- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2000

Washington football fever must be in full force again as weekend shopping lists suddenly are topped by car horns that play "Hail to the Redskins."

Redskins merchandise sales, very strong since the team started this season 5-2, have hit a new peak in recent days as a playoff run unseen since the 1992 season extends yet another week. Longtime area merchants say spending on Redskins gear is now higher than at any time in team history even the team's glory days of the 1980s.

"This is as good as it's ever been, and maybe as good as it ever will be," said Jim Halsey, owner of the the Stadium Store in Wheaton, Md., one of the Washington area's largest sellers of Redskins gear. "People want absolutely anything that says 'NFC East Champions' on it."

NFL Properties, which tracks all league merchandise sales and splits revenue evenly among the 32 franchises, says that Redskins sales are now up 25 percent nationally over the 1998 season, and that the team may soon crack into the league's top-10 selling teams. NFL Properties does not release individual team sales figures, but the Redskins have traditionally been middle-of-the-pack sellers.

Overall NFL merchandise sales were flat last year compared with 1998 at $3.1 billion.

Most of the Redskins' sales bump, obviously, reflects the team's improved play and first playoff appearance since the 1992 season. The team plays against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday.

But area retailers say several other factors are at work.

During the team's last Super Bowl season in 1991, the economy was mired in a deep recession that would take it another two years to escape. Now, unemployment levels are at historic lows while personal income continues to surge and the stock market reaches new highs. That has created plenty of disposable income for Redskins fans.

Also since 1991, tailgating nationally has surged in popularity at all NFL parks but particularly at FedEx Field, where Metro access is more limited than at the Redskins' former home, RFK Stadium. Team jerseys and hats remain the top sellers, but tailgating gear like chairs, grills and car flags have posted mammoth increases in sales locally.

"The tailgating stuff is what's really driving the difference for us," said Margie Day, owner of 2 Day Gifts in Manassas, another big seller of Redskins gear. "The car flags, the chairs, the car horns: Any of that stuff is just flying off the shelves. There are [23,000] more people that can go to the games at the new stadium, and so many of them are now driving there, they want to take the extra gear."

Redskins fans can now readily find replica jerseys of running back Stephen Davis and cornerback Champ Bailey, next-to-impossible tasks in early November. But shortages are now common for burgundy hats that read "1999 NFC East Champions." Most area retailers have those hats on back order, while vendors during Saturday's game against Detroit were forced to sell black ones.

"This team has been down for so long, I think a lot of the manufacturers simply weren't geared up for us," Halsey said. "To a national company, a division championship isn't a big deal at all, but to the fans here, it's a huge deal."

While teams can become top merchandise sellers nearly overnight, the fallback to retail obscurity can be equally swift. Longtime top-selling teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers quickly have fallen out of favor because of losing records this season.

Retail analysts say the key is how well the Redskins negotiate April's draft and upcoming contract negotiations with Davis.

"There's some real room for the Redskins to be key retail players. These things are cyclical, and a lot of the other traditionally popular teams are down right now," said Jeff Sacks, editor of Team Licensing Business, a newsletter that tracks NFL merchandise sales.

"But can they sign Davis? Can they get some names in the draft? Can they keep all their other skill players? That's obviously hard to do in today's NFL, but it's that sort of thing that helps keep a team's profile high, and as a result, people coming to the stores," Sacks said.

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