Logos hot, but sales cool: Home fans buy it, but flood of designs form national glut

June 05, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Unveiling a new look, as the Ravens will do today, was once a sure-fire way for a team to jazz up its image and attract the attention and dollars of fans from coast to coast.

Not anymore.

New colors and symbols such as the Ravens' attacking bird and purple and black uniforms are still a reliable hit in their hometowns. But a dizzying proliferation of new uniforms, logos and expansion teams over the past four years has cooled the national ardor for new sports merchandise.

"It's a very cluttered marketplace. You are seeing logo changes at a faster clip than you ever did before," said Richard White, chairman of Strategic Merchandising Associates, a New York-based consulting firm.

White, who once headed Major League Baseball Properties, said new introductions such as the Ravens' are unlikely to duplicate the national sales boom enjoyed by sports leagues a few years ago, when redesigns and new franchises were unusual.

That's not to say Ravens goods, which will begin hitting store shelves tomorrow, won't be eagerly purchased in Baltimore. Or that a unique design can't prompt nationwide sales. But it's getting a lot harder.

Just ask the Tampa Bay Devil Rays or Arizona Diamondbacks. Major League Baseball's newest franchises and slickest logos didn't even crack the top 10 list of baseball team merchandise sales last year.

"As far as the local market, there's still a lot of excitement. But I don't think you get as much national impact," said Michael Nichols, editor of Team Licensing Business.

That wasn't the case a few years ago, when the current wave of new team and uniform introductions began. The NBA added four teams in 1988 and 1989, including the Charlotte Hornets and Orlando Magic, whose merchandise became an overnight sensation.

Shortly thereafter, the fearsome, stick-biting shark of the NHL's new San Jose Sharks showed up on caps and shirts across the country.

Then the lords of baseball added the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins, unveiling the artwork in 1992 and generating tens of millions of dollars in sales.

Soon, every team, from college basketball to minor-league baseball, was getting in on the act. In one especially busy season, 1994, Major League Baseball redesigned the uniforms of five of its 28 teams and modified those of 17 others.

But the new looks only did so much. Sales of merchandise licensed by the four major-league sports grew briskly in the first half of the decade, hitting $8.65 billion last year. But the rate of growth has slowed to a trickle, according to the trade publication Licensing Letter.

"We've seen sales flatten a bit, especially with apparel. You see a lot of teams that saw the success of the Rockies and went out and redesigned their logos," Nichols said. Consumers were inundated.

Moreover, the labor turmoil in American sports over the past two years has cut into fan enthusiasm. Baseball has been hit the hardest, with merchandise sales falling by a quarter over the past two years. Its sales ranking among major-league sports has fallen from first to third since 1992.

The current champ, the NFL, has had the calmest labor relations lTC and has been the most restrained in its new product introductions. Its merchandise sales were up last year, but are projected to fall slightly to $3.4 billion this year.

The NFL is hoping its restraint in new introductions will keep new goods such as those of the Ravens looking fresh and selling briskly, said Chris Widmaier, director of corporation communications for NFL Properties, the league's merchandising arm.

By his figuring, the NBA has introduced 10 new logos over the past four years. Just yesterday, the Utah Jazz unveiled a new one. Baseball has had nine. The NHL had five in the past year alone.

"The last two we did became national, so I think the Ravens have a shot at that," he said.

Sales of merchandise related to the Carolina Panthers -- who in 1993 became the NFL's first expansion team in 16 years -- topped $1 million in the weekend after its release, Widmaier said.

Jacksonville Jaguars goods also sold well, although not as well as the Panthers, he said.

The Ravens will face one hurdle that the two expansion teams didn't: residual resentment of the team's move from Cleveland. The team formerly known as the Browns created a new name and colors as part of a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the city. The league has promised Cleveland a new team to be called the Browns.

For any individual team, strong merchandise sales have only an indirect benefit. It may boost fan support and, ultimately, ticket sales. But the NFL's 30 teams split equally the proceeds of merchandise sales, resulting in only a few million dollars a year for teams that average $70 million in revenue.

Ultimately, a team's performance on the field is more important to sales than the colors of its uniform.

The top sellers in the NFL last year were also the top finishers: the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers.

In the NBA, the top seller was the Chicago Bulls, followed by the Magic and Hornets.

Baseball's top sellers were also the top performers: the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves.

Robin Wexler, spokeswoman for Starter, a major manufacturer of licensed sports goods, said: "New teams do well, but new teams that do well do better. How well the team does, the market the team is in, the type of players it has, all these things are important."

Best-sellers

The highest-ranking teams in sales of licensed merchandise among the four major team sports:

NFL: 1. Dallas Cowboys, 2. San Francisco 49ers

MLB: 1. Cleveland Indians, 2. Atlanta Braves

NBA: 1. Chicago Bulls, 2. Orlando Magic

NHL: 1. Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, 2. Chicago Blackhawks

Pub Date: 6/05/96

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