White Sox the new stars in merchandise race


CHICAGO -- From Blue Island to the faraway redwood forests, with the speed of a Nolan Ryan fastball and all the subtlety of a Mae West lob, long-suppressed Sox appeal is back.

It has returned with stunning virility, enshrouded in silver and black and bearing a modernized old English logo that harkens back to a more elegant era in the history of the Chicago White Sox franchise.

And though the team's players, at least through the first quarter of the season, look more imposing in their new uniforms than in the American League West Division race, the licensed merchandise with the new Sox logo and sock-in-a-diamond insignia is rocketing toward the top of Major League Baseball's sales standings.

"The new uniforms and logo were the key to reshaping our image and re-enfranchising the disenfranchised Sox fans," said Rob Gallas, the team's senior vice president of marketing. "For a long time, I don't think people were proud to wear White Sox stuff."

But today, Sox apparel is not only widely visible on the throngs of fans flocking to the new Comiskey Park, it also is selling briskly from Albuquerque to Altoona and even in Wrigleyville.

At the end of March, the most recent reporting period for Major League Baseball Properties, the Sox zoomed into eighth place in market share among the 26 teams, up from 18th at the end of 1990 and 25th as recently as the first quarter of last year.

"The exciting thing about the Sox is that they've come back so far so fast," said Frank Simio, vice president of licensing operations for Major League Baseball Properties. "The team is having a resurgence on the field, and they're in a new park with new uniforms; you couldn't ask for a better set of circumstances."

Simio said the Sox appear to be positively slump-proof in their sharp climb in the merchandising market, noting that their No. 8 ranking should be accompanied by "a bullet" to denote chart-busting upward momentum.

For his part, the Sox's Gallas is projecting that his team will be "soon in the top three," joining the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics in the ranks of the elite.

That forecast appears to be more than mere South Side boosterism, based on reports from sporting goods retailers and licensed manufacturers taking orders for a dizzying array of clothing and novelty items with the Sox logo.

"We're going to make money on the White Sox for a change," said Randy Paun, sales manager for Sunburst Sportswear Inc., the Addison-based manufacturer of imprinted Sox and Cubs T-shirts and sweat shirts. "Over the years, the Cubs made us enough money to cover all our upfront costs for producing the merchandise for both teams. But now, because of the Sox being hot, we've been able to get bigger accounts all over the country."

Rex Rasmussen Jr., whose Bensenville-based Star Promotions distributes licensed sports products, said he carries "more than 100 Sox items," up from a bare-bones line of six T-shirts and caps last year.

"I can't get enough of the stuff," said Rasmussen. "Everybody got caught with their pants down. I've got back orders for Sox caps at airport gift shops, and 1,000 dozen isn't enough. It's just madness."

The lunacy extends even into the high-end apparel items, such as Starter jackets, DeLong leather jackets and the flamboyant Jeff Hamilton-designed lambskin jackets, which retail for about $1,000.

"There are only three teams that are selling well all over the country the Yankees, A's and the White Sox," said Bob Davidson, the national sales manager for Los Angeles-based Jeff Hamilton's J H Design Group. "And the Sox are the hottest right now. We were doing no business with the Sox before, but when their colors changed and they signed Bo Jackson, it became a brand new game."

The Sox's silver and black color scheme puts them in the league with the Los Angeles Raiders, who lead the National Football League in merchandise market share with 20 percent, and the Los Angeles Kings, who have about 35 percent of the market share for National Hockey League licensed products.

Despite laboring in a smaller market, the silver-and-black San Antonio Spurs rank in the top six in merchandise sales in the National Basketball Association.

At Sportmart, a 13-store chain of sporting good stores in metropolitan Chicago, sales of Sox merchandise have increased more than 400 percent from last year, said company spokesman John Lowenstein.

"It's just craziness," he said. "Sportmart guessed the White Sox would be big, but nobody expected them to be as powerful as they've been. Black and silver are definitely in style, and it's been a challenge to keep it all in stock."

Lowenstein said Sportmart carries more than two dozen apparel items with the Sox logo or insignia, up from about a half-dozen last year, and his stores have a waiting list of customers for Sox Starter jackets. He noted that Sox apparel is selling especially well in the western suburbs and the southern part of the metropolitan area but added that the Clark Street outlet, only three blocks from Wrigley Field, is moving just as much Sox merchandise as Cubs' apparel.

Moreover, at the Chicago Sports & Novelty store on North Michigan Avenue, manager Sharon Starcevich this year has penciled in a lineup of about 50 Sox items, ranging from bibs to Panama hats to leather jackets selling briskly at $279.95.

"New park, new logo, new colors," said Starcevich. "If you've been a Sox fan, all the reasons to buy the merchandise are in place."

One of the Chicago area's major grocery chains discovered the pentup demand for Sox merchandise this spring, in a Jewel store promotion offering warmup jackets for $39.95.

That promotion resulted in nearly 120,000 sales of Swingster jackets, nearly one-third of them with the Sox logo, followed in order by the Bulls, Cubs, Blackhawks and Bears.

The spark that ignited the fire after the team had tried a succession of less-than-dandy doubleknits may have come last summer when the Sox wore replicas of the 1917 uniform for a "Turn Back the Clock" game.

That look and logo created a fresh interest in Sox merchandise, ** and a version of the eight-panel, short-billed Sox cap is among the best-selling "Cooperstown Collection" headwear, a line of 50 old-time caps produced by the Roman Co. in Brockton, Mass.

"The day after the nostalgia game, the Sox got 400 orders for that cap," said Raymond J. Morsovillo, a Roman sales manager. "That cap made them a national team."

And now, after a long day's march through uniform oblivion, the modern merchandise is moving, too.

"There's a good mass-appeal look to it," said Gallas, who noted that hundreds of hours of work and research went into designing an updated version of the Sox's 1951-1975 logo and the insignia.

"We gave the people what they wanted," he said.

And in return, the Sox have jumped from a 1.65 percent market share to a 4.3 percent national share in the first three months of the year, making them a marketing hit this season, no matter what happens between the foul lines.

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