Team apparel sales off to weak start

April 29, 1995|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun Staff Writer

It seemed everything licensed sports-clothing sellers could have asked for: first an end to the baseball strike, then new Orioles uniforms that made caps and jerseys in fans' closets look out of date.

Don't blame team apparel merchants if they don't seem too grateful. The cash registers at some stores have become more )) active as the O's home opener on Monday has approached. But merchants had a miserable 1994 and still face an uncertain season this year.

Have sales picked up at Pro Jersey, in Glen Burnie Mall, since the strike ended April 2? "No. And you can quote me on that," said manager David Young. "We haven't seen a huge increase."

Fans' continuing ambivalence toward baseball -- as evidenced by lackluster attendance at many games so far -- is also being felt in licensed sales, said people in the business.

"From what we're hearing, consumers are still angry at the owners and players," said Greg Pesky, managing editor of Sporting Goods Business, a monthly trade magazine.

"Retailers are also a little nervous about where baseball is going. They don't know if, come August, the players aren't going to walk off the field again," Mr. Pesky said.

Another problem is that shirts, hats, jackets and other apparel are generally ordered months in advance. With the 1995 season in doubt, stores delayed ordering and manufacturers held up production.

With no strike, national retail sales of licensed baseball merchandise would have reached $2.8 billion to $3 billion this year, industry analysts said. Now they are expecting sales of $1.8 billion.

"The strike certainly affected the sales of licensed merchandise" last year, said Ethan Orlinsky, associate counsel for Major League Baseball Properties. "The effect stands to be greater in 1995."

At Pro Jersey, total sales plummeted by as much as 50 percent in September and October after the strike started, Mr. Young said. Sales fell by 30 percent at Pro Image in The Mall at Columbia, said manager Randy Travers.

The stores normally do especially well during playoff and World Series season. With the Orioles being the only Baltimore major-league team, local stores are particularly dependent on baseball. But the hockey strike didn't help their sales last year, either. Business at the Sport Shop in Harborplace depends heavily on game-related sales, "so I can't say we've seen a lot more customers yet," said owner Michael Durham. Even so, he said, activity has picked up.

At Pro Image, "there's a lot of interest in the new hats for the Orioles," Mr. Travers said. "A lot of people are coming in and buying stuff."

But Mr. Young believes fans may try to teach owners and players a lesson. "I think a lot of fans are at least going to try to make them sweat a little bit," he said.

Merchants and manufacturers also are renewing their assault against another industry problem: bootleg team apparel. The strike's end means manufacturers of counterfeit garments are more active, too, cutting into the leagues' licensing revenues of between 6 percent and 12 percent of sales.

"The retailers are often the ones that are hurt most of all" by unauthorized goods, said Major League Baseball Properties' Mr. Orlinsky, who recalls cruising Baltimore alleys to bust counterfeiters during the 1993 All Star Game.

Possible signs of an unlicensed sports item include the lack of a tag with the league logo, an unrealistically low price, or colors that don't match real team uniforms, he said.

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