Magic merchandise moments Sales: From Ripken sitting to ZTC McGwire/Sosa hitting, milestones now come with a marketing price tag attached.

October 03, 1998|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

It may be the most lucrative day off ever taken.

Cal Ripken's decision to end his consecutive-games streak not only brought renewed attention to the work ethic of baseball's Iron Man, but set in motion an elaborate memorabilia machine designed to generate millions in profit for merchandisers.

In a vivid example of the growing sophistication of "milestone marketing," fans around the country were offered autographed baseballs and other specialty items within hours of Ripken's taking a seat.

Similar campaigns, coordinated with military precision, were launched this year around the 62nd home runs of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Commemorative, dated T-shirts were rapidly printed and trucked to stadiums within innings of the sluggers' mighty swings.

So fast has the turnaround become that athletes aren't even waiting for the big event. Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders announced this week a trademarked line of products associated with his anticipated breaking of Walter Payton's record for career rushing yards -- an accomplishment not expected until next year. Merchandise will start hitting store shelves in November.

"Milestone marketing has always been there, but the merchandising machinery that has grown over the past 10-15 years is driving it to a new level," said Jeff Bernstein, president of Pro Access Inc., a Miami Beach-based sports marketing firm.

Rapid manufacturing capabilities, coupled with new televised shopping channels and Internet retailing, has created opportunities for professional athletes on the verge of historic achievements.

"Anyone in 1961 would have bought a Roger Maris T-shirt. They just didn't make any," Bernstein said of the New York Yankees' home run king, whose 37-year record was overturned this year by McGwire and Sosa.

Pro Player, the licensed sports apparel unit of Fruit of the Loom, estimates that as much as a quarter of its officially licensed goods sales now falls into the so-called "hot market" category of T-shirts, hats and other clothing associated with record-setting events and championships.

"Everybody is aware of records now. Our society and our generation has really become event-driven," said Neil Hernberg, its national sports marketing manager.

His company was founded by a few entrepreneurs selling clothing associated with the New England Patriots' 1985 Super Bowl appearance. It is now a leader in the rapid-response business and frequently is the supplier of the hats handed out in locker rooms to new champions.

Same-day homer items

Pro Player struck a deal with McGwire and Sosa to produce materials associated with the homer chase. Contracts were then signed to put on call T-shirt manufacturers in each city where the players were to appear near the time of their record-setting swings.

McGwire's historic hit came Sept. 8 in the fourth inning of a game in St. Louis; Pro Player had thousands of dated, commemorative shirts printed and for sale in and around the stadium by the eighth inning, Hernberg said.

Since then, sales of McGwire apparel have hit $3.5 million, with a number of national retailers stocking it. Sosa, who was the second to break Maris' record, has sold about $800,000 in merchandise, he said.

The players get a share of the windfall, along with retailers, manufacturers, Major League Baseball and the players union, according to licensing agreements governing teams' trademarks.

One Missouri sports memorabilia firm immediately put up for sale 19,998 limited edition bats, at $229.95 each via a toll-free phone number. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch printed 500,000 extra editions and sold out in 24 hours.

The Upper Deck Co. LLC, maker of sports collectibles, offered a 30-card box set of cards on the Home Shopping Network the same night McGwire hit No. 62.

"You've got to strike when it's hot," said Upper Deck spokeswoman Mary Mancera.

Over at rival QVC Inc., $2.6 million worth of McGwire merchandise was sold in four hours, including "mini mitts," photos, bats, balls and jerseys.

When Ripken decided to sit out the Yankees game last month, merchandise became available within minutes of game's end. QVC broke into its regular broadcast with special streak-ending memorabilia. A few days later, special T-shirts made by Starter began hitting store shelves.

The Sun printed 40,000 extra editions of the next day's newspaper, and 22,000 of them were bought by memorabilia distributors, said Debbie Golumbek, manager of the newspaper's merchandising unit. Also for sale: press copy plates of the front page and T-shirts bearing the headline.

Ken Goldin of Goldin Sports Marketing and Licensing in Marlton, N.J., who distributes Ripken material to QVC, said he managed to get the products on TV without any advance notice from the player. Goldin said he was watching ESPN when Ripken sat down and Goldin hastily prepared some dummy products for that night's broadcast.

The real merchandise will be manufactured and shipped later this month. "We do that often in this business," Goldin said.

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