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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The Yankees cap goes viral in Brazil: ‘Is it basketball?’

Carlos Henrique selling Yankees caps on Rio’s Ipanema Beach.

By Jack Nicas

Matheus Gustavo arrived for his second day of work at a hat shop in Rio de Janeiro wearing a black New York Yankees cap. His new job, for the most part, was selling Yankees hats. On the displays around him, about 3 out of 4 caps promoted that baseball team in the Bronx.

Yet Gustavo had a confession. He had worn a Yankees hat for years, he said, “but I never knew the real reason for the NY.”

When told the Yankees were a baseball team, the 23-year-old looked unimpressed. “Ah,” he responded. “It’s more about soccer here.”

That is an understatement. In Brazil, soccer is life, and baseball confounds. But a few days in any of Brazil’s metropolises or beyond will make clear that, regardless, the Yankees cap is perhaps the country’s hottest headwear.

It is ubiquitous on the beaches of Rio, and in the bars of São Paulo. It was perched on the heads of some right-wing protesters demanding a military coup to oust Brazil’s leftist president. And last month, it hung from a tree, torn and muddied, at an illegal gold mine deep inside the Amazon rainforest.

Just don’t expect many Brazilians to understand what the hat means.

“It’s American football? Or is it a brand?” said Carlos Henrique, 20, hawking Yankees caps off a metal rack he was carrying on Rio’s Ipanema Beach. Either way, it was his bestseller. “I just know it calls attention,” he said. “And it looks good on everyone.”

More than any other sports paraphernalia, the Yankees cap has become its very own fashion trend, unmoored from the sport or the team it represents. Lifted by starring roles in hip-hop videos, celebrity endorsements and collaborations with Gucci and Supreme, the hat has gone fully global, crossing borders to lands where mentions of Babe Ruth and Aaron Judge will elicit blank stares — never mind trying to explain the “Evil Empire.”

Last week, the Yankees started playing meaningful baseball once again, and Yankees fans in New York pulled on the caps to show their allegiance. But to many others in places like Brazil, China and Africa, the interlocked NY insignia will remain simply a classic piece of Americana, a status symbol, or a generic — perhaps chic — emblem of the West.

“The logo is super stylish and, I think, sophisticated,” said Natalia Monsores, 40, while checking out a wall of Yankees hats in a luxury-mall shop owned by New Era, the Buffalo, New York, company that makes the official Yankees caps. “It’s the symbol of the brand, right? New Era,” she replied when asked what the logo meant. “You’re sending a sign: ‘I’m wearing something quality.’”

Isabel Cunha, 26, an ad professional in a Yankees cap eating breakfast in Rio, admitted that she, too, was not quite sure what she was wearing. “I think it’s pretty,” she said. When told it was a sports team, she replied, “basketball?”

Artur Regen oversees Brazil for New Era, Brazil’s largest — and, he said, only — licensed Major League Baseball hat seller. “Ninety-eight percent of Brazilians don’t know it’s a baseball team,” he said. “New York is cool and they want to be associated with it.”

New Era sells Yankees hats in more than 125 countries. Since entering Brazil in 2010, the company has added more than 2,000 partner stores and 150 franchise shops, Regen said. Over the past two years, sales have doubled.

At two New Era shops in Rio this month, the displays were blanketed in dozens of variations of Yankees caps — clashing colors, subtle designs, rips, stripes, camouflage, mesh. There were a few Los Angeles Dodgers hats. Some other American teams had a hat or so each. That other New York hat — for the Mets — was not spotted.

“Walk on any beach in Brazil and 90% of the New Era hats you’ll see are probably going to be the Yankees,” Regen said. Four workers across the two shops said 9 out of 10 hats sold were Yankees caps.

How does Regen, who wore a Yankees shirt to an interview for this article, feel about baseball? “Personally,” he said, “I don’t understand it.”

That was the refrain on baseball across Brazil: Everyone had heard of it; some had seen it; no one understood it.

“We can’t even understand how a sport like this is so successful,” said João Ricardo Santos, an art director in Rio, who was shopping for a baseball cap downtown. In the United States, baseball “fills the stadiums and soccer doesn’t,” he said. “Like, in our head, that doesn’t make any sense.”

Santos got his first Yankees cap more than a decade ago — a red-and-white version he sought out after seeing the American singer Chris Brown wear it.

He has seen a lot more Yankees caps around Brazil lately, which he attributed to growing U.S. influence fueled by the internet. “With YouTube, people don’t just listen to the music. They see the video, they see how the artists dress,” he said. “People want to feel like they belong. So brands play this role, and the Yankees cap is part of that.”

In 2009, Jay-Z rapped, “I made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can.” But while he and other artists may have helped spark the trend, Brazilian celebrities now carry the torch. Among them are funkeiros — the artists who play Brazilian funk, a raw spinoff of hip-hop — and social-media influencers.

Gabriel Maximo, an actor, was smoking a cigarette on a Rio street corner recently, during a break from shooting a new TV series in which his character — a famous social-media influencer — wears a Yankees cap. Maximo said he owns about 15 Yankees caps, which he wears in many of the photos he posts to his 51,000 Instagram followers.

“My friends all buy New Era,” he said. “They buy the Yankees.”

“It fits my head,” he added. “I have big hair.” (He does.)

While New Era’s business is booming in Brazil, the Yankees don’t profit much; the 30 MLB teams split revenue from most official apparel sales. But most Yankees hats sold in Brazil — Regen estimates 9 in 10 — are knockoffs anyway.

At a bustling street market in downtown Rio, six separate hat vendors said Yankees caps were their top seller, which they sold for $5 to $8 each. At the New Era shops, they cost as much as $48.

Some street vendors bought from wholesalers nearby, while others said they ordered in bulk from out-of-state factories. Maria Rodrigues, a vendor wearing a Yankees cap, said her supply comes from a man who shows up weekly with a bag of Yankees caps, priced at $4 each. She sells them for a buck more. “I don’t know where they come from,” she said.

One of the few people interviewed for this article who knew what the Yankees are was Jesús Tacae, an immigrant from Venezuela, a baseball hotbed. He was wearing a Yankees cap while riding a bike from his job at an ice factory in Boa Vista, a city in the Amazon.

Yet he had his own confession. “My favorite team is Boston,” he said. “But they don’t sell that here.”

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