SBJ/20081201/This Week's News

Sports brands unwrap big push for holiday sales

After a substandard 2007 holiday shopping period, retailers are staring at a 2008 that looks even worse, and one that comes at the end of a year that included bankruptcy filings from such familiar merchants as Circuit City, Linens ’n Things, and Steve & Barry’s.

At least one sports licensor, however, is looking optimistically at the holidays. The Philadelphia Phillies’ first championship in 28 years sparked hot-market sales that MLB licensing chief Howard Smith now says surpassed the 2000 Subway Series. That means sales generated by the 2008 Series are second only to those fueled by the Boston Red Sox’s 2004 title.

As it has done since the Red Sox broke their 86-year drought, MLB and its licensees are working to extend the sales of championship merchandise by adding holiday themes to the caps, T-shirts and fleece that have been flying out of stores in Philadelphia since late October.

While MLB has seen annual double-digit increases overall for the past 11 years, it is projecting a single-digit increase for next year, which is impressive in this dour economy.

“It’s the worst retail environment in 30 years,” Smith said, “but when Santa comes and the menorah lights are lit, the go-to gift in Philadelphia this holiday for guys will be something that says ‘Phillies’ on it. For next year, we have the Mets and Yankees opening new parks, so we can still be somewhat optimistic.”

Across sports, licensors are pushing out the traditional standard gifts but offering more holiday-themed products than ever, hoping that sports’ deep affinities will accelerate retail traffic that slowed more than year ago. There are also more holiday marketing efforts from the big sports licensees, including the NFL’s first TV ad dedicated to holiday giving, one aimed largely at women.

“We wanted to create a ‘V8 moment’ and show people our selection,” said Bob O’Keefe, the NFL’s senior director of fan relationship marketing, on the league’s ad push. The league has also ramped up its catalog distribution from 3.2 million to 4 million and taken out ads in Sports Illustrated (as has MLB), along with People and USA Today. Last year, the NFL had 45 percent of all sales during the November and December period.

Even in a stagnant economy, e-commerce sales continue to be robust for every sports property. O’Keefe says sales on are up 35 percent this year. Customized products are gaining in importance for every league, and reports that customized product sales now account for about 7 percent of online sales. also has a dedicated holiday TV spot this year, and Brian Jennings, the NHL’s executive vice president of marketing, said that after meeting with his top licensees recently, he was fairly bullish.

“The problem is the unpredictability,” he said. “Retailers are going through something they never have before in terms of floor traffic and sales. A lot of their forecasts are changing every day.”

Third jerseys will be rampant this season from Reebok; 18 clubs will have new ones launched before Christmas. Jennings noted other hot products on include NHL 2K9 for Wii ($50); a coffee table book called “NHL Treasures,” and items from the Montreal Canadiens centennial collection.

On shelves near you (clockwise from top):
Extended Livestrong line from Nike, more
Phillies championship gear and ESPN’s
modern version of Mr. Microphone.

One of the more amusing holiday marketing initiatives being mounted by the NBA is a campaign that will deliver 27,000 NBA Store-branded pizza boxes with coupons in Manhattan during December. Linda Choong, the NBA’s senior vice president of retail, said the league is also pushing customized apparel, along with licensee Adidas’ various NBA togs with a tag line of “Where unwrapping the dream happens,” which plays off the league’s main “Where amazing happens” campaign. The league will also tag TV ads and run a holiday transit marketing campaign in NYC.

“Both our e-commerce and our [NYC] brick-and-mortar store are coming off their best years, so we’re in as good a position as we can be for a tough economy,” she said.

NASCAR officials hope that new three-time champion Jimmie Johnson connects with fans seeking gifts. A search of’s Superstore showed more than 50 items dedicated to Johnson’s most recent championship, including clocks ($16-$99) and a wallet ($66).

“From a business perspective, we’re just beginning to appreciate the difference between two in a row and three in a row,” said Blake Davidson, managing director of licensed products for NASCAR. “He has been a big name in the sport, but not moving product like [Dale Earnhardt] Junior or Jeff Gordon. Now he is getting closer, and four in a row would be unprecedented.”

Toy company Play Along’s NASCAR track sets ($22 and up) have gotten the series some welcome display space on toy shelves, aside from its ubiquitous die cast offerings.

Like nearly every sports property, NASCAR licensees also offer holiday ornaments in popular team colors, from $10 and up. On the high end, Tissot’s NASCAR-licensed watches run from $300 to almost $1,000, although at that price, retailers generally prefer to call them chronographs.

ESPN and Nike are the two biggest sports brands, and each has distinct holiday efforts. The entertaining “ESPN Sportscaster Microphone” ($20) from Zizzle lets fans make and record their own game calls while providing sounds of the game and calls from ESPN announcer Steve Levy. Batteries and press credentials are not included. As one blogger put it in his review, “You too can sound like an idiot.”

Those without enough ESPN in their homes for the holidays can also buy one of three ESPN Hallmark Keepsake ornaments for about $16 each. Or you can shut the TV off and play the ESPN Jeopardy game from Pressman ($25).

Nike has expanded its Livestrong line to encompass a wide range of apparel to go along with the 70 million wristbands, which it features in its own holiday guide. The Eager Beavertons are also touting an improved wireless watch/remote ($69) for its Nike + iPod system.

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