Vendors unload sports apparel as teams ponder personnel moves

Who's going to wear that Steelers jersey when the player has left the team?

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Troy Polamalu jerseys at 50 percent off?

That might sound strange for Steelers fans with fond memories of watching Mr. Polamalu hurdle over offensive linemen for a perfectly timed sack or of his long-hair flowing in the wind while returning an interception for a touchdown.

But as the Steelers' front office prepares for some tough decisions this offseason -- including potentially parting with Mr. Polamalu -- apparel vendors are faced with tough decisions of their own: What to do with all those Polamalu jerseys?

For Jim Coen, owner of Yinzers in the Burgh, an apparel store in the Strip District, it means immediate markdowns. Last week he opened a tent sale where jerseys for Mr. Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley, among others, were 50 percent off.

"They're talking about Polamalu may be gone," Mr. Coen said. "For me, that sets off a flag that I better not have a lot of Polamalu merchandise by the time this season's over."

It is an issue that retailers face every season -- and in every sport -- in balancing the demands of the consumers with the fickle nature of sports contracts. Jerseys, on average, cost more than $100 retail and generate billions in sales across the four major sports leagues each year.

Vendors all handle the issue differently, and Mr. Coen might be in the minority in trying to unload merchandise before final personnel decisions are made. His goal, he says, is to rid himself of the jerseys while he can still make a profit on them. Once players are gone, so, too, is most of the demand for their jerseys.

Fans are faced with the same dilemma as they decide which player's jersey is worthy of their hard-earned money, without any promise that those players will be around for the long haul. Just ask a Pirates fan with a Nate McLouth jersey or a Penguins fan with a Jordan Staal sweater.

Rexene Carlstrom, co-owner of The Pittsburgh Fan store on Federal Street across from PNC Park, remembers a day when she received an order in the morning -- only for that player to be traded by the afternoon.

"It depends on the player and how much the press is pushing it, the time of year, where the team is, what's going on," Ms. Carlstrom said. "It depends on the situation."

At Hometowne Sports, which has four locations in the area, owner Linda Meyer continues to sell jerseys at full price until players actually leave. It turns out, she said, that rumors of a player's impending departure often prove premature.

"If it's in the air, if things do change, we wait until it happens," Ms. Meyer said.

Vendors stuck with apparel for a player leaving the Pittsburgh market usually have to mark down the price below their wholesale cost in an effort to recoup as much money as possible.

It's not a complete wipeout. In those cases, Ms. Meyer said, she can write off the loss on her taxes as outdated merchandise.

If a player was popular enough to the point where owning his jersey will be fashionable in the future -- as was the case with Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward and, potentially, Mr. Polamalu -- Ms. Meyer said she will continue to sell those jerseys at full price.

Matt Powell, a Scarborough, Maine-based analyst with SportsOneSource, a company that tracks the sporting goods industry, said every retailer handles it differently.

"It's always a crapshoot in sports," he said.

Those items less likely to hold their value might be moved along the retail food chain. Larger retailers, for example, often unload their obsolete merchandise to a discount retailer -- such as Marshalls or T.J. Maxx -- where customers today can find a James Harrison Steelers jersey for less than $20. Mr. Harrison signed with the Cincinnati Bengals before the start of the offseason.

Free agency, trades, injuries, poor play, early retirements and even criminal activity inject unpredictability into the marketplace. After New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested and charged with murder earlier this year, the team allowed all fans to exchange their "Hernandez" jerseys for any other Patriot jersey at the team's gift shop.

No such exchange will be offered this offseason should the Steelers decide to purge themselves of veteran players in an effort to rebuild.

The Patriots' exchange isn't even the most creative way to get rid of unwanted jerseys.

World Vision, a Christian charity based in Monrovia Calif., that operates, donates pre-printed Super Bowl merchandise from the losing team to Zambia. And donated hockey jerseys have become a status symbol in Liberia, according to Canadian newspaper the National Post.

The jersey-buying trend started about 20 years ago. Before that, streetwear centered around team logos instead of individual players, Mr. Powell said, as fans bought Starter jackets and hats bearing team colors and logos.

"We're clearly in a cult of player today more than we've ever been," Mr. Powell said.

Mr. Coen said he learned his lesson several years ago when he lost $2,000 when he was caught with a lot of merchandise after the Steelers made some significant changes to their shuffle.

Since then, he has read the newspaper and listened to the radio intently to stay up to date on the rumor mill.

If players end up sticking around, he can always order more jerseys, he said. But he doesn't want to be stuck with a pile of goods for a player who leaves.

"We're probably the best at getting rid of jerseys," Mr. Coen said. "If there's a chance of them not coming back, we'll start dumping them."

Michael Sanserino:, 412-263-1969 and Twitter @msanserino.

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