SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Days before the Super Bowl, and days into Black History Month, there’s a crush of customers inside the San Francisco 49ers Team Store at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. Mixed in with the myriad of merchandise touting the team’s appearance in Super Bowl LVIII are symbols of the successful completion of a long journey, hanging in plain sight.
"It started off as a t-shirt idea. But then I proposed jackets, shirts, jerseys," said artist Jonathan Carroll.
He is the lead designer of the 49ers "Black Excellence" merchandise. It’s a concept that spotlights the team’s black talent you won’t see playing on the field. Sweatshirts, hats, and hoodies are embossed with the 49ers logo, but in the colors of the African National Congress: red, black and green.
Similar gear was first created in conjunction with San Francisco’s connection to the LatinX culture, which was strengthened by the 49ers playing a game in Mexico City against the Cardinals in 2022.
"Why is having an inclusive workplace so important? Well, one of the ways is you can actually take some of your employees who are fans of the organization and who are fans of what we do, and we can put our own particular spin on this," said Christina Jefferson, the 49ers’ senior director of inclusion & culture.
That spin has been a smashing success. "Black Excellence," has been featured at the team’s store inside Levi’s Stadium since January, and is now largely sold out.
"I think there’s always a worry whether black messages are universal enough. Even though we see in hip-hop culture that’s exactly the case," said Carroll.
In the multi-billion-dollar world of sports merchandising, messaging matters. Custom-made jackets by Kristin Jusczcyk for Taylor Swift went viral and landed her, wife of 49er fullback Kyle Jusczcyk, a licensing agreement with the NFL.
The concept of creating apparel based off a player’s jersey is not new, dating back to the early part of this century, if not even further than that. What is new – the viral buzz created by the internet, putting such items in the minds of the masses. But not necessarily putting them within reach.
"The jacket that was designed for her is not attainable for them. But they’ll actually be happy with a knock-off," said Dr. Nenaji Jackson, a social scientist and race and inclusion expert. "The masses want to feel there’s something just a bit greater than them."
Carroll noted his success is in its early stages and could culminate with a similar league deal. He hoped this coming Sunday, the masses at Super Bowl LVIII would become connected with "Black Excellence" now, and for the long-term.
"Satin jackets are in right now. I didn’t even anticipate that to be a big style point right now. So hopefully somebody will wear that to the Super Bowl and embody that energy," he said.
There are hopes "Black Excellence" can be a doorway for others to learn that success stretches beyond players on the gridiron, and across all cultures and races.
Jesse Gary is a reporter based in the station's South Bay bureau. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter), @JesseKTVU and on Instagram, @jessegontv