Vintage Penguins jerseys selling up a blue streak
Katelyn Feicht,16, of Shaler, left, and her cousin Haley Nightingale,12, of Collier Township, shop at Dick's Sporting Goods in Robinson for the blue "throwback" Penguins hockey jerseys.
Penguins players Paul Bissonnette, front, Eric Godard, left, Tyler Kennedy and Alex Goligoski joke around while posing for photos after an event at Dick's Sporting Goods in Robinson showcasing the blue "throwback" Penguins hockey jerseys.
Share with others:
When the Penguins showed off their new alternate jersey, done in the color scheme chosen at the birth of the franchise in 1967, fan Mike Harding was wearing one that would have fit right in with the players on stage Wednesday at Dick's Sporting Goods in Robinson.
The night lacked the drama and anticipation attached to unveilings because the new look is an older one -- a combination of light blue, dark blue and white that the Penguins wore in the Winter Classic New Year's Day in Buffalo.
The vintage look proved to be so popular with fans that merchants couldn't keep the jerseys on the shelves, and it was a natural step for the Penguins to ask the NHL for permission to use them on special occasions when they're not wearing their basic black or white jerseys trimmed in Las Vegas gold.
"I love it," said Harding of Crafton, who bought his jersey online nearly a year ago. "I'm surprised it took this long to bring it officially back. There's a little nostalgia involved. It brings it back to the Penguins' roots. It's like stepping back in a time machine."
It's not too far of a stretch to say that the crowd of fans who showed up in Robinson for the formal introduction of the new/old jersey would rival the size of some of the crowds who came to see the team when they first wore the blue color scheme. A group of current players, none of whom are old enough to have seen the Penguins wear blue as their primary color, marveled at the enthusiasm.
"It's always nice to have a different color. Change it up a bit," said Tyler Kennedy, who joined teammates Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski, Paul Bissonette and Eric Godard to model the sweaters. "It reminds you of the old times, the old Pittsburgh Penguins. It brings back a lot of memories for the fans."
Enough fans already have the vintage jersey that it is a familiar sight at home games. But expect the market share to grow exponentially when the Penguins don the throwback uniforms in the home game Saturday against the Buffalo Sabres. Officially licensed merchants are sure to have large inventories just in time for the holiday shopping season. Other parts of the economy are hurting significantly, but the market for sports merchandise apparently is recession-proof.
"Even in tough times, people will find the money," said Mike May, director of communications for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, a trade group representing those who make the uniforms worn by those in the wide arena of sports.
"A fan's heart strings are never far from the purse strings. When people buy a jersey or a hat or whatever, they think they've become part owners of the franchise. This is such an emotionally driven business. These jerseys send off a subliminal message, 'You have to buy me.' People can't resist the temptation to commit to their favorite team. It's never going to go stale."
According to SGMA's figures, fans of all the major sports spend more money in the fourth quarter of the year than any other time. For the man or woman who has everything, what could make a better gift than a new color to complement the wardrobe?
Although teams and leagues are more tight-lipped about merchandise sales than they are, say, about injury reports, the market is robust.
In the NHL alone, sales are roughly $1 billion a year, in no small part because of the surge in the Penguins' popularity. Last season, partly due to the Winter Classic and the international appeal of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins led the NHL in merchandise sales. At one point, seven of the top 10 items licensed for sale by the league had a Penguins logo on them.
But while 1 billion is an impressive number, hockey lags behind the other major sports, including NASCAR.
According to SMGA's figures from 2007, the latest that numbers are available, Major League Baseball had $3.3 billion in sales in the United States and Canada on everything from batting practice caps to jerseys of retired players.
Helped by the throwback jerseys unveiled by the Steelers for their 75th anniversary, the NFL does $3.25 billion in sales, followed by colleges and universities selling $3.1 billion in all sports at all schools, the NBA at $2.15 billion and NASCAR at $1.2 billion.
For all sports, the total in officially licensed products is $14 billion.
"Athletes are walking, talking, living, breathing models for this apparel. Buyers think that if something looks good on Sidney Crosby or Ben Roethlisberger, it'll look good on them," Mr. May said. "Plus, it's a chance for fans of today to connect to yesteryear by having the same jersey worn by their parents or grandparents."
To underscore the notion that these things sell themselves, the Penguins didn't set out to make an alternate jersey when they wore blue in the Winter Classic.
"We thought it would be a one-time thing, but it became so popular with our fans that we asked the league's permission to use it as our third jersey. It's a dynamic new look for our current generation of fans, and it honors the rich history of the franchise," said David Morehouse, the team's president.
"Anything we do in blue sells out immediately. It's like the light blue of the San Diego Chargers. It's unique. There's not another jersey like it out there. Pittsburgh is definitely a football town. It's also turned into a hockey town."
There's also a business side to all this. Every time the Penguins or any other sports team sells a jersey, it adds to the revenue streams of the leagues and the individual teams, who divide the profits through various formulas.
"It's really a no-brainer. It's a ripe opportunity to generate a lot of extra revenue," said John Rowady, president and founder of the Chicago-based sports marketing agency iEvolution.
The jersey of Pittsburgh's NHL teams has a history going back to the Roaring '20s.
The city's first NHL team, one of the first to enter the league after the original six, was born in 1925 and was called the Pirates -- not surprising, in that the city's top sports franchise was the baseball team that won the World Series that year.
The NHL team was the first in the city to wear black and gold. Art Rooney's NFL franchise adopted the colors when it was born in 1933, and the baseball Pirates switched from red and blue to black and gold in 1948.
Black and gold are in the city's flag, which were the colors in the coat of arms of William Pitt, the British statesman and first Earl of Chatham for whom Pittsburgh was named 250 years ago,
The first NHL jersey was a canary color with the word "Pirates" in black script across the chest and a black "P" underneath the name. On each sleeve was Pittsburgh's coat of arms.
The city's NHL team didn't survive the Great Depression, and it moved to Philadelphia for one year for the 1930-31 season and was renamed the Quakers.
When the NHL returned to Pittsburgh in the six-team expansion of 1967, general manager Jack Riley picked the colors. As an Ontario native, he chose Columbia blue, Navy blue and white -- the colors of the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League and also of St. Michael's College in Ontario.
But the popularity of hockey in Pittsburgh was overshadowed by the success of the Pirates and Steelers. When they both won championships in 1979, the Penguins switched to black and gold to bolster the image of the "City of Champions." They hadn't won any titles wearing blue, and the thinking at the time was that the blue was too soft for a bruising sport.
The Boston Bruins objected to another team wearing what they said were their colors. But the Penguins prevailed, arguing that the original color scheme was black and gold.
The blue in the Penguins uniform hasn't been worn on home ice since January 1980.
Now it's back. Along with the green of dollars.
"Pittsburgh fans are so avid and passionate," said Dan Near, manager of retail sales and marketing for NHL Enterprises L.P., who was impressed with the size and enthusiasm of Wednesday's turnout at Robinson. "It says a lot about the people of Pittsburgh. It's a way for fans to show their pride in their team."
First Published November 10, 2008 12:00 am