Why Child’s Play is Good

Mar 10, 2015


Collectively, sports fans represent the biggest influence on the licensed sports product industry. Before you scoff at the obvious nature of that statement, consider how fandom ties into activity.

Recent research from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), in conjunction with Sports Marketing Surveys USA (SMS), indicates there is a strong correlation between playing or being active in a specific sport and the likelihood of being a fan of that same sport. For example, according to the research, nearly 60% of active Americans are “somewhat or very interested” in the National Football League (NFL). This is contrasted with 37.3% of inactive people who feel the same way about the NFL. Similar trends exist for college football, Major League Baseball (MLB), college baseball, the National Basketball Association (NBA), WNBA, college basketball and more.

This is where the relationship between activity and the licensed sports product market should hit home for industry retailers and manufacturers alike: If active families — including kids — are more likely to favor a certain sport or league, they also may be more likely to buy affiliated, or league-licensed, products.

“Active people who are fans tend to be the ones who spend the most money purchasing licensed sports products for both themselves and their loved ones,” says Keith Storey, vice president of Jupiter, Fla.-based SMS.

And in a market where competition for the licensing dollar is so fierce, it’s a safe bet that encouraging activity or — at the very least, appealing to active youth — could mean an influx of customers at your cash register

Professional leagues and collegiate licensing divisions are ready and waiting for young fans to showcase their allegiances to their favorite teams. Across the board, licensed sports product industry veterans acknowledge that two of the biggest growth areas in this overall category are in the women’s and children’s demographics. It’s worth noting that the children’s category is divided into youth and infant/toddler subcategories

“We are enthusiastic about the second year of the NFL Tweens/Juniors campaign,” says Natara Holloway, the NFL’s vice president of consumer products. “Our designs give young fans the opportunity to showcase their team pride, along with their unique styles and personalities. From T-shirts and fleece to accessories, we offer a wide assortment of products all made specifically for young and passionate female fans.”

Of course, this hasn’t always been the case. Suppliers, though, got the message and have shied away from the “shrinking” approach to certain products, like apparel.

“Years ago, licensees would simply make a [size S or XS] in men’s sizes, hoping it would fit a child,” says Joe Hutchinson, vice president of apparel management, The Collegiate Licensing Co. (CLC) — an IMG Company. “Now, our licensees make youth-specific sizes where the apparel is properly made, fit and sized for a child. We have youth licensed sports products specialists. That’s what they do.”

Some of these licensees include College Kids, Third Street Sportswear, Wes and Willy, and Vive La Fete, he says. Also, companies like Nike and adidas have youth products made by other licensees like Haddad Brands and Outer Stuff, respectively.

While the demand for youth sports products is growing, Hutchinson notes the CLC has implemented stricter standards on licensees. In a nutshell, not any company can jump on the CLC’s bandwagon (the organization manages roughly 85% of the collegiate sports licensed products market).

While the youth business is significant and growing, it is not a dominant demographic — yet.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in the youth sports product market,” Hutchinson says. From a dollars-and-cents perspective, the apparel business is the largest segment of the licensed sports product market. Within that category, the collegiate youth sports apparel market totals roughly $160 million at retail, he estimates, and the infant/toddler sports apparel market totals $70 million.

While the youth and infant/toddler business represent just 7% and 3% of the total licensed sports apparel business, respectively, they are growing. Hutchinson says the CLC’s youth market has grown by 44% in the last five years, while its infant/toddler market has grown by 74% during that same time period.

“One of the interesting aspects of the licensed sports product market is the large amount of product that is purchased for youth and young children,” says VJ Mayor, SFIA’s senior director of communications and research. “If you are looking for the original catalyst for this market, it’s probably the small, blue Little Slugger baseball cap, which is associated with Little League Baseball [and] has been worn for decades by young children.”

According to Mayor, the licensed sports products that are purchased and used by children range from caps, sweat shirts and hoodies, to jackets, jerseys, socks and baseball uniform T-shirts. He adds that many of the latter purchased for youth sports competitions are replicas, which actually bear the name and likeness of a professional sports team.

“Every day in the greater Washington, D.C. area, we see children wearing mini Robert Griffin III jerseys and John Wall jerseys around town, in the park and in the stadiums or arenas,” Mayor says. “Children are also busy on weekends wearing replica jerseys and shirts on the playing field — for the [Green Bay] Packers in the fall, for the [Chicago] Bulls in the winter, and for the [St. Louis] Cardinals in the spring.”

Responses from those in the sports community, regardless of geographic location, generally support the observation that more and more youth are dressing to mirror their favorite athletes or teams.

“About 75% of our youth baseball team uniforms feature Major League Baseball replica jerseys and caps,” says Larry Foster, owner, Spartan Sporting Goods, Beckley, W. Va. “Demand for this product has been strong for the last 15 years. To add more value to the team shirt, we put a number and the player’s name on the back.”

Similarly, the children playing football in south Florida’s Wellington Community Youth Football League (WCFL) wear NFL replica helmets and jerseys that show a direct connection with the local Miami Dolphins NFL franchise.

“Selling school-themed T-shirts to our student body and the local community is a great way to boost school spirit,” says Wayne Ryan, athletic director, Summers County High School, Hinton, W. Va. “We’ve been selling school spiritwear since the late 1980s, and 70% of our merchandise is sold to pre-teens and teenagers.

