Though it’s still expanding, the female fan market can be great for manufacturers and retailers who know how to sell licensed apparel to this niche.
But this wasn’t always the case. When Little Earth Productions was founded in 1993, selling female-focused sports-licensed apparel was somewhat of an afterthought. That changed in the mid-2000s when the demographic began to gain traction and, most importantly, demand.
“Little Earth really focuses on the fashionable female fan,” says Rob Brandegee, CEO, Little Earth Productions. “Our specialty is interpreting fashion for the female fan. ”There’s a lot of core fan product available out in the world. There’s not a lot of fun, well-designed trend product that’s available for women that they can wear every day. That’s kind of what our special niche is.”
Little Earth originally was a home-based business with a goal of designing cool, fun products. The business rapidly grew and now holds licenses for more than 170 sports teams in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and more than 70 colleges. With so many licenses, Little Earth makes it easy for retailers looking to cater to the niche it serves.
“We’re always looking for the next cool thing that can be interpreted for sports,” Brandegee says. “That, coupled with the fact that we [have licenses for] all five leagues, makes us kind of a great company for cool products that can be offered to a retailer as a one-stop shop. It just makes it easier for retailers to work with us.”
Obtaining licenses isn’t the simplest process, and there are several hoops to jump through before rights are granted. But Brandegee says that once you’re in the arena, the work you do can lead to more access for manufacturers.
“It’s a small ecosystem — licensing in sports — and frankly, I think if you do a good job with a league, word spreads,” Brandegee says. “For us, I think we were very fortunate that our first license was with the NFL. Being with the NFL is, by and large, the straw that stirs the drink. It became a lot easier to get with more pro leagues and/or colleges when we say, ‘We’re an NFL licensee.’ You’ve essentially passed the sniff test and you’re typically going to create good, high-end products if you’re working with the NFL.”
While Little Earth was fortunate to partner with the NFL, the mantra remains the same regardless of the license: Quality work spreads the word.
A large reason for Little Earth’s success is that it mainly focus on one niche, which allows expertise and quality production.
“[Women’s fan fashion] was just kind of a natural place for us to go,” Brandegee says. “We occasionally make men’s product, but 80-90% of our business model is devoted to women. We think that’s important mainly because I think that women are still underrepresented for how many of them are fans. For us, it’s just good business sense, as well as a comfortable place to be.”
As the fast-growing women’s niche continues to trend upward, more retailers will stock products for the female fan, resulting in a more crowded manufacturing environment.
“It has certainly become more competitive,” Brandegee says. “I think the NFL really made a major inroads starting about eight or nine years ago by focusing on the female fan. I think that has grown over the years and has intensified, but I still don’t think it’s where it needs to be. So that’s our mission.”
Brandegee also says because of the symbiotic relationship between retailers and manufacturers — one entity’s success depends on the other — Little Earth emphasizes educating its retail partners.
“We really pride ourselves with partnering with our retailers and offering them trend product that will help them differentiate themselves from other competitors,” he says. “And by offering on-trend, well-made products that they are confident they are going to receive on time and aren’t going to have any problems or issues with, that’s how they can differentiate themselves and increase sales. That’s how our business, as a result, has grown.”
Little Earth also engages in marketing and sales education specifically for its products (i.e. a Pittsburgh Steelers purse should be displayed with other purses, not with other Steelers merchandise.). Such simple changes can make the difference between successful sales and shelved inventory.
A Changing Retail Landscape
Because retail is so competitive, and with the boom of online sales, it is more important than ever for brick-and-mortar stores to always be stocked with gear that is in high demand.
For instance, the University of Alabama won the College Football Playoff National Championship on Jan. 11, so it would be devastating for a retailer to run out of Crimson Tide fan gear anytime during the following week. That’s why retailers need dependable manufacturers.
“Licensed sports is all about performance and all about timing, and if you don’t have the product when they need it, the retailer’s out of luck,” Brandegee says. “That’s one of the things that’s very important to us. We make sure that [we have]product all the time, and that we can decorate additional product that will allow [retailers] to have it when they need it.
“I think retailers need all the help they can get, and they need to find somebody who’s going to back them up and help them succeed,” he adds. “As a manufacturer — from my perspective — their success is our success.”