This chain of stores has it all -- including celebrity franchisees SPORTS MERCHANDISING

December 01, 1991|By Tawn Nhan | Tawn Nhan,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- What to call a store that has basketball-court-like parquet floors, batting-cage mesh on the ceiling, Ticketron ticket booths at the entrance, an electronic message board flashing updated scores and lots of sporting paraphernalia covering the walls?

A sports fan's fantasyland, if you ask Gary Adler, president of Philadelphia-based Spectathlete, which operates The Complete Athlete retail stores and the Showcase sports-clothing chain.

And the fantasy will only get better as real sports heroes are recruited to open new branches -- to buy and operate a store, not just make a special appearance at the grand opening.

Since last spring, Rollie Massimino, Villanova University's basketball coach, and Bob Kelly, a former player on the Philadelphia Flyers' 1973-74 and 1974-75 Stanley Cup-winning teams, has each owned a franchise. A deal with Philadelphia 76ers guard Charles Barkley is expected to close soon.

Eight other sports figures have expressed interest in stores.

"It's like a Disney theme store, only we did it 10 years ago," said Adler in his office, which resembles his stores with a parquet floor, football helmet-shaped chairs and sports paraphernalia displayed throughout.

At Spectathlete's stores, customers can buy jerseys and caps made by the same manufacturer that produces uniforms for college and professional athletes. Spectathlete calls itself the "leading retailer of authentic licensed replicas" of sports clothes.

"Our places are where people can meet celebrities," said Frank Micelli, Spectathlete's marketing director. To attract customers to the store, Spectathlete often asks athletes to make appearances for autographs, and now Micelli hopes some of them will be permanent attractions by becoming store owners.

Building on Spectathlete's accessibility to athletes as a division of Philadelphia-based Spectacor, which manages several stadiums and arenas nationwide, Micelli said, "The concept is a winner."

The industry seems to agree.

Taking advantage of the rise in popularity of sports teams and the increased visibility of sports figures in television commercials and on consumer products, shopping-mall developers have created a demand for sports-paraphernalia specialty stores as tenants, said Keith Foxe, an industry spokesman at New York's International Council of Shopping Centers.

"It's a great concept," said Foxe, adding that Spectathlete's campaign reflected the increasing specialization in the retail industry.

"This is the sort of diversity and hybridization that is necessary to keep things going," Foxe said. Consumers "are looking for new formats and new types of marketing, and that's what makes specialized retailers successful."

Unlike some specialty gift stores, sports-products stores are not specific to one time of year, thus their products can be purchased year-round, making them especially attractive to malls seeking to increase shopper traffic.

"We have seen a growth of demand by shopping-mall developers for this type of tenant," Foxe said. "It's been a popular tenant in the last couple of years."

Spectathlete's 69 stores, which sell licensed T-shirts, sweatshirts, caps, key chains and other souvenir items, had $24.8 million in sales last year, and the figure is expected to nearly double to more than $40 million this year with the opening of 22 additional stores. In fact, the number of stores has nearly doubled every year since 1987. The stores are concentrated in the Northeast.

The average Spectathlete store transaction is about $22. Baseball-style caps are the cheapest, and among the most popular, items. This year, back-patch parkas like those worn by football players on the sidelines are big sellers, Micelli said.

Adler opened his first store, The Complete Athlete, in New York's World Trade Center in 1981.

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