Nats' caps near head of class

Washington headwear is among baseball's hottest sellers.

August 23, 2005|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The New York Yankees have their rich history and the Boston Red Sox boast World Series rings, but baseball's best merchandising story is the Washington Nationals and their wildly popular ball caps.

In less than a year, Nationals caps have become a fashion statement, a political statement and one of the fastest-selling Major League Baseball items the sport has ever seen.

Fans are wearing the caps at swimming pools, in restaurants, on the street and, of course, to the games. "I've never seen any team around here with this much stuff," said David Cope, Nationals vice president of sales and marketing, who grew up in Rockville.

According to trade experts, Nationals headwear ranks sixth in sales behind far more established clubs like the Yankees and Red Sox and practically in the same league with the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers.

Experts cite a combination of factors: pent-up demand from a 34-year wait for a baseball team, a competitive club, a classically simple cap design and a desire to express support for something distinctly "Washington." Some Republicans favor the red caps with the cursive "W" that happens to be the nickname of President Bush.

The red "W" cap, which mimics the ones the team wears at home, is the best seller. There are also blue "W" caps, pink caps and caps with a "DC" logo. They're all selling better than expected considering the city didn't even know for certain it would be hosting the team - the former Montreal Expos - until stadium funding was finally secured a few days before Christmas.

"The team is one of the biggest success stories we've ever had," said Howard Smith, senior vice president for licensing of Major League Baseball Properties.

The caps' entry into baseball's retail elite is particularly surprising because the other top sellers have much higher national profiles, Smith said. That means local sales have to make up for what isn't being sold outside the greater Washington area.

"To say that the Washington Nationals are in the same market [with the others] is just incredible," Smith said. "What's really unbelievable is how fast that stuff sold."

Smith declined to provide sales figures, saying such marketing information is private.

He said the Orioles' cap sales are "right around the top 10" and Orioles caps and jerseys were selling better this year than last - a spike partly due to the team's hot start.

For years, Orioles caps competed with Yankees caps for the top spot in Washington fans' hearts - and on their heads. That seemed to change as soon as Nationals apparel became available late last year.

"Right away I saw them. Everybody was wearing Nats caps," said Frank Small, a Nationals fan from Arlington, Va.

Attending a recent game, Small, a real estate investor, stopped at a vendor's truck and purchased a red "W" cap for his son Cameron, 7. "You put a good product out there and people will buy it," Small said, referring both to the cap and the team, which is fighting for a wild-card playoff berth.

The caps cost from $10 to about $25, depending on the material.

The caps' ubiquitous presence has helped create a bond between the new team and the city. That is particularly important because the club doesn't yet have permanent ownership - it is owned by Major League Baseball - or a television deal on par with other franchises.

"Two of my longest-term responsibilities are to build our brand and build our fan base, and this helps to do both," Cope said.

Cope and others have noticed the caps' popularity isn't confined to certain sections of the city. They're everywhere.

"You can walk through the poorest neighborhoods or the richest neighborhoods and you see them," said Phil Wood, an expert on Washington baseball history.

"I believe they've sold more merchandise since last October than in the entire 71-year history of the Washington Senators," said Wood, referring to the city's other team, which departed in 1971.

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