Baseball, Hockey Teams Find Success in Print, Online

Pro baseball and hockey fans appear to have an insatiable appetite for licensed merchandise. Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League maintain Web site-supported catalogs with products from every team, yet individual franchises are finding a niche for catalogs of their own.

“There have been various people who say there is a demise in licensed product sales,'' said Alan Laifer of Genesis Direct, Secaucus, NJ, which produces the official catalog for the NHL and MLB as well as the NBA and NFL. “We don't see it all. We're seeing an uptick in licensed product sales, especially with expansion.''

The expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays rolled out their first catalog in anticipation of their maiden baseball season last summer and are sending an updated offering to at least 50,000 fans this month.

“You started to see a big trend in [catalogs] four to five years ago with the NBA getting into merchandise,'' said Kevin Watts of mail-order software maker Dydacomp, Montville, NJ. “In the last few years, it's trickled into other sports. More and more, you see franchises that want a bigger piece of the pie.''

For a team catalog to work the timing has to be right. The Baltimore Orioles dropped their first catalog in 10 years last fall with the help of Dydacomp's Mail Order Manager software. The drop came just in time to capitalize on the excitement generated by the team's run to the playoffs. With an updated list of 108,000 fans, the catalog surpassed expectations by $20,000.

The Milwaukee Brewers switched from the American to National League this season and have themed their catalog “We're Taking This Thing National.''

The New York Mets dropped their first catalog last month in response to what marketing director Kit Geis called a “phenomenal amount of requests.'' The buzz was generated by the unveiling of the team's new black jerseys. The Mets had other products to introduce so they compiled them into a catalog titled “Mets in Black,'' which has been sent to more than 100,000 season-ticket holders and prospects.

The Mets developed as large an audience as possible for the catalog by renting lists of subscribers to Sports Illustrated, the Sporting News and Baseball Digest who lived within a 30-mile radius of Shea Stadium.

The team also launched its first Web site last month, which has a section that displays the catalog online. Other teams such as the Boston Red Sox are producing only an online catalog. According to Rick Platt of MLB Properties, every team maintains a Web site with product offerings.

Franchises wishing to start a catalog can either hire an outside agency such as Genesis Direct or Media Horizons, Norwalk, CT, which produced the Mets catalog, or purchase software such as Dydacomp's Mail Order Manager (MOM) or MACS from Smith-Gardner, Delray Beach, FL, and do it themselves. Watts said Dydacomp — which will be at next week's 15th Annual Catalog Conference & Exhibition in Boston — can get a catalog operation up and running in anywhere between a week and a month.

Baseball teams aren't the only ones to capitalize on this thirst for merchandise. The New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers and Colorado Avalanche hockey teams all sell through their own catalogs.

The Devils have produced a catalog for the last five years, according to team vice president Joseph Benedetti, and send out 70,000 per season. The team is upgrading its order-processing system, and Benedetti researched other team catalogs to get an idea of what works best before choosing MOM.

“We've collected quite a few brochures. Some are very limited in what they sell, others will cover a very broad range of products,” he said. “It's kind of a mixed bag across the sports industry. The leagues pretty well dominate regional sales products. Teams are relegated to sell locally. The market is much smaller. What we try to do is go out and look for customized products not available at retail and other outlets.''

With limited shelf space, retailers can stock a limited amount of merchandise and must feature teams that will sell the best. Franchise catalogs have no space constraints and can offer a much deeper product line hard with less sales risk. Catalogs also fill the need of displaced fans who can't find a jersey or cap of their favorite team where they live.

Teams may be able to place their specific products in front of a national audience through Genesis Direct with an insert in the official league catalog. The New Jersey Nets have done an insert in the NBA catalog, and the service is a possibility for other sports.

The Mets are contemplating an insert in the MLB catalog Manny's Baseball Land next year if such a service is available.

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