Baseball Union Into Proving Player Gear Sells

It seems like a rather strange thing to do: A players union opening up a store in a stadium.

Well, that's exactly what is happening today at Citi Field , where the Major League Baseball Players Association is opening up a store in the new Mets stadium called The Players Clubhouse.

Judy Heeter, the director of business affairs and licensing for the MLBPA, said that the opening of the store was the continuation of the effort started some eight years ago to push more MLB player-based product into stores.

"Focusing on the marketing of players is good for the game, good for the teams -- it's good for all of us," Heeter said.

Heeter didn't divulge specifics about how much MLB product includes player names and likenesses, but the betting man in me thinks that merchandise with players names and likenesses makes up a smaller percentage of sales in MLB versus the other major sports leagues.

It partly has to do with the popularity of baseball hats that obviously just feature team logos.

But it also has to do with the availability of blank jerseys.

Major League Baseball permits its retailers to carry blank team jerseys without names and numbers.

"We represent the players," Heeter said. "It would obviously be our preference that jerseys advertised as authentic at retail be authentic with the player's name and number on the back."

While fans can get jerseys personalized online, neither the NFL nor the NBA allows retailers that carry its jerseys to sell ones without players names and numbers on them. It forces stores to therefore market its players.

The NHL allows retailers to sell jerseys with no names and numbers on the back, though the quantity of blanks are not as much as what can be found in Major League Baseball.

Blank jerseys, that just feature the team logo on them, obviously aren't revenue generators for the union — even if someone, after the fact, gets a name and number sewed on.

MLB spokesman Matt Bourne said the league offers blank jerseys on the shelves as a function of the marketplace.

"The fans have told us with their wallets that they want to be able to buy blank jerseys as well as jerseys with the players names and numbers on them," Bourne said.

The Players Clubhouse experiment is trying to prove to teams that having more jointly licensed product in stores is a good thing.

The MLBPA has paid to design the store and dream up the merchandise, while concessionaire Aramark is going to run the day-to-day management.

But the key question is, will this effort lead to incremental sales? Retailers are very savvy and are aware of what their customer wants.

Why are there more player jerseys available for the Yankees? Because the public has demanded them.

Although some in the industry have pointed at the risk, such as winding up with a glut of jerseys of a player whose season doesn't pan out or who got traded midseason, Heeter asserted that the shorter turnaround time of the manufacturers has all but eliminated that concern.

The union seems very committed to this project and I give them credit for that. They even started a program with teams that encouraged fans to buy player merchandise. With each $150 worth of player-specific product purchased, the fan received free premium items, including an autographed baseball.

Using the Citi Field store might actually convince teams that they can make more money by putting more player-specific items in their team stores.

But a ringing cash register in Flushing likely won't convince retailers to carry any more player product than they already do.

Unlike public retailers, the Players Association and teams can invest heavily in players, and as long as they stay with the same team and eventually do well, they can sell that product.

Public retailers can't put things in the back room and wait for a player to make a comeback or come off the disabled list. They have to let the market know of the unsold inventory, which becomes a key metric of share evaluation every quarter. That makes it easier to carry team-specific items, especially in this risky economic environment.

All this considered, this is still a valiant effort to jumpstart a player licensing business that certainly has room for growth.

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