- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 9, 2005

The NHL did most of the usual things a sports league does when it tries to move merchandise for the holiday shopping season. Catalogs were sent out. Promotional e-mails accumulated in computers around the globe. Key items were put on sale.

But all that marketing turned out to be the functional equivalent of shouting into a black hole.

With the December retail sprint in the books, the NHL predictably recorded a terrible year. With the lockout now at 116 days and counting, and the 2004-05 season close to official cancellation, the NHL’s year-end merchandise sales were down a whopping 59 percent from 2003.

December yielded just $6.9million in domestic sales of licensed gear, according to SportScanInfo, a Florida research firm that tracks retail sales of sporting goods and team merchandise. That represented an 85 percent drop from December 2003.

“They got creamed, absolutely creamed,” said Neil Schwartz, SportScanInfo director of marketing and business development. “Most retailers have yanked a lot of their hockey product off the shelves, so it’s become sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Merchandise sales, of course, are nowhere near the core of the bitter dispute between players and owners as they fight for control of a $2billion industry. The lockout is all about NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s mandate to gain a salary cap at any cost, as well as the massive level of mistrust between players and management that has grown from that mandate.

But merchandise sales remain an important bellwether of the strength of any league’s brand and the depth of fan affinity. To that end, NHL’s meager and still-falling sales provide another clear indicator that the mainstream fan base is simply moving on and living without hockey.

Just a few years ago, consumers couldn’t get enough of NHL jerseys, and rap stars were falling over themselves trying to get throwback models to wear in their videos.

“Certainly the fact of not playing doesn’t help,” said Brian Jennings, NHL group vice president for consumer products marketing. “Being on the ice enables our fans to connect with us.”

There have been some areas of modest strength amid the raging storm, however. Equipment sales have dropped far less than apparel and fan novelties, as the minor, college, youth and recreation leagues and international competitions have proceeded as usual.

The NHL reports a stronger than expected level of sales activity on its Web site, shop.nhl.com, a situation no doubt fueled by the lack of available product at traditional retail stores and the absence of lucrative sales activity at arena souvenir stands.

With the lockout several years in the making, retailers had all the advance warning they could possibly ask for, and with NHL assistance, have adjusted inventory levels accordingly.

“Obviously, this is not the best scenario,” said John Frascotti, senior vice president of licensing and new business for Reebok. The Massachusetts shoe and apparel giant purchased industry stalwart the Hockey Co. last year and is now the NHL’s primary supplier of apparel and equipment.

“But if you look at the entire hockey pie, the NHL is the only piece with a problem,” Frascotti said. “Youth participation rates are strong. College hockey is getting a lot of looks now. Women are getting more involved with the sport, which is great. We just need to get the top end back and firing.”

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