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Spring 2005 Game On!

Hardcore season-ticket holders with painted faces. Couch potatoes planted three feet from the TV screen. Boisterous fans gathered at the local sports pub. They know the game, the teams, the stats. They experience the highs of winning and the lows of losing. They live and breathe their team. They decorate their space and themselves with it. And they buy huge quantities of merchandise sporting the names and logos, colors and slogans of their teams. Welcome to the wide, wide world of licensed sports products.

And a lucrative world it is. According to the Sports Licensing White Paper, a report from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA International), retail sales of licensed sports products in the US and Canada in 2003 reached $12.1 billion, up seven percent from 2002. The largest increase came from the NBA, reporting global sales growth of 60 percent in 2003.

Why the growth? It’s actually a climb back up. In 1994 and 1996, sales spiked at $13.8 billion. Team looks were hot at that time, and the three big leagues—the NBA, NFL and MLB—signed with too many licensees, thereby flooding the market and damaging the value of their brands. Since then, pro teams reined in their licensees to protect their name. With smarter marketing strategies in place, licensed sports products are back on top. Case in point: the NFL. In License! Magazine (“Licensing Roundtable,” 1/04), Lorri Freifeld reports that five years ago, the NFL had 250 hardlines and 50 apparel licensees; today they have roughly 100 hardlines and six apparel licensees.

The media helped the upsurge, too. “A big part of sales is visibility,” says Mike May, director of communications for SGMA International. Whatever the sport may be, the media [are] there to cover it—on TV, radio and in magazines and newspapers. On cable television, not only can you watch ESPN 24 hours a day, but the NBA and NFL have their own round-the-clock networks, as well. Add to all of this the popularity of other sports—hockey, soccer and auto racing, for example; or colleges and universities, which are also very much in the game.

A large part of being a fan consists of wearing your team’s colors and visibly proclaiming your allegiances, says Joe Queenan in his book, True Believers: The Tragic Inner Life of Sports Fans (Henry Holt and Company, 2003). This entitles you to preen and gloat when your team wins, he writes, but it also confers the responsibility of cursing, swearing, wrecking your car, and falling into a funk after your team loses.

Where is all this passion and devotion coming from? Why are so many fans so emotional, and what drives that devotion—and their spending? In “Fantastic vs. fanatical” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 1/30/05), Beth Gillen explores the psychology behind sports fanaticism, and quotes Merrill J. Melnick, co-author of Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators. Being a fan is a “compensatory mechanism,” Melnick says. It buttresses identity at a time when family, community and work—institutions that historically provided Americans with a sense of self—are crumbling.

Simply put, “People have a universal need to be part of groups, and being a fan is an easy way to achieve that,” says Dr. Christian End, who researches fan psychology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. “All you have to do is walk into a stadium with a stuffed eagle on your head to feel that sense of belonging.” And it’s that sense of belonging that spurs sales of licensed merchandise. “Sales are very emotional. [They're based on] the love and affection for a person’s favorite team,” says May.

Not just for looks

If you can put a name and logo on it, any item can be licensed sports merchandise, and it will likely sell. Licensed sports products of all kinds have wide appeal. Items sporting team logos serve as badges of loyalty, banners of “oneness” with the team and everyone else who loves the team. But increasingly, it’s not just about decoration. “One of the keys to sales in recent years is the utility aspect,” says May. Customers want products that show their support and do things. “Utility” items run the gamut—hair bows, stainless steel mugs, towels, dog collars and bowls, baby shoes, and much more. People love having their team’s logo on items they’d probably buy anyway.

Of course, many of them fit in with sports-spectating—stadium-seat cushions or at-home barware, for example. The number-one seller for Hunter Manufacturing (Lexington,KY), for example, is a 2-oz. collector shot glass with front-facing logo. It’s for measuring or drinking, much like any other shot glass—except, of course, this one has a team logo. And in their “Bottoms Up” series, there’s an additional logo on, yes, the bottom.

Sports lovers like to watch, but they also like to play—checkers, darts and other games, that is. And if they’re themed to their favorite sport, all the better. Big League Promotions (Miami, FL), a licensee of the NFL, MLB and 60 colleges, has checkers in the shape of mini-football helmets or mini-batting helmets. “This does phenomenally well,” says owner Ken Brickman. With their NFL chess set, referees, goal posts and quarterbacks replace traditional chess pieces. These products and others, like their themed magnetic darts, have functionality—in short, they’re games people play. “It’s not, ‘I got it, great’ and throw it in a drawer,” says Brickman.

The Memory Company (Phenix City, AL) sells products for the home—chip-n-dips, cookie jars, piggybanks, holiday ornaments and, at the high end at $160, Tiffany-style lamps. “We have a little bit of everything,” says Heather Caracio, licensing director. For the holidays, figurines of Santa in school colors are especially popular.

