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Sports licensing gains traction in outdoor living

Chris Gigley, Staff Staff -- Casual Living, January 7, 2011

Team Sports AmericaTeam Sports America found out fans support their teams out of season.
TEAM GRILL and Team Sports America, a pair of manufacturers, are pushing sports licensing to the outdoors. It's a combination fast becoming a winner.
     It all began with a sprinkler shaped like a football helmet. The sprinkler, available in every NFL team, was one of the first products released by Team Sports America when it launched in 2001. Senior vice president Mike Sockel didn't think it would work. He was wrong.
     "We found out real fast that people were more than willing to buy decorative and useful garden supplies with sports logos," Sockel said. "I think it surprised the NFL that a company could do so much of a percentage of business in NFL licensed goods in the first half of the year as opposed to the second half."
     The second half of the year is when the NFL season runs, and it's when nearly every other NFL licensee does the bulk of its business. But Team Sports America's numbers told the NFL and Sockel that fans will buy licensed goods even out of season if the product is right. That sprinkler was the first sign that sports licensing belonged in the back yard.
     Now, Team Sports America offers an array of gardening and patio products emblazoned with team logos from the NCAA, NFL, NBA and MLB. Its line ranges from welcome mats and Adirondack chairs to wind chimes and bird feeders. Virtually everything sells well because team logos give instant brand recognition to the product.
     "Basically 50% of the population is a fan of some team," Sockel said. "So half the customers who walk into your store are affiliated in some way with a team and a logo. And if it's not them, it's their son or dad or neighbor or brother."
     Sports licensing offers more than just instant recognition. It creates an emotional bond between the customer and the product and, by extension, the retail store. "Fan," after all, is short for "fanatic."
     Prior to joining Team Sports America, Sockel spent more than 20 years heading the garden department for a retail chain in Pennsylvania. He likes to draw on that experience to illustrate why sports licensing works for outdoor retailers.
Backyard Bird CompanyBackyard Bird Company’s birdhouses are printed with designs, including popular sports logos.
     "If you're a garden center and you sell vegetative annuals with no color, they'll sit," he said. "But if those plants have color, they'll all sell. The impulse is amazing. Licensing is just like that. People see the color and the logo and they buy. If you throw it in front of the fan, you'll sell it."
     That makes the buying and merchandising strategy very
     "All retailers need to do is put in their top local teams," Sockel said. "If you're in Chicago, you put in Cubs and Bears product. You just have to make sure your customers can see it when they come in."
     There are exceptions, of course, and anyone even remotely familiar with sports knows which teams have a national appeal. From the NFL, Dallas Cowboys product and, increasingly, items emblazoned with the Pittsburgh Steelers logo sell anywhere in the nation. In baseball, it's the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. And in the NBA, the Los Angeles Lakers reign.
     Sports licensing isn't without its hurdles. Licensed products in non-traditional categories such as outdoor have been rife with quality issues in the past, giving the whole lot a bad name. Ed Thomas, director of marketing for Team Grill, said a stigma still exists in the grill category.
     The question consumers ask most about his grills, for instance, is whether the logo will peel off. Most have been burned before by cheap grills decorated with stickers that don't last long.
     The Team Grill line, however, is produced with an innovative coating process that perfectly matches team colors and prevents colors and logos from ever coming off. A triple-fired porcelain process fuses logos to the grills at temperatures much higher than heat from the grill, which means using the grill won't affect the design.
Grill coversGrill covers allow fans to show the colors and logos of favorite teams every day, not just on game days.
     "We let them touch the grill so they can see that the logo is actually melted into grill," Thomas said. "Then, we tell them that what we've done is create a high-quality grill first, then put a logo on it and priced it in the ballpark of other grills with similar features."
     Another example of improved quality is Team Sports America's new line of birdhouses. The houses are made by Kirk DeVries, owner of The Backyard Bird Company and WildlifeAllies. com. An avid birder, DeVries was determined to create a birdhouse that actually works.
     "All the houses out there that have logos on them have basically been desktop decoration," he said.
     Most of DeVries' houses are made of cypress, but the front is fashioned from PVC. He figured out how to apply a vinyl wrapping to the PVC that could be printed with designs, including sports logos. The kicker is that the houses work so well they're certified and approved by the North American Bluebird Society.
     Consumers are gradually coming around to this new level of quality in licensed product for the outdoors.
     Thomas said Team Grill is on the cusp of adding its 400th dealer since the company launched in March 2009. After starting with just 15 college licenses, the company has deals with 50 universities, Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NBA.

Tailgate series

Team Grill's Tailgate series is the first high-end portable gas grill designed specifically for sports fans. Team Grill combines professional-grade cooking capabilities with the colors and logos of popular sports teams. 

     "We didn't think we'd have this many teams and leagues this quickly," Thomas said. "We thought we'd go through the first couple of years with a small number of teams, but it snowballed. We actually had teams approaching us to put their logo on our grills."
     Why wouldn't they? Both Team Grill and Team Sports America have proven that fans' passion for their teams extend to outdoor living - whether in season or not. Fabric selections were the focus at a recent market inside the Outdoor Living showroom in Dallas.

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