Growing up in Philadelphia, I have fond memories of going to Sixers games at the Spectrum in the early ’90s. The team stunk, but I was too young to really understand that—to me, Michael Jordan was the best player in the league, and Clarence Weatherspoon was the second-best. And besides, what five-year-old me really enjoyed about going to Sixers games was the atmosphere.
Admittedly, the crowds were thin back then, and much of the pomp and fanfare common at pro games today was absent. The video boards only displayed about 16 colors and what felt like 12 frames per second, halftime shows typically consisted of six minutes of local YMCA youth teams hoisting up airballs and back-rimmed layup attempts, and the team’s mascot, Big Shot, looked like someone bought a Grimace costume and just slapped a duck bill and sunglasses on it. Most of the memories I have from the dozen or so games I attended during the pre-Iverson era have faded over time, but my experience at one game in particular remains vividly etched in my mind.
Typically, when my father and I went to games we’d simply walk up to the arena 20 minutes before, haggle with a couple scalpers over price, and eventually purchase the pair of tickets whose cost fell somewhere in the middle of the available range. But on this occasion, one of my dad’s friends, a season ticket holder, offered to let us use his pair while he was out of town. His seats were about 12 rows from the floor and were basically center court.
Being so close to the action was great, but what made the game truly special was what happened during a timeout in the third quarter. Big Shot came out onto the court with a pouch full of t-shirts and began pulling them out one-by-one and throwing them into the crowd. I bounced with anticipation, nervously waiting for him to make his way to our section. When he finally arrived, he lined up directly in front of us and lofted a shirt straight in our direction. My dad snapped into action, seeming to guide the shirt with his eyes perfectly into his outstretched hands. I was elated. He handed it to me, and I spent the rest of the game admiring its beauty.
The power of the giveaway t-shirt is difficult to explain. Nobody actually needs, or quite frankly even wants, these shirts. They’re usually remarkably ugly, they often contain a large sponsor logo on the back, and they’re almost always sized an adult extra large. But giveaway shirts speak directly to our hearts in a profound way. They are the perfect combination of the things we love most as Americans: sports, tacky screen-printed things, and free stuff. Not to mention, there’s a built-in exclusivity in these items. Only a handful of the thousands of people who attend each game will walk away with a t-shirt, and being one of them feels special in an indescribable way. Even Sir Paul McCartney, a man worth an estimated $1.2 billion, pumped his fists in triumph and cried to the heavens with joy when he caught a T-shirt at a Brooklyn Nets game earlier this season. Those in charge of in-arena entertainment have seen the way we react to T-shirt giveaways, taken that formula, and run with it, testing its limits with continued success.
It used to be that those who headed up in-game marketing had a somewhat easy job. Their 15,000 or so customers were primarily there to watch a game, and any degree to which they were entertained during the brief stoppages in play was seen as a bonus. And besides, what else are they going to do during timeouts other than watch the cheerleaders perform their routines or the mascot dance to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” while wearing a white glove? There was no competition for the audience’s attention.
But go to any NBA arena today, and you’re likely to be bombarded by an overwhelming array of visual and auditory stimuli. From in-arena DJs, to Def Leppard-caliber pyrotechnics, down to the increasingly fast-paced style of play on the court itself, what happens off the court is nearly as exciting as what happens on it. The in-arena show has evolved over time to suit society’s ever-fickle attention span and battle a new and challenging foe, the smartphone.
But to understand how we got here, we need to go back to the mid-’90s, when the San Antonio Spurs changed in-arena entertainment forever with the invention of the t-shirt cannon. It was actually their mascot, or rather the man who used to wear it, Tim Derk, who created the first model. The original, made of cast iron, was gaudy, crude, and weighed about 90 pounds, but it got the job done. Before, t-shirts could only travel as far as the arm of a cheerleader or mascot would allow, and even teams that employed the use of slingshots had a hard time using them with much accuracy or reaching fans in the cheap seats. But Derk’s model was powered by a carbon dioxide canister he wore on his back and worked much the way a paintball gun does, which allowed him to launch shirts into the upper deck with ease.
Word of San Antonio’s weapon quickly spread throughout the league, and it wasn’t long before basically every team had one of their own. Over the years, the cannons have become more compact, more powerful, and more ubiquitous. Today, many college teams use t-shirt cannons, and most professional teams have a handful that they use all at once.
Over the years, an arms race of sorts has emerged between NBA teams to see who can distribute the most t-shirts in the limited time they have to use the guns (primarily during TV timeouts). In 2012, the Sixers unveiled Big Bella, a double-barreled T-shirt Gatling gun created by a company called FX in Motion that specializes in sports entertainment equipment. The team announced the new in-game feature via a 461-word press release, which claimed that the shirt was capable of firing 100 t-shirts every 60 seconds.
The Sixers were the first team in the league to use such a device, but it wasn’t long before the rest of the league caught up. Later that season, a handful of teams purchased Bellas of their own. Philadelphia responded by dropping t-shirts attached to parachutes from the rafters. That season, the Sixers fired, threw, and dropped nearly 20,000 shirts into the stands, meaning that on any given night fans had about a 1-in-30 shot at walking away at the end of the night with a free shirt.
Since then, others teams have tried to jump the proverbial shark, with the Milwaukee Bucks last season unveiling a Gatling gun with THREE barrels that blasted not just t-shirts but also down vests and jackets into the crowd at a rate of 120 per minute. And this past season, the United States Military Academy employed its engineering skills to create a t-shirt tank to use during Army football games.
World's dopest t-shirt cannon. pic.twitter.com/yIHRdRQYUf— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) December 12, 2015
Meanwhile, across the globe in Australia, the Townsville Crocodiles of the National Basketball League last month had their t-shirt cannon confiscated by a government ballistics unit, hich labeled the device a category B weapon. Stunned officials were forced to revert back to the slingshots they used before purchasing the gun a decade ago.
Thanks to America’s constitutional right to bear t-shirt blasting arms and our society’s insatiable appetite to giveaways, we’ll likely never suffer the cruel fate that has befallen our poor Australian brothers. T-shirt cannons are here to stay, and they’re only getting bigger and better.