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A Guide to the Confusing World of NFL Football Jerseys

Posted 11/8/22 | Filed under Autograph Collecting Tips
The NFL remains the USA's most popular spectator sport, so not surprisingly NFL football jerseys are the best selling jerseys in the USA. If you're shopping for NFL jerseys, you may quickly be confused by the different brands, varieties and terminology.

Since NFL jerseys (both unsigned and autographed) are a best selling category at especially this time of year, I'll do my best to clear up some of the confusion.

First, a little history. Until 2001, NFL jerseys were made by a variety of different companies depending on the team and season: Adidas, Nike, Puma, Reebok, Russell, Starter, Wilson and others. At the end of 2000, Reebok secured a 10 year exclusive contract with the NFL to be the league's exclusive apparel company.

This deal ran through 2011. 2002 was the first season the jerseys featured the NFL EQUIPMENT collar patches on all NFL jerseys regardless of team and type. From 1991 through 2001, the collar patch was the NFL shield logo on jerseys worn by players and game model jerseys sold to the public. Before then there was no collar patch.

In 2012, Nike cut a deal with the NFL replacing Reebok, and Nike still is the league's exclusive jersey manufacturer today. Now let's talk terminology. Nike makes three distinct types of NFL jerseys: Elite, Limited and Game. Game jerseys sound like they'd be the closest to what the players wear, but they're not. The players actually wear Elite jerseys that are fully stitched, the Game jerseys are screen printed replica jerseys, and Limited jerseys are in between. I'll describe all three later.

NFL jersey retailers often are inconsistent about how they describe jerseys, but at we try our best to be both accurate and consistent with our descriptions. Because we sell both current Nike NFL jerseys and vintage NFL jerseys from Reebok and many other manufacturers, we try to use terms that are not specific to any particular company.

Here are definitions for the terms commonly associated with NFL jerseys as well as how we use them at

AUTHENTIC: this term simply means the jersey actually was made by the manufacturer listed, it doesn't describe the attributes or style of the jersey. So an authentic Reebok replica jersey means Reebok made the jersey but it's replica style. More on that later. The reason we use authentic is because the vast majority of stitched NFL jerseys offered on eBay and other non-official marketplaces and websites are either bootleg or unlicensed (yes, there is a difference, keep reading).

BOOTLEG (also CHINA or COUNTERFEIT or KNOCKOFF): this describes an unlicensed, almost always stitched, usually dirt cheap jersey that was made to APPEAR as if it was made by a licensed manufacturer, typically Nike, Reebok or Mitchell and Ness. M&N is the only company licensed by the NFL to make throwback, discontinued style jerseys. A bootleg jersey will have fake brand logos, collar and jock tags, and even fake holograms. The name and numbers are almost always cheap vinyl made to mimic cloth tackle twill. Many bootleg jerseys are easy to spot, others are very difficult to spot. These jerseys illegally produced in China and elsewhere in Asia are still flooding the market and the NFL seems almost powerless to stop them. does NOT sell any bootleg jerseys. I personally wouldn't waste an autograph on a bootleg jersey, even if the player was signing for free.

CUSTOM: this describes an unlicensed, almost always stitched jersey with no manufacturer logos and often just a collar size tag. While the name and numbers generally are cloth, the fabric quality usually is inferior to an authentic jersey. The NFL doesn't seem as concerned with custom jerseys because they're not quite as infringing, but if they wanted to crack down on them, it wouldn't surprise me. Custom jerseys also are dirt cheap and are popular with dealers who do paid player signings. Personally I usually avoid custom jerseys for autographs but they're definitely preferable to bootlegs.

GAME ISSUED: this is a jersey that the team produced for a specific player to wear, featuring his name and numbers, in his size, with his customizations (if any) but he never wore it. If he wore it, it obviously would be a GAME WORN jersey.

GAME MODEL: this is a jersey that has all, or virtually all, the attributes of a team issued jersey such as fabric, embroidery, insignia, patches, stitching etc. but was made for retail sale. The Nike Elite jerseys sold by and on the Nike and NFLShop websites are game model jerseys. All Reebok game model jerseys are stitched with cloth tackle twill. However, in the wild west days before 2001, some teams including the Chargers, Cowboys and Dolphins actually wore screen printed jerseys.

REPLICA: this is a jersey that's NFL licensed but completely or almost completely screen printed. The Reebok NFL replica jerseys from 2002 to 2011 have the same embroidered NFL EQUIPMENT collar patches but everything else is screen printed. Nike Game jerseys sold on the Nike and NFLShop websites are replica jerseys. Usually replica jerseys are not good for autographs because screen printed numbers don't sign well or will quickly bleed with a Sharpie marker. If you want to get a replica jersey autographed, have it signed on the fabric or on the number with a paint pen.

SWINGMAN (also LIMITED or REPLITHENTIC): this type of jersey originated in the NBA as a niche in between the game model and replica jerseys. The name and numbers are stitched, but with a cheaper type of shiny twill, and always a single layer even if the game model features double or triple layer stitching. Nike calls these Limited jerseys. I don't recall what Reebok called their versions but it seemed to me they didn't offer them widely or for that many players. It's usually safe to get these jerseys signed on the number with a Sharpie but I usually use paint pen just in case.

TEAM ISSUED: this refers to jerseys made for the team for game use but were not yet customized for any specific player. occasionally acquires team issued jerseys and customizes them for resale, and this is explained in the description.

THROWBACK: this describes a jersey made to resemble a defunct or discontinued style from long ago. This is the main business of Mitchell and Ness for all major sports including the NFL. Unfortunately, M&N jerseys are counterfeited as much or more than Nike and Reebok. Fortunately, they're easier to spot as the M&N jock tags are pretty distinctive and hard to fake.

I hope this helps you with your NFL jersey shopping. Feel free to e-mail or text any questions.