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What happens to the losing team’s Super Bowl 'champion' merchandise?

Sometime around 10 p.m. Eastern on Sunday evening, sporting goods stores in the greater Kansas City area began preparing for an onslaught of fans seeking Super Bowl championship merchandise. Fans lined up outside the doors as workers cracked open boxes of T-shirts, hats, sweatshirts and other goods, each bearing the Chiefs logo and SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS.

Eighteen hundred miles west, the boxes in the Bay Area remained sealed shut. The SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS merchandise won’t ever reach the streets … not in America, at least, thanks to an ongoing NFL charity initiative.

The NFL pre-prints championship merchandise with both teams for obvious reasons: fan demand is at its highest while the confetti is still falling. That approach leaves the league with half its inventory rendered instantly unsellable. 

Prior to 1997, the NFL simply destroyed the “losing” merchandise. Since then, it has enlisted the services of two charities to send it around the globe to people in need.

“There is a worldwide poverty crisis, millions of people who don’t have T-shirts and sweatshirts that we take for granted,” says Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s senior vice president of social responsibility. “So it’s an easy win for us to make sure this product gets into their hands.”

You probably already knew that. But the security involved in shipping that merch is straight out of a “Jack Ryan” episode, complete with secret distribution centers and carefully concealed final destinations.  

Prior to Super Bowl XLI, t-shirts were made for both the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears. (AP)

Despite the fact that some losing teams’ fans would gladly fork over money for a better-timeline T-shirt, the NFL doesn’t sell these alternate-reality shirts to avoid fan confusion and a watering-down of the winners’ victory.

“While a fan might find [an unusable championship T-shirt] interesting and fun, a novelty, we want to be sensitive to the team,” Isaacson says. “No one likes to lose a championship game. The club put its heart and soul on the line, and we wouldn’t want to be seen as making fun of that.” 

Today, the NFL enlists the services of Good360, a charity experienced in redistributing excess corporate inventory to charitable organizations across the globe. Each year, Good360 and the league begin coordinating their distribution plans several weeks ahead of the playoffs. In order to meet fan demand, the merchandise has to be on the ground in the cities of the teams playing in the conference championships, as well as the Super Bowl itself … but half that merchandise has to get recalled once the clock hits all zeroes. 

Right now, the NFL is in the process of inventorying all the excess 49er “championship” merchandise at a central location (undisclosed, of course). At the same time, Good360 is working its own worldwide network of charities, trying to line up the right locale with the appropriate merchandise. Several years back, the league provided Good360 with a list of approved countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and from those countries, Good360 targets the appropriate charities.

“Our nonprofits are very thoroughly vetted,” says Shari Rudolph, Good360’s chief development officer. “We have a strict compliance process to make sure our nonprofits handle donations in the way the donor intends. All of our nonprofit partners are put through their paces.”

The aim, of course, is to locate partners with longstanding relationships in countries where the merchandise will end up, to avoid the proverbial fell-off-the-back-of-the-truck factor.

While the league prizes secrecy, every so often, photos of the alternate-reality merchandise leak out. In 2014, a WorldVision volunteer in Denver snapped a photo of the unusable Broncos World Champion shirts. (The Seahawks throttled Denver that year.)

Back in 2008, an Associated Press photographer snapped these photos of some notable Super Bowl merchandise that ended up in Nicaragua. Patriots fans, you might want to avert your eyes:

The Patriots did not finish 19-0 in 2007, but kids in Nicaragua have shirts that say otherwise. (AP)

Good360 doesn’t give out the names of charities that receive the goods to prevent the organizations from getting inundated with inquiries. But over the course of the next two months, the organization will identify appropriate nonprofits, and distribute the merchandise … meaning that sometime around April, the 49ers will have thousands new fans around the globe. 

“There’s so much gratefulness and gratitude, from people facing difficult life circumstances, because of this particular event,” Rudolph says. “Football is part of the fabric of our lives. But we sometimes forget that American-style football teams don’t have significant awareness in the other parts of the world. For them, they’re happy to get new clothes.”

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