- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

A Jaromir Jagr Pittsburgh Penguins jersey is considered a throwback.

A Jaromir Jagr Washington Capitals jersey is considered a throwaway.

Such is the fickle nature of the licensed sports apparel business, an industry being rocked by a flurry of player trades and free agent signings.

In the last three months, star athletes such as Jagr, Alex Rodriguez, Peter Bondra, Robert Lang, Greg Maddux, Alfonso Soriano, Rasheed Wallace, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte have all changed teams. And in their wake are literally tens of thousands of jerseys, hats, T-shirts and other apparel bearing their name or likeness in their old team logos and colors, items now unwanted by most fans and aggressively discounted in price by nervous retailers.

Local fans need look no further than the Modell’s shop at MCI Center, where a large rack of Jagr jerseys, discounted from $129.99 to $50, sits waiting for buyers. Jagr was traded in late January to the New York Rangers after a largely unsuccessful 30-month stay in Washington. Another deep rack had more than a dozen jerseys of current Portland Trail Blazer Abdur-Rahim from his days in Atlanta, with little chance of being snapped up anytime soon.

“Names are getting shuffled around from team to team so much these days. No one’s safe anymore, not even the stars. It’s been a bit of a problem for us,” said Dave Oster, Modell’s assistant manager. “It’s very frustrating. This stuff will stay here until it goes, and it limits our ability to bring in fresh material.”

The Texas Rangers are telling a similar tale. Last month’s trade of Rodriguez to the Yankees left behind “several thousand” items bearing his name and uniform number, said John Blake, Rangers vice president. Between a near-trade of Rodriguez to Boston and the transaction with New York, the Rangers named him team captain and bulked up their marketing and merchandising of the superstar.

All that gear, comprising 25 different products ranging from authentic jerseys to life-sized cardboard cut-outs, is now on a 50 percent discount, with further price cuts expected after the regular season begins. Secondary markets like EBay produce even lower prices.

“We haven’t seen a lot of traffic [from shoppers] so far,” Blake said.

The late winter is particularly rugged on sports apparel retailers. The holiday shopping rush is long gone, replaced by NFL free agency and trading deadlines in the NBA and NHL that produce further player movement. Summer spending, fueled by baseball pennant races and NFL training camps, is months away. And though Rodriguez jerseys in the New York Yankees’ pinstripes are now a red-hot seller, that fan fervor is still counterbalanced by that large pile of unsold gear in Texas.

Because a retailer like Modell’s assumes all risk when purchasing products from a manufacturer, there is no other recourse but to keep the unwanted merchandise on display, at any price, to try to recover some of the initial cost. Such desperation sales represent only a small fraction of the total $12billion licensed sports apparel business, easily less than 5percent. But in the small-margin world of retail, every dollar lost still inflicts some pain.

The retailers also are working without the time, nostalgia and fan reverence typically required to turn an outdated jersey into a highly coveted throwback or retro uniform, such as the affinity now shown for Jagr’s original Penguins uniform.

“There’s always some risk inherent in this business, but the current situation definitely is a big concern for a lot of folks,” said John Horan, publisher of Sporting Goods Intelligence, a Pennsylvania-based industry newsletter. “Once a guy goes, it becomes a close-out situation at the store.”

Not all player departures, however, result in old jerseys gathering dust. Local Modell’s shops quickly sold all remaining Bondra jerseys at the same $50 price after his trade to Ottawa, in large part because of his status in town as a fan favorite for more than a decade.

“Peter’s stuff was absolutely no problem to move,” Oster said. “The fans loved him.”

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