SBJ/October 15 - 21, 2001/Marketingsponsorship

Baseball leads red, white and blue marketing move

Not only flags, but all manner of patriotic ephemera is being hawked with the zeal normally reserved for merchandising championship sports teams.

Outlets such as gas stations and convenience stores are suddenly into the T-shirt and flag business, much the way they venture into the championship T-shirt and World Series pennant business after the local nine wins. So a look at what the four big leagues are doing in "red, white and blue licensing" seems appropriate.

Wrapped as it is in the strands of America's DNA, Major League Baseball was first and most aggressive — putting flags on its caps and jerseys to take the place of its silhouetted batter trademark. With its domestic licensees, like cap marketers New Era (which has contributed $250,000 to charity), new product got to players and retailers quickly. (To be fair, MLB and MLBPA, as well as the NFL, also earmarked $10 million to charities benefiting the families of the Sept. 11 tragedies. The other leagues also have donated seven-figures-plus.)

"Our fans wanted [flag product], and we really feel like anything we put on the field we have to offer to our fans," said MLB licensing chief Howard Smith.

MLB also reworked its World Series logo to include bunting and stars at the bottom, though not in time to get the more nationalistic logo on tickets.

The patriotic parade continues Oct. 27, when MLB corporate sponsors Radio Shack and Kraft's Post cereal brand will get their logos on 50,000 red, white and blue faux Beanie Babies to be given away at Game One of the World Series.

The NFL put flag decals on helmets and said, "That's it."

"They told us no one was going to profit from war," said a source at one of the NFL's largest licensees. As a result, there's been no licensed product combining NFL marks and the flag. However, sources said the league hopes to run a program later this season with the New York Jets and Giants. Wanna bet it includes the acronyms FDNY and NYPD? The NFL also has altered the logo for its championship, and not just to change the date; a patriotic theme has been added to the Super Bowl mark, which accounts for more than $100 million in retail sales of licensed merchandise annually.

The NBA is adding a ribbon/flag logo to its teams' shooting shirts, warmups, tank tops and referees' uniforms and supplying the patch to be used as a gift with purchase for retailers. The league plans to tip off every team's home opener with a red, white and blue ball, but other than at a charity auction, the balls will not be sold. The NBA has told licensees it's "receptive to considering anything that would incorporate the flag," said Sal LaRocca, senior vice president of global merchandising. But, thus far, whatever NBA/USA product you'll find at the NBA Store is a July 4 leftover.

The NHL also has been conservative. While its players are wearing a ribbon emblem on helmets, aside from some lapel pins and other trinkets, there's been very little product. "We've had some clamoring from licensees, but we really didn't want to do stuff like 'Proud to be an American and a Rangers fan,'" said NHL licensing chief Brian Jennings.

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@amcity.com.

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