Shirt betting is an unwritten code
The practice of shirt betting is an exclusively American tradition. Competitors at international level competitions often exchange their rowing uniforms and team gear, irrespective of whether they win or lose. But shirt-betting doesn’t occur.
Shirt racing tends to happen primarily in the spring with competitors training all year in order to compete in the fall and spring. Fall races tend to be 5K head races against the clock, but races in the spring are usually side-by-side 2K races. Typically, the spring rowing program will include a number of dual races that feature one or two other crews to prepare for the championship regatta-style races in May and June.
Division I rowing schools compete against each other in annual dual races and shirt-racing is an established tradition. Championship regattas also operate in the same way in accordance with an unspoken winner-takes-all rule. This type of racing involves a number of competitors, rather than just a couple of teams, which means the competition is divided into heats, semifinals and finals. The team that wins the ‘grand final’ gets to take home all the jerseys, including those from teams which were eliminated in earlier rounds. The champions would find themselves returning to campus with piles of racing jerseys. The number could be as many as 25 and they would be free to wear them as emblems of their conquests.
Obviously, the winner wears the jersey of its vanquished competitors with pride but the actual exchange is made very respectfully and with humility. It is considered to add to the camaraderie of the sport as the exchange involves a collegial dialogue between men who were bitter rivals just a couple of minutes earlier, and are then showing mutual respect for each other when exchanging shirts.