Friday, November 23, 2001

The holiday shopping blitz starts today, and licensed sports apparel such as NFL jerseys and video games will top thousands of wish lists.
So will Washington Redskins fishing tackle, Baltimore Ravens contact lenses, and for a few diehards planning ahead for the hereafter, caskets emblazoned with the logo of their favorite college team.
Battling a slumping economy with shrinking discretionary incomes and an increasingly crowded sports marketplace, each of the major pro sports leagues and the NCAA are allowing team logos and colors to be used for hundreds of items far beyond traditional fan fare such as apparel and coffee mugs.
The NFL, the biggest entity in a U.S. sports licensing business that approaches $12 billion in annual sales, earlier this year turned down an offer to have its team logos appear on caskets and tombstones. But little else, apparently, is off limits. Among the more offbeat items easily obtainable bearing your favorite team’s marks and colors: leather pet clothing, Santa Claus figurines, crystal paperweights, prescription eyeglasses and wearable rubber bands.
Internationally, sports licensing has even gone further: Organizers for the most recent World Cup and some soccer clubs in Europe found significant success selling logo-bearing condoms.
“We’re not necessarily looking to make a fortune off some of these items,” said Gene Goldberg, the NFL’s vice president of consumer products. The NFL, like the other pro leagues, typically receives 10 percent to 12 percent of the wholesale cost of every item and shares the revenue equally among teams. “But a lot of this stuff is a little different, fun and can draw some attention that might not always happen with the year-in and year-out stuff like the jerseys.”
That certainly happened this autumn when the NFL introduced Crazy Lenses, vanity contact lenses that carry no prescription strength but place the colors and logo of the wearer’s favorite team over their irises, a first in sports licensing. The lenses are available for seven teams, including the Ravens, and the league’s full 32-team slate is to be introduced next year.
The more unusual team merchandise is also about reaching new demographic groups. The NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and the NCAA all have young and middle-aged males and the women who buy gifts for them as core fans. But children, particularly young girls, older adults and less ardent fans represent still largely unmined territory.
The bobblehead doll craze of earlier this year showed that teams could dramatically increase both merchandise sales and attendance for less popular games, as well as draw in new fans. The leagues for years have been aggressive in licensing efforts; in fact, the business is down from a 1996 high of nearly $14 billion. But since bobbleheads previously had been considered fringe collectibles at best and tchotchkes at worst, it opened the door to new ideas that probably would have been rejected before.
“We still reject significantly more ideas than we approve,” said Sal LaRocca, NBA senior vice president of global marketing. “But many consumers, kids in particular, look for brands they recognize, and we have a very powerful brand. Since we have our own store [in midtown Manhattan], we have a unique opportunity to test a lot of products and gauge responses before going out further.”
The war on terrorism also may be playing into the interest in wackier and tackier team merchandise, industry analysts say.
“People are looking for escapism, and as long as sports and some products represent escapism, they’ll do OK,” said Martin Brochstein, editor of the Licensing Letter, which tracks sports licensing. “So it’s not surprising a lot of the newer stuff is home goods and personal goods.”
The rush of new products, however, does not suggest the leagues are simply allowing their marks to be used by anyone who thinks they can produce a buck. Rather, most of the major pro leagues have actually been whittling down the number of licensees they hold in recent years and instead are seeking to do more business with a smaller circle of vendors.
“We’re always looking to develop deeper and better relationships with our core partners,” Mr. Goldberg said. “So even when we break new ground, we have more control over the final product and clear sense of what the targets are.”

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