Phantom champs: What happens to losers’ title shirts?

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(CNN) — Last week, somewhere in America, a man already clutched a “Miami Heat 2013 NBA Champions” T-shirt. No, he is not some time traveler, privy to the results of future sporting events in a way that recalls Biff Tannen’s lucrative Sports Almanac.

Those Heat championship shirts were designed, printed and packaged well before Thursday’s title-clinching Game 7 victory versus the Spurs, so they’d be ready to hit shelves ASAP if they won the title.

Which is great and clever and all that, but… what if they didn’t win the title? Then what would happen to all those championship T-shirts?

Or, to drop the hypothetical, what now for all those Spurs championship tees, doubtlessly sitting in storerooms throughout San Antonio? Well, they’re not going to go to waste. In fact, just the opposite.

Rather than winding up in a dumpster or as an ironic collectible for sports fans, these non-champions’ championship shirts and hats (dubbed “phantom merchandise” by, which posts images of such apparel) are sent to impoverished communities around the world.

In these villages and towns, nobody cares that the 49ers didn’t actually win this year’s Super Bowl as their shirt proclaims, just so long as they have new clothing to wear — perhaps for the first time in their lives.

The Washington, D.C.-based humanitarian organization World Vision partners with each of the four major U.S. professional sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) to acquire and distribute all this phantom merchandise, which may otherwise be sentenced to an incinerator.

They are the reason that in some parts of the world, where people may never have even heard of American football, the New England Patriots are known to have defeated the New York Giants in the 2012 Super Bowl, the Pittsburgh Steelers are regarded as Super Bowl XLV champs (sorry, Packers fans) — and the San Antonio Spurs are about to be crowned NBA champions.

World Vision “has accepted hundreds of official shirts and caps from the sporting world immediately following big events,” says Jeff Fields, the organization’s senior director of gifts-in-kind. “Instead of being destroyed, the ‘runner up’ team’s shirts and caps are shipped from the event site to World Vision’s Gifts-in-Kind Global Distribution Center in Pittsburgh.”

From there, the apparel is packaged with other needed items to be sent to the charity’s field staff around the world.

In places as diverse as Romania, El Salvador, Rwanda and Mongolia, “World Vision workers distribute the apparel to children and families in need, many of which have never owned new clothing.”

And as happy as you might be to slip on a championship shirt after your team wins a title, it probably doesn’t begin to compare with the thrill delivered along with the losing team’s T-shirts.

“The living conditions in many of the communities where we distribute apparel suffer from poverty, hunger and injustice,” Fields tells HLN. “Many do not have the luxuries of electricity or running water. Most do not have enough money for proper food, let alone shoes and clothing.”

Still, some fans back in the States don’t want to let go of the gear so quickly. Almost every year, typically after the Super Bowl, World Vision says they get calls from souvenir-starved fans looking for one of the ultra-rare shirts or caps. Probably with good reason, since that merchandise could be pretty valuable.

However, not nearly as valuable as it is to those who actually receive it.