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Strategy is crucial for selling NFL gear

Marketers work to keep fans happy — and spending

Michelle Downey tried on team caps at the New England Patriots Pro Shop in Foxborough earlier this month.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The hot new line of New England Patriots apparel for the 2014 season is on the runway at NFL headquarters in New York right now, under review by league officials before making its way onto racks at the team pro shop and into the wardrobes of football fans.

That’s right — the hot new line for the 2014 season.

With sports enthusiasts spending $12 billion each year to wear their team pride on their sleeves (and on their hats, jackets, and pants), the imperative to satisfy their tastes demands a level of research and planning once confined to the fashion industry.


Licensed apparel makers, like Westwood-based ’47 Brand, begin designing team gear almost two years in advance. The NFL will not open training camp for the 2013 season before next month, yet manufacturers already have conceived what they hope will become the popular looks of 2014. They have been showing the designs to league executives since last month, said Josh Feinstein, the NFL’s director of consumer products.

Companies will think over the feedback they receive, make product changes, and then pitch their merchandise to buyers for all 32 franchises. To help decide what to stock at the official team store in Foxborough, the Patriots conduct surveys and focus groups with fans, said Jessica Gelman, the club’s vice president of customer marketing and strategy.

By November, teams will be placing orders for next fall.

“The sports apparel industry has become exponentially more strategic and sophisticated,” said Marty Brochstein, senior vice president for industry relations and information at the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association. “The items are better made and better thought-out than ever before.”

But no amount of forethought can anticipate every trend. A year ago, few could have predicted that the league’s top-selling jersey would belong to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, an unheralded backup before he stepped in for injured starter Alex Smith last season and led his team to the Super Bowl.


Kaepernick is not an isolated case. Fourteen of the 25 most popular jerseys in the league today were not even on the best-seller list last year.

“It’s both a science and an art,” Gelman said. “You never know what kind of season a player’s going to have.”

Feinstein agreed that “nobody’s got a crystal ball,” and added that the NFL’s growing popularity among women continues to reshape the licensed apparel landscape. “I truly don’t believe that ceiling has been hit yet,” he said.

Because demand can shift quickly, the NFL requires its jersey maker, Nike Inc., to keep a stockpile of “blanks” — jerseys with no names and no numbers — on hand at all times, ready for rapid printing with the letters and digits of tomorrow’s superstars.

The reserve supply enables a team to capitalize on a player’s emergence literally overnight. One day after the Patriots signed free agent quarterback Tim Tebow, the pro shop was taking orders for replica jerseys bearing his number, 5.

Such a rapid response is critical because sports apparel purchases are often driven by emotion and impulse, according to Brochstein.

“It’s about having the right product at the right price at the right time,” Brochstein said.

Increasingly, the right product is a more fashionable product. Last year, ’47 Brand debuted as an official retail partner of the NFL, launching a line of licensed apparel that might fit in at American Eagle Outfitters, if not for the team logos. The NFL’s partnership with ’47 Brand followed deals with other trendy merchandisers, like Junk Food Clothing and the Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co.


“We’re blending sports and lifestyle looks in a fashionable way,” said Dan Cohen, a spokesman for ’47 Brand. “You can get away with wearing one of our shirts in a setting where you couldn’t wear a regular T-shirt or jersey, just because it’s more fashionable.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.