Just collect

imageSome collectors collect because they love the type of item itself (coins, rare books, whatever) and the thrill of the hunt. In sports, baseball cards and bobbleheads come to mind. Some collectors are speculators: for them, a limited run of a given item is the name of the game. They “buy low” with an eye to appreciation in price, and “sell high” (these days, mostly on eBay). And then there are collectors who just want to own lots of whatever is emblazoned with the team they love—a Yankees fan who buys just about anything having to do with the Bronx Bombers; a Notre Dame fan who buys nearly everything sporting “Fighting Irish” or “ND.”

“We make thousands of products, [and] 95 percent of them are sports- and college-licensed,” says Michael Lewis, owner of Forever Collectibles (East Brunswick, NJ), which sells plush, resin and novelty items. Santa hats were this year’s hit. “We sold near half a million hats. People wore them to the games,” says Terry Giordano, sales manager. Also popular are bobbleheads, teddy bears, and Christmas stockings. Car magnets, plush balls and wristbands, new items for 2005, are expected to do well.

Baseball cards, that time-honored sports collectible of American youth, may well have inspired the framed photos of sports’ hottest players from Front Row Collectibles (St. Louis, MO). Each photo comes with the player’s complete regular and post-season statistics, achievements, career highlights and awards, and bio. The pictures are easy to stack, so retailers “can stock a tremendous amount in a small space,” says owner Ed Gaines.

Think pink

It’s easy to focus on men when it comes to sports—there are about 100 million male fans. But women are fans, too—big time. According to a Harris Poll survey, more than 45 million female fans watch NFL games every weekend, either in the stands or in the living room, with or without husbands or boyfriends. And according to Scarborough Sports Marketing, more than 50 million women (age 18+) now follow professional sports in general and declare themselves fans, doubling their number between 1998 and 2002. There’s been a cultural shift in recent years (thanks to factors like Title IX and more women in the workplace); and the trend continues upward.

And like their male counterparts, female fans follow up by buying: “Women’s [merchandise] is probably our biggest growth area, as far as percentage,” says Steve Strawbridge, director of merchandising for the Philadelphia Eagles. He notes that kids’ and women’s generate almost equal business, but didn’t always: “Women’s was under one percent of the business three years ago—now it’s about 10 percent,” he says. “It’s unbelievable.”

In Sarah Hale Meitner’s “Color the NFL Pink” (Orlando Sentinel, 2/6/05), Tom Doyle, VP of information and research with the National Sporting Goods Assn., says women are willing to spend more on licensed sports goods than men are. But women generally don’t buy bobbleheads and shot glasses and oversize T-shirts. According to Meitner, “Women don’t necessarily want to wear team jerseys: they want team-logo apparel (outerwear and underwear), caps, accessories and other items that are distinctly feminine. And this year, they want pink. More than 45,000 pink Eagles hats were sold this year—”a league high,” says Susan Rothman, VP of consumer products for the NFL (as quoted in the Sentinel.) “It’s created this whole new market for manufacturers,” says Doyle.

“Women are sports fans just as much as men,” says Jennifer Gonzales, CEO of ProCharms, Inc. (West Sacramento, CA). But “the women’s market is being neglected,” she says. ProCharms is one company that serves this new market with its sports charms. Representing all the major teams, including the WNBA, the charms are designed to hang on bracelets, cell phones, key chains and dog-tag necklaces. The company also has Prostarter bracelets, which come with charms already attached; and Prostarter key chains, “a good item to sell for [a retailer] who doesn’t already sell charms,” she says.

The old college try

imageWhile college teams may not always enjoy the tremendous press coverage the professionals do, they benefit from alumni interested in the old alma mater—no matter whether the teams win or lose. Tammy Purves, director of corporate communications for the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC) in Atlanta, says the total collegiate industry generated $2.6 billion in retail sales in 2003. “The non-apparel side of the business is probably the fastest-growing. We’ve estimated in the last three years that the collegiate gift and collectible market has grown about 300 percent,” she says. And that includes everything from holiday collectibles to traditional office and desk accessories. Which is fitting: According to the US Work-force Commission, there are 29 million working-age college alumni in the US. Phil Movagar, ProCharms retailer in Brea, CA, sees this statistic in action. “If they’re visiting and they see a charm from their own college, they’ll want to buy it,” he says.

“Whoever is at that school, at some point they’re going to support it. It’s kind of a niche market,” says Rebecca Wilson, VP of sales for Campus ID (Garland, TX), wholesaler of sterling silver jewelry and lead-free pewter gifts and accessories. “We have about 30 different items per school,” she says. While jewelry is far and away their best-selling line (an individual charm can retail for as much as $60), key rings and skat tacks (pins for lapel, hat or jacket) are also popular.

