Ripken fans can take walk down memorabilia lane

Farewell tour is latest in `milestone marketing'

September 28, 2001|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

As Cal Ripken enters the final lap of his farewell tour, merchandisers are gearing up for what they hope will be a burst of buying.

About 60 different products, from autographed balls to collectible trading cards and miniature bases, have been licensed under a unique joint venture among Ripken, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association.

The effort reflects the growing sophistication of "milestone marketing," a specialty within the memorabilia industry that has come of age along with Ripken. When he surpassed Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played in 1995, stores were already stocked with memorabilia to commemorate the event.

But those deals were the result of months of painstaking work by Ripken's business operation, Tufton Sports & Management, which struck deals with scores of licensees. This time, a simpler approach was sought.

"We didn't want saturation of products, and we didn't want the consumer to be confused," said Ira Rainess, president of Tufton.

Rainess said he contacted Major League Baseball's offices in New York and worked out a plan under which only companies that hold licenses to produce merchandise for baseball and the player's association could produce Ripken-related goods. A special logo was created for the venture, featuring a smiling Ripken waving goodbye, and appears on each item.

"The philosophy is less is more," Rainess said.

The three organizations have agreed to divide the licensing revenue - typically a percentage of each sale is returned to the licensor as a royalty payment - equally among themselves.

Limiting the number of products helps to maintain quality and uniqueness, Rainess said. And total sales should be boosted by combining the marketing forces of baseball, the union and Tufton group.

Howard Smith, senior vice president for licensing for Major League Baseball, said about 25 manufacturers are producing 50 to 60 products. The miniature base, about a quarter of the size of the bases used in the games, is the first new product designed for autograph seekers in years, he said.

"This isn't about making a lot of money, it's about sending off a legend," Smith said.

Ripken's last game, Oct. 6 at Camden Yards, will feature several reminders of the Orioles third baseman. The American League patch will be removed from the Orioles' jersey and replaced with the retirement logo. Third base and the on-deck circle also will carry a Ripken insignia.

A parallel effort is under way to honor the sport's other retiring superstar, Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres, Smith said.

The degree of cooperation between baseball and its players' union is unique. Often, sports leagues thwart the licensing efforts of the players because any revenue could finance legal battles and strikes.

"This has never been done before. It's all good and it does signify good things to come, I hope," Smith said.

The precedent for cooperation began with some joint activities honoring the home run chase by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, said Judy Heeter, director of business affairs and licensing for the players' association.

"Marketing in general, and sports marketing in particular, is just so much more sophisticated now," Heeter said. "We've tried to respond to the fans' interest."

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