Fans hungrier than ever for Pirates merchandise

Talk about pent-up demand. Suffering through two decades of playoff exile is an agony that only faithful Pittsburgh Pirates fans can really describe -- the kind of thing that is supposed to build character.

It also can build a hunger for locker room caps, T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts officially acknowledging the Buccos 2013 success.

"The biggest event that can really happen in sports is when a team that has not won the championship in a long time gets in one," said Matt Powell, a Scarborough, Maine-based analyst with SportsOneSource, a company that tracks the sporting goods industry.

Mr. Powell, a Red Sox fan, noted that probably the biggest event in licensed merchandise history was the Boston team's World Series win in 2004 -- the first in 86 years for the big East Coast city.

Even if the Pirates power through the playoffs and take home the big prize this year, it's unlikely that Pittsburgh fans will break that sales record. As a smaller city, it's harder to open the same number of wallets, he said.

Still, in the past four weeks, data show the Pirates' market share of all MLB licensed merchandise sales at 2.4 percent, up from 1.3 percent at this time last year.

"They've almost doubled their market share," Mr. Powell said.

By comparison, the New York Yankees had 35 percent, the Los Angeles Dodgers were at 11.7 percent and the Detroit Tigers at 7.8 percent.

The Cleveland Indians, who were on a hot streak until losing the American League wild card game on Wednesday, had only a .95 percent market share, Mr. Powell said.

Major League Baseball teams have a revenue sharing agreement, which means the Yankees don't actually take home a check from sales of licensed goods proportionate to their market share, he said.

In 2012, national retail revenues of MLB licensed merchandise hit $3.8 billion, a big number although one that's down in recent years as baseball loses ground to other national distractions, Mr. Powell said. The National Football League, by comparison, sold $4.6 billion worth of jerseys, caps and other stuff.

The Pirates' contribution to the MLB pot could grow if they win their divisional series battle against the St. Louis Cardinals and keep going. "Each time they make a step forward in the playoffs will be a bump," Mr. Powell said.

Merchants, from those in the Strip District hawking shirts to the retail chains stocking up on playoff gear, face the challenge of ordering the right amount of Pirates merchandise -- not so much that they're stuck with piles of unsold goods if the team's fortunes dip but enough so they don't disappoint fans and miss out on potential sales.

Over in Findlay at the headquarters for national sporting goods retailer Dick's Sporting Goods, meetings are being held every two weeks to map out the "If win" possibilities as the playoffs go along.

"We're up late at night looking at all the scenarios," said Dave Natale, director of sports marketing for the company that has more than 500 Dick's stores in 44 states -- including stores in all the markets where MLB teams are still in the playoffs -- as well as an e-commerce operation that can deliver team gear deep into rival territory.

"Each of the markets, it's a different scenario," Mr. Natale said.

Pirates fans' enthusiasm has been evident in their purchases of the post-season merchandise that came out last week after the team clinched the wild card spot, he said, and not just in the stores. "The excitement we've seen in the stores we've seen on our website as well," he said.

The Dick's team pays attention when things happen like when Pirates players called for a blackout at Tuesday's game. "We monitor that," Mr. Natale said, although such spontaneous efforts to get fans to dress all in one color aren't usually a problem. "Usually that's going to be a color that's within the [team's] color pallet."

Another round of merchandise will be rushed to the markets that win the league championships and then yet another when the World Series champion is crowned.

Pittsburgh marketers and businesses may be new to the baseball playoff game, but they're experienced in sports championships, having trained under the Steelers and Penguins regimes that have delivered victories in the Super Bowl and Stanley Cup in recent years.

The Eat'n Park Hospitality Group, based in Homestead, has capitalized on the affection for its Smiley cookie in recent years, adapting the color and face for different occasions and making it possible to order from all over the country.

On Tuesday, Pirate Smiley cookie sales rose 44 percent, according to Kevin O'Connell, senior vice president of marketing, following a 5 percent boost over the past month.

The Eat'n Park restaurants also pushed their takeout offerings during the wild card game this week, and sales rose 16 percent that evening to set a record for Tuesday night takeout sales. Of course, sales during the actual game time dipped 13 percent.

These are also the times that marketers are rewarded for sticking with sponsorships, even with a team like the Pirates that has disappointed its fans so many times in the past.

Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Joyce Julius & Associates Inc. reports that between Monday and mid-day Wednesday, PNC Park -- which takes its name from Pittsburgh-based sponsor PNC Financial Services Group -- had been mentioned in association with the Pirates in 113 articles, 577 television shows (local and national), and 3,544 Internet articles.

Compared to the cost of reaching a similar size audience through traditional advertising, that exposure was valued at between $6 million and $8 million, according to Eric Wright, president and executive director of research of the company that measures the impact of sponsorships and promotional programs.

The longer the Pirates can hang in there, the bigger the payoff will be. Joyce Julius calculated that AT&T Park, which hosted eight post-season games in 2012 when the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, picked up $80 million in media exposure for its name sponsor.

Given the pool of baseball teams still in the playoffs this year, certain combinations of teams and markets might produce a bigger sales boost for Major League Baseball than others. Mr. Powell, asked for his estimate of the best-case merchandising scenarios for the World Series, thought about it for a moment.

In the American League, the Detroit Tigers have been proven sales champs, he said.

And in the National League? He had to give the advantage to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who play in a bigger market than Pittsburgh. "Even if the Pirates come on and win, it will be tough for them to beat out the Dodgers." In merchandise sales, that is.

pirates - businessnews

Teresa F. Lindeman: or at 412-263-2018. First Published October 5, 2013 4:15 AM


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