LKS Company (Arlington, TX) distributes 35 collegiate items, from insulated tumblers to keepsake boxes. “Tree lights are one of our better selling items,” says owner Troy Stephenson. And a strand of lights isn’t just for trees anymore: consumers use them to decorate their homes, decks and RVs. “Collegiate sells better in the south and southeast, [where] football is life,” says Stephenson. “The real heavy business is July, August and September. Every team is zero to zero, and everyone’s thinking national championship.”

If you aren’t thinking kids—even toddlers—when you think collegiate, think again. Students and alums alike buy things with their school colors, logos and mascots for the little ones in their lives—and it’s not just baby T’s anymore. Mascotopia (New Haven, CT) carries an innovative line of licensed products for infants and toddlers to meet that demand. Named CLC’s Top Youth Licensee for 2004, Mascotopia has a line of interactive playthings that includes mascot mobiles, blocks and puzzles, all emblazoned with the licensed designs of more than 65 colleges and universities. The mascot mobile, their flagship product, features five plush mascots and plays the school’s fight song. “We simplify it to be age-appropriate,” says co-founder Alex Babbidge. A parent himself, Babbidge aimed to create a fun and exciting way for parents, grandparents and friends to share their love of their favorite college team with the baby in their lives. “Tying these two passions together makes for an extremely strong product,” he says.

New on the scene is Baby Fanatic, a manufacturer of licensed products “for those reverent alumni who are truly dedicated to their collegiate legacy,” says co-owner Tricia Woodson (, 11/15/04). “Our products are elegant, sophisticated and whimsical,” and include bookends, clocks, sunshades, silver baby cups and more. The company has 17 college licenses, and will expand the list to include the Big 12, the Big Ten and possibly the NFL.

And now there’s a new wrinkle: rivalry merchandise. According to Jeffrey Zaslow writing in The Wall Street Journal (11/12/03), two schools that are long-time or at least well-known rivals allow their trademarks to appear together on the same item. The demand for “rivalry” merchandise is growing, he reports.

A perfect example of a company meeting that demand is Commercial Division of American Eagle (Auburn Hills, MI) and their Collegiate Crusher, a 4” tall item—paperweight, ornament, bookend, whatever you want it to be—in the shape of a rock. On the front is the logo of a major US college, and on the bottom is a hand-painted image of a flattened football player in the rival college’s uniform. Currently there are 20 teams to choose from, with more on the way. There’s also a 30” Crusher “for the real football fanatic.” New for 2005 is the NHL Ice Crusher in the form of an ice mountain. “This is something they see and say, ‘I’ve gotta have that!’” says Dennis Radosevich, the company’s director. Although NHL logo sales may suffer from this season’s suspended play, the company is optimistic for a healthy 2005-2006 season.

Go, team!

Whether you sell strictly sports stuff or want to carry sports-related merchandise along with what you already have, you need to make some choices. First, of course, is to choose appropriate products for your target market. After that, decide which teams to carry. May advises going with teams that are local and popular: “Be conservative. You can establish yourself, then build inventory.” The time of year is also important. Obviously, the NFL is a winner during the holidays.

But don’t overlook teams that are popular everywhere, no matter where you are. “Green Bay Packers will always sell well. And the Dallas Cowboys,” says Caracio. With these ever-popular teams, “it doesn’t matter if they have a winning or losing season,” he says. Plus, as Brickman points out, “if you’re in Las Vegas, you carry 20 NFL teams because everyone’s from somewhere else.”

“You have to have the variety no matter where you are,” says Lewis. “You never know which team they want.” Variety also adds color and depth to the cart: “It’s like a magnet to the eye. One out of four women [shoppers] stop and take a look.” An average Forever Collectibles cart stocks about 500 different items during the holiday season. Each style might come in eight or ten teams; a very popular item like their Santa hat might come in 25. And when you place your opening order, leave money available to capitalize on a winner. “There’s always someone who hit’s a hot market . . . We’ll chase the product with them,” says Giordano.

On the other hand, it doesn’t always pay to overbuy or select too widely. “You can’t be everything to everybody,” says Tom Jones, VP of sales and marketing at Hunter Manufacturing. In his view, it’s important to make an impact with a few items, rather than confusing the customer with too many choices.

A fan is a fan is a fan

Whether the team is college or pro, Jones attributes the success of licensed sports merchandise to this: “Day in, day out, 365 days a year, a sports fan is a sports fan.” Put that sports fan, or the fan’s friend or relative, into the mall near a sports merchandise cart or kiosk, and you have a winner. “The cart business is a very impulse-driven business,” says Brickman. “People are walking through a mall and something on a cart catches their eye. What better than something the consumer already knows?” And loves. With those much-loved school colors and logos catching their eye and tugging their heartstrings, and with affordable pricing (as little as $4-$10 on many items), giving in to that impulse is easy.

True fans—and their friends, spouses, moms and dads—will buy. And retailers score.

Emily Lambert

Lambert, a senior writer for SRR, resides in Philadelphia. She can be reached at .

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