Gibbs won't give nod to being bobblehead

Pro football: The Redskins' coach is a marketer's dream, but he's wary of hogging the spotlight.

September 15, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

ASHBURN, Va. - At a suburban Virginia store selling Washington Redskins merchandise, it took just two hours last week for fans to buy up all 100 of its black ball caps with the gold "R" that coach Joe Gibbs has been spotted wearing during games.

It's the same story at other retail outlets and on the Internet: Fans are desperate to obtain any items associated with the Hall of Famer who returned to coaching this season, but they are finding there is almost no Gibbs merchandise to be had.

No authorized Gibbs T-shirts, no sweat shirts, no shorts, no bobblehead dolls. That's because the coach has quietly told the team he doesn't favor such products.

Respecting his wishes, the team even passed on a proposal it was considering to put his face on the team's media guide.

Gibbs said such marketing would be counter to the team concept that he espouses and that fans admire. "I think it's about the team and it's about all of the players," he said in an interview. "It's an emphasis on the organization and the franchise and stuff like that. It's not on me."

The coach's outlook has placed the franchise in an odd position. Gibbs, 63, a proven winner who is also the team's president, is widely respected in the organization, and the top brass is adamant about not crossing him. At the same time, he is a local hero and one of the most marketable figures in Washington sports history.

The team knows it's missing out on a marketing bonanza, but said that having Gibbs back coaching is worth the trade-off. "I'm sure there are things that could be developed and marketed, but if he's not interested, we're not interested," said team spokesman Karl Swanson.

Generally, the Redskins, with a value that Forbes magazine estimates at $1.1 billion, are one of the most aggressively marketed teams in professional sports. Gibbs does appear on the usual radio and television interview programs.

The absence of NFL-sanctioned Gibbs clothing has created a black market. Several fans were spotted wearing "Gibbs Is Back" T-shirts at the season opener on Sunday, where a few "Gibbs for President" banners were hung from the FedEx Field stands.

"That is not an authorized shirt. They're killing me on it," said Jolene Lanham, the Redskins' merchandising director.

Of the coach's position, Lanham said: "It's very admirable, but our stores exist as an outlet for fans and it's a challenge when we can't get them what we know they want. There's a great demand for Gibbs-related merchandise."

Among the items that might have featured Gibbs is the team's media guide, which is marketed to the public. NFL teams often reserve the guide's cover for figures who have played key roles in the team's history.

The Denver Broncos have highlighted Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway this year, and the New York Giants have displayed co-owners Wellington Mara and Robert Tisch and coach Tom Coughlin.

In Washington's case, "We took [Gibbs] a version of designs for the cover of the media guide - some included his photo - and he said, `I don't want that,'" Swanson said. The cover depicts the Redskins' logo on a pigskin-type background.

In Kansas City, the Chiefs sell a coach Dick Vermeil ceramic bobblehead doll for $19.95. The New York Jets market a $50 framed print depicting coach Herman Edwards and the late Super Bowl-winning coach Weeb Ewbank.

In the absence of items that bear the coach's name or image, fans have been demanding the cap with the script "R" that Gibbs began wearing on the sidelines during preseason games last month.

Until recently, the cap was not even included in the team's merchandise line. Rather, it was designed only for coaches and other Redskins personnel.

When fans started clamoring for it, the team put in an order. At least one Redskins store began putting fans' names on a cap waiting list. "We're bringing in as much as we can of that hat. The reaction it to has been phenomenal," Lanham said. The item costs $21.99.

Even without an array of Gibbs products to peddle, the team is reaping huge dividends - financial and otherwise - from the coach, who won three Super Bowls before leaving in 1993 to spend time with his family and to work on assembling a thriving NASCAR team.

Sales of Redskins merchandise are up, but the team won't say by how much or disclose annual revenues. Heightened demand because of Gibbs was the largest factor in the decision to increase the capacity of FedEx Field by about 5,000 to 91,665 in the offseason. The team says all games are sold out.

Gibbs' arrival has also generated increased interest in the Redskins from some fans and corporations that followed or were associated with Joe Gibbs Racing, his family's NASCAR organization. Home Depot Inc., primary sponsor of one of Gibbs' racing teams, signed on this year as official sponsor of the Redskins' training camp.

Home Depot paid a six-figure sum for the rights. Swanson called the sponsorship "a natural extension" of a relationship with the company that previously included a partnership with a Redskins charitable group. But Gibbs' presence certainly didn't hurt.

Home Depot spokesman Eric Oberman said he could not provide details on the relationship with Gibbs or the Redskins.

Gibbs has made an issue of his discomfort with all the fuss. He told reporters this week that he apologized to his players recently because the media was focusing so much on his NFL return. "Hopefully, we'll get on with it and the attention will go back to the players," he said.

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