While the appeal of wearing an MLB-licensed shirt is quite alluring for youngsters, it’s not always the financially prudent way to go. Luckily, the bounties seen in the licensed sports product business are not limited to the major sports here in the United States. It’s a global phenomenon. Professional soccer — especially this year, with the popularity of the World Cup — also has benefitted from the spending spree on licensed sports products. National jerseys from Germany, The Netherlands, Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Spain and Italy have been purchased and worn by millions of fans, especially youngsters.

“Team soccer jerseys are a big attraction for 10- to 16-year-old children,” says Matt Godek, president/founder, Matt Godek Rugby & Soccer Supply, Merrifield, Va. “Many kids feel that they have to have the latest jersey. And the parents foot the bill. When teams change color schemes, jersey designs and logos, it creates another sales opportunity.”

The collegiate market produces items ranging from hats, T-shirts and socks, to jerseys and miniature cheerleader outfits — all of which help fans proclaim allegiance for any given collegiate athletic program. The market is growing because parents want their children to be “little Georgia Bulldogs” or “little Texas Longhorns.”

The industry produces and markets these child-sized items, and consumers are buying them — and will continue to do so.

“Purchases of licensed sports products are often motivated by enthusiasm, emotion and excitement for one’s favorite team or alma mater,” Mayor says. “When the ‘heart strings’ are attached to the pocket book or the wallet, a purchase is imminent.”

While many children wear licensed sports products on an everyday basis, some also wear them on the competitive field of play.

“Our intramural basketball league for elementary-aged children features miniature uniforms that reflect an allegiance to ACC athletic programs, specifically Duke, North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Clemson and North Carolina,” says Jon Elardo, associate athletic director, Berean Christian School, West Palm Beach, Fla.. “We have players and their parents who are rooting for the Blue Devils, Wolfpack, Yellow Jackets, Demon Deacons, Tigers and Tar Heels each year. It’s a great ‘collegiate’ atmosphere in our gym each spring Saturday morning.”

Berean’s commitment to authentic uniforms is not limited to college basketball. “In the fall, one of our youth soccer programs uses jerseys and team colors that reflect an allegiance to various national soccer teams, many of which were playing in Brazil in the World Cup,” Elardo adds. “We have a World Cup soccer atmosphere every Saturday morning in the fall on our campus.”

Manufacturers are changing with the times as they offer products that meet the needs and demands of young clients. While there is value in having an item adorned with a collegiate or professional team logo, some manufacturers are creating niches in the youth market with their own brands, logos and insignias.

“Youth apparel and hard goods are a growing category for us,” says Ben Settles, retail director, Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, Louisville, Ky. “Our product assortment for youth has evolved in recent years, from strictly price-point-driven items to higher-end, performance-inspired apparel. Children and parents alike are looking for items that are “Dri-Fit” silhouettes and are field-ready — and they don’t mind paying a higher retail price for quality items. We are seeing this trend in our personalized bat sales as well. Kids are looking to customize our Prime bats with their names, as opposed to a souvenir bat to hang on their wall. Our Prime bats are our premium wood bats, the same models used by Major League players today on field.”

“Interest remains strong among youth in our collegiate licensed autograph footballs, rubber footballs and rubber basketballs,” says Michael Schindler, CEO, Baden Sports. “But our Soft Touch items are rapidly gaining ground because youth love the size, feel and novelty of them. Products such as our newly designed Soft Touch Hoop and Ball Set, which can be hung on the back of a bedroom or dormitory room door and feature the logo of a favorite college team, are especially popular and a big reason why we’re seeing rapid growth in that segment.”

Spalding is another manufacturer that has pushed the envelope on connecting its brand to younger consumers. The company makes the official baseball of the Little League World Series and Dudley (a Spalding brand) has been the official softball of the Little League World Series for the past four years.

“By associating with premier youth organizations and designing products specifically for youth, Spalding is ‘starting young’ with them and providing authentic product and great competitive experiences,” says Paul Sullivan, senior vice president of Spalding. “Our association with youth gives our brand the opportunity to build a long-lasting relationship that will carry on through high school, college and at the highest level of competitive play.”

Spalding’s Rookie Gear, a line of youth-sized basketballs, footballs, volleyballs and soccer balls that weigh 15% less than standard youth products, has been at the forefront of its push to connect with younger customers.

According to Spalding’s Matt Maresca, youth products traditionally are made smaller in size, but not appropriately weighted, which can lead to improper form, lack of success and eventual frustration, ultimately taking the fun out of play. With the Spalding Rookie Gear line, children are rebounding with more confidence, dribbling with more success, throwing balls with more accuracy, kicking balls farther, and shooting with dramatically better form, he says.

With the glut of games and sports-related events on the calendar annually, the biggest challenge licensed sports product manufacturers face is the battle for drawer and closet space in the American household.

“The great thing about children getting older is that they grow out of clothes and need to buy a larger size,” says SFIA’s Mayor. For retailers and manufacturers, that may be the best business model for an industry that is on the rise and poised for more growth.

Mike May is a Wellington, Fla.-based freelance sports writer, veteran high school soccer official, experienced sporting goods industry publicist and experienced high school basketball coach. For more information or to comment on this article, email Mike at mmaymarketing@gmail.com.

10 Most-Popular Youth Team Sports                            
Sport                            No. of Participants (ages 6-17)

  1. Basketball                  9,593,000
  2. Outdoor Soccer         7,235,000
  3. Baseball                      5,943,000
  4. Tackle Football         3,265,000
  5. Gymnastics                2,767,000
  6. Court Volleyball        2,662,000
  7. Touch Football          2,475,000
  8. Track & Field             2,464,000
  9. Flag Football              2,070,000
  10. Indoor Soccer            2,026,000

Source: 2013 SFIA U.S. Trends in Team Sports Report