SBJ/July 28-Aug. 3, 2014/Marketing and Sponsorship

No one explanation for NHL’s post-lockout licensing surge

Two years after a lockout canceled 41.5 percent of the 2012-13 regular season, the NHL held a love-in last week, celebrating its best year ever for consumer product sales.

Lockout forgotten, the licensees and retailers who gathered on the floor of
the Pepsi Center here had no single explanation for why the NHL’s licensing business bounced back so resoundingly. Even with a championship team in the Los Angeles Kings that had little national appeal or legs beyond a week after they hoisted their second Stanley Cup in three years, licensees and retailers were ebullient over the NHL’s ability not only to survive but to thrive.

“The Kings didn’t thrill anyone in the business outside of Southern California, but even with that, it’s clear that the NHL has got the mojo, the momentum, and their fan base is re-engaged,” said Jack Boyle, president of merchandising at Fanatics, which administers a plethora of sports e-commerce sites, including the NHL’s. “The right teams are winning and we see a lot of innovation from their licensees.”

NHL licensees and retailers gathered on the floor of Denver’s Pepsi Center.
All photos by: TERRY LEFTON / STAFF

Brian Jennings, NHL executive vice president of marketing, has contended with four work stoppages during his 23-plus years in NHL licensing. This was the first one followed by a sales boom. “It’s the resilience of our fan base coming off a difficult time when we broke our promises to them,” he said.

A number of other explanations were offered by licensees. The lifelong passion of hockey fans was often cited. “Per capita, NHL fans have always spent more on licensed products,” said Cary Schack, Rico Industries president. “Generally, the strong NHL markets have good teams and they are dependably on national TV. You had maybe the best playoffs of all time this year, and nearly every night you could watch games nationally.”

Others stuck with basics to explain the greatest hockey comeback since Gordie Howe left retirement to play with his sons in the WHA.

“It’s as simple as fans are fans and they missed the sport,” said Bill Marshall, renowned as the man who helped increase NBA licensing sales from the millions to the billions in 1980s and ’90s. “The NBA also came back very strong after their lockout for the same reasons.”

None of that necessarily translates into record sales, however.

Retailers and the league also had more experience now to deal with a labor stoppage. They had the most entertaining and competitive playoffs ever in the two seasons since the lockout. Of course, three of the last four Stanley Cup finalists have been original NHL franchises. The ability of the NHL’s premier teams to influence everything across the league, from ratings to merchandise sales, can’t be overstated. To a greater extent than any sports property, the NHL’s top teams are its bellwether.

“Two years ago, I didn’t know if we were going to survive the lockout,” said Eric Stoneman, president of licensee Fan Fever, “but you get teams like the Blackhawks winning and the Rangers going to the Cup finals — those were huge deals for everyone.”

Added Jennings: “When you are talking about the Original Six, you are talking about our roots. If the roots are healthy, there’s a cascading effect that impacts us all.”

Old Time Hockey wants to put Blackhawks fans in green.

> TRENDING: On the show floor, licensed activewear echoed the success of brands like Lululemon in making those sorts of products mainstream. We were struck by Forever Collectibles licensed leggings (MSRP $69), their nylon board shorts and logo shorts, of the type you are used to seeing emblazoned with a sports apparel manufacturer’s brand.

Also in bountiful supply were NHL retro apparel plays: ’47 Brand is always strong there, but racks also were filled with everything from Majestic Athletic’s distressed tops and T-shirts to the washed-out stylings and elegant embroidery shown by American Needle. “Retro product is strong enough that it’s really become like our 31st team — and it’s a high-performing 31st club,” Jennings said. Not to be outdone, pioneering retro NHL licensee Old Time Hockey was showing some fashions plays, including an all-green version of the normally multicolored Chicago Blackhawks jersey.

> SPLIT PERSONALITY: Well-known for novelty items like plush and bobbleheads, Forever Collectibles is looking more and more like an apparel licensee, harkening back to founder Michael Lewis’ days at Apex One. Aside from shorts and leggings, Forever was selling pants, sweatpants and the NHL version of the “ugly holiday sweaters,” which debuted at the NFL’s licensing summit earlier this year. Licensed cardigans and jackets are next.

“We’re heading more deeply into apparel and should split the company and have a separate apparel brand by the end of the year,” said Tom Dura, sales director.

Woodrow Guitar / The Sports Vault has a line of limited-edition team guitars and ukuleles.

> INSTRUMENTAL TUNE: The easy winner of our “never seen a license on that before” competition were the ukuleles from Woodrow Guitar/The Sports Vault (MSRP $90). They are part of an overall push into licensed instruments and accessories beginning this fall that will include electric guitars (MSRP $600), guitar picks, straps and cases from the company, which also has NBA and NFL licenses. The instruments are numbered and sold as part of a limited edition of 200 or less. President and CEO Jeff Thompson said licensed banjos and violins are next, perhaps portending a licensed string quartet.

> PUCK OFF: There seemed to be more puck-shaped licensed products than ever. Among the most memorable were the boxer shorts from Caulfeild Apparel, shrink-wrapped to resemble a hockey puck. UPI was offering a phone/tablet recharger ($39.99) that can charge two devices simultaneously, in the exact size of a puck. Pangea Brands was showing a puck-shaped team-licensed toaster, along with two sizes of Stanley Cup speakers wired ($30) and Bluetooth ($49.99). Pangea is hoping to replicate the success of its Stanley Cup popcorn popper, which debuted at last year’s NHL Exchange and sold more than 100,000 units.

 

Feeling pucky: Charger and toaster

> LICENSING LINES: Among the notable cause-related efforts at the show was the donation by the NHL and licensees of 400 product-stuffed “Bags of Fun” to the Gabby Krause Foundation, which will then offer them to children in Denver-area hospitals. Fan Fever is tying sales of its Livestrongesque “Wristers” to Hockey Fights Cancer, donating $1 from each unit sold. They launch at retail in October. … A number of accolades were distributed to the assembled group of licensees, retail buyers and team shop personnel. Team retailer/merchandiser of the year went to the Stanley Cup-winning Los Angeles Kings operation, under Sean Ryan, AEG vice president of merchandise. The Kings reached unheard of merch per-cap numbers of as high as $33 during the team’s recent championship run. The host Colorado Avalanche’s retail operation, under director of retail operations Jon Waldron, received “most improved.” Some transactions worthy of note include Blackstone Group’s purchase of 50 percent of pre-eminent kids/youth sports apparel licensee Outerstuff. Sol Werdiger, Outerstuff founder and CEO, said he’s looking to expand both distribution and manufacturing. … Boelter Brands President Jay Wilcox said he is hoping to expand the holiday offerings of Topperscot through its acquisition, which pairs brands with similar gift-store distribution.

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

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