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  • Threat of lockouts rattles licensees just as retail bounces back

    Perhaps because the retail landscape was in tatters long before the overall economy went south, the licensing industry seems to be recovering faster. Consequently, the 100-plus MLB licensees gathered in Orlando for the MLB Retail Summit, held in conjunction with baseball’s annual industry meetings this month, seemed downright ebullient about being a leading, rather than a lagging, indication of a turnaround.

    “Hopefully, everyone in this room is doing well for the same reason movies have been doing well through the recession,” said Jeff Rabinowitz, national sales manager at Mounted Memories, which like many memorabilia licensees, introduced items with lower price points to cope with the economy. “Sports are the great escape for Americans, so even if they can’t afford tickets, licensed products are a good option for fans.”

    Sol Werdiger, founder of kids apparel licensee Outer Stuff, noted improvement at the most crucial point, that being retail.

    “We all do as well as the amount of retail traffic out there, and that is up from almost nothing to some real demand, so we can all say licensed is back,” Werdiger said. “The NBA is smoking hot and the [MLB World Series champion San Francisco] Giants did better than anyone expected, so there’s real hope.”

    However, that newfound optimism was tempered by the possibility of a lockout in the NFL and, to a lesser extent, the NBA. Retailers loathe uncertainty, and suppliers of licensed product must now struggle to prepare. “You plan for a lockout and try to manage retail expectations,” said Eric Schapiro, vice president of apparel licensee G-III. “I’m not hopeful there won’t be an NFL lockout, but we are optimistic they won’t miss any games.”

    Added WinCraft President John Killen, “Anyone with domestic [manufacturing] capabilities like us will be better off, but it’s still kind of an unknown for the licensing business, since the last NFL stoppage was so long ago [1987].” Killen was one of many in Orlando with MLB and NFL licenses, noting that the NFL’s annual licensing summit is scheduled for March, just after any lockout would start. “We’ll all either be very relieved or absolutely miserable at those meetings,” said Tom Neth, vice president of sales and marketing at Hunter Manufacturing, which is continuing its push into licensed pet products, with Under Armour-like “performance Ts” for dogs.

    Clockwise from below: Beeposh’s line of MLB-clad
    plush animals; acrylic tumblers from Duck House
    Sports; Majestic’s new batting practice jersey with
    player name and upgraded performance fabric

    MLB uniform licensee Majestic showed one of the biggest new product offerings — as it will introduce a new batting practice jersey in spring training, with player name, at the same $100 retail price point from last year but with an upgraded performance fabric. However, Jim Pisani, president of the licensed sports group at Majestic parent VF, detailed his primary concerns as the price of cotton, which has doubled over the past year, and the possibility of an NFL lockout. “We will check our orders and try to adjust realistically with our retail customers,” Pisani said.

    The prospect of a work stoppage by America’s top sports property is chilling for a business just coming out of distressing times. “Everybody’s happier now, because it has turned a bit,” said Adam Pennington, owner and CEO at watch licensee Game Time, who is glad to have secured a long-sought-after exclusive on licensed watches at $90 and below from both MLB and NFL. “It’s really difficult to deal with, because you are screwed if you don’t order enough, and if you take in too much, that inventory could sit for quite a while. So we are just making our normal orders and hoping cooler heads prevail.”

    Apparel licensees were also wary of the effect an NFL lockout could have on Reebok, which is entering the final year of its on-field apparel license. The last time Reebok exited the NFL, in 1998, truckloads of NFL togs ended up in discount bins, cutting margins for all NFL apparel licensees. “Lockout or no lockout,” said Jay Deutsch, CEO of MLB premium licensee Bensussen Deutsch & Associates, “Reebok is a bubble the market will have to digest.”

    LOGO-SPHERE: In the “never saw a logo on that before” category were a number of new products from Pangea Brands, which earlier this year launched a toaster that singes sports logos on bread. Pangea is pushing further into “home tailgating” with a waffle iron/sandwich maker that logos your favorite breakfast food or sandwich, and comes with a suggested retail price of $40. In addition, it offers a nonstick Pro Pan frying pan, with a suggested retail price of $25, that won’t sauté intellectual property, but carries a logo on the bottom of the pan, said to be impervious to damage from a stove burner.

    VOmax, Northampton, Mass., is new to the market with MLB-licensed performance bicycling jerseys being sold through retailers like Amazon, cycling specialty stores and websites, and carrying a suggested retail price of $80. The company also makes licensed arm warmers and cycling shorts, and has additional licenses from the NBA and NHL for the same products. VOmax President Mike Restuccia said he has sold $500,000 worth of licensed product in a few months and is heartened by a stat that says 47 million Americans bike an average of 50 days annually.

    Fanmats is leveraging its auto distribution channels with a sort of “auto mirror cozy,” a fabric device that ties onto and displays a logo on the back of the driver’s side mirror. Fanmats’ Ray Benz told us that so far it is only licensed for the NFL and should be priced for retail at less than $20.

    LICENSING LINES: Stuff that caught our eye: Boston-based Sports Propaganda’s limited-edition MLB prints combine the appeal of yesterday’s military recruitment posters (Think “Uncle Sam Wants You!”) with baseball’s nostalgic appeal. Based on a love of those posters and baseball, artist/owner Chris Speakman does his own silkscreen designs and sells more than 100 different prints retailing for $50-$95 through his own website, and team stores. … While there are any number of logoed pint glasses on the market now, the 20-ounce acrylic tumblers from Duck House Sports got our attention as a shatterproof alternative, available in bright colors and an attractive $3.50 wholesale price point. Beeposh’s line of plush animals wearing MLB-logoed T-shirts seemed distinct in what is usually a lookalike product category.

    Terry Lefton can be reached at

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