German haute couture? Try Air Jordans For foreign youth, U.S. sports gear is all the rage

August 30, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- The creeping Americanization of German teen-age culture has come to this: You can now get beat up on a Berlin subway for your pair of Air Jordans. Or for an L.A. Raiders jacket.

Never mind that another soccer season is under way in Germany, with the green-and-white boys of Werder Bremen again looking like the team to beat. When it comes to winning the hearts of the young and fashion-conscious, the powerhouses of the nation's favorite sport can't even beat the Cleveland Indians. Or the Charlotte Hornets. Or even Michael Jordan, all by himself.

In Berlin, the evidence of this defeat can be found everywhere, with young Germans resplendent in the colors and emblems of American sports teams that they tend to know little or nothing about.

The city's grandest department store, KaDeWe, a palace of conspicuous consumption that was a mandatory stop for East Berliners when The Wall came down in 1989, is featuring American sports fashions this month in its display on the main floor. But most telling of all is the financial ledger, with all three major American sports leagues racking up mega-sales across Europe in the past few years. Germany has accounted for the biggest share.

As recently as 1989, Major League Baseball sold only $300,000 worth of products in Europe. Last year the total was $105 million, with Germany ringing up 45 percent. The National Football League totaled $80 million in sales in Germany last year, almost half its European total. The NFL's numbers have doubled since 1990.

The National Basketball Association does not keep sales totals country by country, or even continent by continent, but international sales of its licensed products doubled last year, to $260 million, and officials say Europe is the league's hottest market. By contrast, the 16 teams of Germany's top professional soccer league rang up less than $5 million in combined sales in Germany last year.

Swen Knodgen, a 15-year-old Berliner who was wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap, explains the appeal of the American products.

"Now, with all of the new cable channels, like Eurosport, you get all of the shows and all of the teams, and now you can identify with these teams."

So he is actually a Yankees fan?

"Oh yes," he insists. "Because they are always a strong team."

Then who's his favorite player?

He shrugs. "I don't really have one."

Can he, in fact, name any of the Yankees?

"Uh," he says, furrowing his brow. "Mike, uh . . . Mike. There is one named Mike. That is all I remember."

Such ignorance is hardly surprising. Fashion, not sports fanaticism, sells most of these products. Even the savvy folks at KaDeWe haven't quite gotten their display right when it comes to sports authenticity, and they probably couldn't care less.

A baseball mannequin in the display wears a catcher's mask, a catcher's chest guard and an infielder's glove. On the wrong hand.

One of the store's recent fashion shows featured wasp-waisted male dancers in shoulder pads and Washington Redskins jerseys. A Dallas Cowboys fan would have loved it. A few moments later, four men dressed in basketball warm-ups emerged and passed a ball around beneath a backboard and a hoop. It was effective until they began shooting some of the stiffest, ungameliest bricks you ever saw.

Mathew Jordan, age 17, has gotten a firsthand look at the birth and growth of the sportswear trend during his past five years in Germany. He's a transplanted American from just outside Baltimore, in Linthicum. His father is based in Berlin with the U.S. Army.

"When I first got here, it was a lot less prominent. It really picked up about two or three years ago. It's just the style, something different."

Goods aren't cheap

Such clothes aren't cheap in the United States and can be even more expensive here. A Michael Jordan T-shirt at KaDeWe, for instance, costs 50 German marks (about $31) -- and that sort of high price has helped import another American phenomenon.

"They'll even rob you for it," Mathew Jordan said. "I got beat up at a U-Bahn stop. They took my Raiders hat, a Raiders jacket and a pair of Air Jordans."

Marketing people attribute the popularity partly to the bright colors and catchy logos, recent European fascination with Americana, the aggressive promotional efforts of the sports leagues, expanded international telecasts of U.S. sports and a few popular motion pictures. The film "Major League," for example, boosted sales of Cleveland Indians hats.

"I can almost tell you every time they're rerunning that movie somewhere in Europe, just by looking at our royalty reports," says Kathy Pellowski, Major League Baseball's vice president of marketing for Europe and Latin America.

But, above all, some say, the boom has been triggered by the music videos of MTV, in which hip-hop bands and rock musicians -- international arbiters of taste for an entire generation -- often wear the stuff.

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