New fashion statement: No, team, no

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You still can buy a Chicago White Sox cap at the Athletic Attic in Towson Town Center mall. But you have to pick your way over rows of hats with less recognizable names such as No Fear, Bear Surfboards or Big Johnson Baseball Bats.

And the neat racks of T-shirts, once crammed with Chicago Bulls or San Jose Sharks jerseys, now are dominated by more esoteric themes, such as "Grab an Umbrella, I'm raining Jumpers," or simply "Reebok Basketball."

"The fashion just changed. People like new looks," said store manager Jeff Bowden. Last year's best-selling caps, New York Yankees and White Sox, have been deposed by No Fear -- the anthem of mountain bikers and skateboarders.

Across the country, consumers are moving away from the caps, shirts and other sports team-related apparel that blanketed American streets over the past five years and became one of the hottest segments of the fashion industry.

Analysts who follow the $9 billion licensed-goods industry cite many reasons, from the simple maturation of the business to the collective judgment of teen-agers that a Detroit Tigers cap isn't cool anymore. And the ugly fights between billionaire team owners and millionaire players have made some fans reluctant to serve as walking billboards.

The impact could be significant, both for the leagues, which found in licensed goods a small but fast-growing source of cash, and for suppliers and retailers. Manufacturers have seen their stock and profits dip in advance of a predicted industry shakeout. Some are finding it difficult to get rights, as leagues consolidate their licensees.

"It has been pretty flat this year. There are still people making money, but some are not making their projections," said Mike Nichols, editor-in-chief of Team Licensing Business magazine.

His magazine's annual industry report, published last month, said the business of team-related merchandise "has entered perhaps its most tumultuous period since coming out of nowhere to take over America's closets a few short years ago."

More growth is expected, but at a much slower pace, as consumers increasingly turn to alternatives. Youthful buyers, often harbingers of trends, are embracing the "attitude" styles of Team Rollerblade and the woodsy image of Timberline. College, minor-league and NASCAR merchandise also is siphoning off business.

,3 Baseball, with its canceled World Series and fruitless labor talks, has been hardest hit, with a 16 percent drop in sales last year. Hockey -- the industry's darling just a year ago, before its lockout -- is expected merely to match last year's sales, after growing from $150 million in 1990 to $1 billion last year.

The adroitly marketed NBA was expected to show growth this year, but manufacturers and retailers are nervously watching news of its labor talks. The industry-leading NFL is doing the best and is expected to record $3.15 billion in sales this year, according to Team Licensing Business.

Overall, U.S. retail sales of goods licensed by the four major-league sports were up 7.5 percent last year, to $8.6 billion (the leagues get a fraction of that in royalties). That would be respectable in most industries, but this is one that grew at an average clip of 27 percent in each of the prior three years. Team Licensing Business projects a combined growth of 4.6 percent this year in NHL, NFL and NBA goods. It is not making a prediction for baseball.

"I don't think we'll ever see the explosive growth we had," Nichols said. But it is still a multibillion-dollar business that is growing, albeit more slowly, he said.

Yoowon Tee Kim, an 18-year-old who just graduated from Dulaney High School in Baltimore County, says he's more likely to hit the basketball court in an "And 1" shirt than Michael Jordan's jersey.

"I think the style now is more individual. You used to want to 'be like Mike,' but it's not like that anymore. You want to be your own self," Kim said.

Industry watchers say team-related merchandise is returning to more regionalized patterns, in which New Yorkers buy Yankees sweat shirts and San Franciscans go for 49ers wear. This suggests a core of fans who back their teams instead of a mass market of buyers making fashion statements.

"In the late 1980s and early 1990s, sports licensing was driven as a fashion industry, so there were people who weren't sports fans wearing San Jose Sharks hats. Now, it's primarily fan-driven again," said Karen Raugust, executive editor of the Licensing Letter, an industry newsletter.

She said the slowdown was beginning even before the baseball strike, and was probably an inevitable ebbing of fashion and a saturation of the market. And, mathematically, any increase in sales makes further percentage growth all the harder -- a conundrum faced by all prospering businesses.

But wearing an Orioles cap is a personal and public endorsement, and some fans simply have revoked their backing in the face of bickering players and owners.

"The labor disruptions have soured many fans on professional sports. Major-league sports need to improve their image and the player-to-fan connection," said Mike May, a spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

But he says it's still a solid industry capable of enhancing and expanding its product lines in response to consumer tastes. One of the best-performing segments of the business, for example, are the video games and other electronic products unrelated to clothing.

Ian Gomar, vice president of marketing for Starter Corp., a major manufacturer of licensed goods that has struggled with losses over the past year, said he's confident Americans will resume their love affair with sports. Baseball sales are reviving now, he said.

"I think fans are fed up sometimes. But, in the end, they love the sport and the games," Gomar said.

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