile, tends to be more timeless. A shirt with the team’s name, for instance, will always be relevant. A player’s replica jersey will stay popular at least as long as the athlete remains with the team.

Gosline said the fleetingness of underground retail carries a little bit of irony: in some ways, it becomes more timeless to a fan. She likened event-based T-shirts to newspaper front pages or foul balls.

“You’re paying for something that’s in a moment in time,’’ she said. “That makes it have higher value. … Only the people who were that at that moment in time could get something that says ‘Free Brady.’ It has long-term sentimental value.’’

That’s not to say support for Brady hasn’t registered with more traditional merchandise. Despite Brady’s reputation likely taking a hit outside New England due to Deflategate, his officially licensed merchandise registered the highest sales in the NFL between March and May. And Brady-related merchandise spiked 100 percent in the week after an NFL-commissioned report suggested it was “more probable than not’’ that Brady was “at least generally aware’’ of air being taken out of footballs.

Mark Nagel, a professor of sport and entertainment management at the University of South Carolina, said that didn’t surprise him, and theorized that Patriots fans were behind the sales bump.

“I think a big part of it is the ‘rallying the troops’ effect where a number of Patriots fans are buying the jersey to show their support,’’ Nagel said in an email. “Since the NFL sells a lot of Brady jerseys throughout the year (because he is a great player), it does not take much from the Patriots faithful to push him to the top from his usual place as a top-10 seller.’’

Free Brady purchases aren’t limited to apparel.

Tony Pontuso, an Abington resident, had a 5-foot-by-4-foot poster made, calling for Brady’s liberation. It hangs outside his house. He said he paid about $180 for it, and that it attracts lots of honked horns from sympathetic drivers-by.

“I think it makes the house look good, too,’’ Pontuso said.

Fans have also been seen wearing Free Brady pins, and Sully’s Brand is selling bumper stickers with the slogan.

It’s not all retail. The Free Brady movement has a business-to-business side as well. A Facebook group titled “Free Tom Brady’’ has garnered nearly 5,000 members. The Patriots fan behind the page, named Jeff Sullivan, has tried to align the site with his business and other local companies.

Sullivan is the founder of a company called urposse.com, which helps restaurants and other businesses develop repeat customers with a rewards system. He said he is encouraging restaurants his company works with to write “Free Brady’’ on blackboards, take a photo of it, and submit it to the group to attract business.

There’s even a philanthropic side to the Free Brady economy. Sullivan said he spent about $800 to print up his own version of the T-shirts, and mailed them to members of the Facebook group—provided they made a $25 donation to the Best Buddies Challenge bike ride from Boston to Cape Cod in the spring. Among the participants in the ride, as he has been for years? One Tom Brady.

Deflategate: A timeline

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