New baseball teams find colors of money

June 23, 1991|By Glen Macnow | Glen Macnow,Knight-Ridder News Service

Once upon a time, baseball teams chose their uniform colors without hiring design consultants.

The Detroit Tigers got a good deal on blue and orange socks, so they wear blue and orange. The Baltimore Orioles wear orange and black, to match the plumage of the bird.

Nowadays, however, there's big money to be made in selling caps and jerseys and jackets to fans. If baseball's predictions are right, the National League's two new expansion teams, Denver and Miami, will sell so much merchandise in the next year, the revenue would pay their fees for admission to the league -- before they ever field teams.

In two weeks, Major League Baseball Properties will unveil the names, logos, caps and uniforms of the new franchises. Denver will wear purple, with black and silver accents, reflecting the "purple mountain majesty" of the Rockies -- not to mention three of fashion's trendiest colors. Miami will wear aqua and coral, reflecting the popular combination of the National Football League's Dolphins.

Both franchises, of course, checked with marketing mavens and fashion experts before deciding on the hues and designs.

"If the designs are attractive, the demand for the new teams' items will be overwhelming," predicted Peter Capolino, owner of Mitchell and Ness Sporting Goods in Philadelphia. "It will immediately surpass 75 percent of the existing teams. It will be a one-year bonanza."

How big a bonanza? Rick White, director of Major League Baseball Properties, predicted that sales of items for the new clubs would drive up total merchandise sales by 10 percent.

Last year, Americans spent more than $1.6 billion on baseball caps, T-shirts, banners and bobble-head dolls, and the figure was projected to exceed $2.1 billion this year -- without the help of expansion.

So, based on White's prediction, the expansion clubs should sell a combined $210 million in merchandise in the next year, or more than their combined $190 million entry fee.

To put those numbers -- and the sport's emphasis on licensing -- in perspective, consider this: In 1986, total merchandise sales were just $200 million.

Typically, major-league baseball gets an 8.5 percent royalty on all items sold. Based on White's prediction, sales of Denver and Miami merchandise will provide royalties of about $18 million for all of the major-league owners to divide equally.

And all, of course, before Miami and Denver field teams in 1993. For that matter, those cities have not yet even officially been awarded the new franchises.

For design inspiration, baseball looked to basketball, which in recent years has proved that a loser in the standings can be a winner at the cash register.

All four teams added by the NBA over the last three seasons -- the Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic -- rank among the 27-team league's top 10 in retail sales. That puts them in the same neighborhood as the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics -- a vicinity they haven't come close to on the hardwood.

Each of basketball's new teams spent months consulting with NBA Properties before selecting uniforms and logos.

As their primary color, the Magic and Heat chose black, which -- thanks to the Los Angeles Raiders of the NFL and the Los Angeles Kings of the NHL -- is the hottest color in sports garb.

The Timberwolves unveiled one of pro sports' most attractive logos. The Hornets went further. They hired renowned designer Alexander Julian to design their uniforms. Julian came up with pleated shorts, pin stripes and two colors he proclaimed "the jTC shades of the '90s" -- purple and teal.

Julian obviously knew something. Hornets merchandise now ranks third in the NBA in national sales.

"It's the unique colors," says NBA licensing head Bill Marshall. "We were all worried when they chose teal. No one in sports had ever tried teal. But it sure has worked."

The Denver team will wear purple caps. No major-league club ever has worn purple, unless you count John McGraw's 1913 New York Giants, who experimented briefly with lavender lettering. Indeed, of the 103 franchises in the four major team sports just two -- the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers and the NFL's Minnesota Vikings -- use purple as their primary color. Both of those clubs are leaders in merchandise sales.

To further enhance marketing, Denver's managing general partner, John Antonucci, picked silver and black as accent colors. Before going into last week's baseball owners' meeting, Antonucci tried to order 48,000 black T-shirts with purple and silver logos. His order could not be filled, however, because of a nationwide shortage of black T-shirts caused by the Chicago Bulls' success in the NBA playoffs.

Wayne Huizenga, prospective owner of the Miami team and a minority owner of both the Dolphins and Joe Robbie Stadium, said he planned to outfit the baseball team in colors resembling the Dolphins' aqua and orange because "it would tie into the stadium."

It also would tie into strong sales. The Dolphins have ranked among the NFL's top teams in merchandise sales since 1966, when they began wearing the aqua color created specifically for them by the Russell Athletic Company. Despite its success, no other professional club wears a similar color.

"Aqua and orange would be a tremendous seller in baseball," predicted Frank Miceli, director of marketing and advertising for the 61-store Spectathlete chain. "They're great colors, especially for a tropical city. Purple will sell, too. Every expansion team is a success these days."

Maybe not on the field. But certainly in the stores.

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