NEW YORK, NY; DECEMBER 15, 2015—Sports licensing rarely has a runaway hit that moves the needle up for the entire segment the way Star Wars is doing for entertainment licensing this year (see Fearless Forecast: Entertainment Licensing).

Historically, sports are more likely to face a negative impact from a strike, lockout or other labor dispute, or a public relations crisis (abusing girlfriends/wives, health issues such as concussions) than to experience a sudden surge.

Screen Shot 2015-12-15 at 2.30.59 PMSports licensing is also spread across leagues, teams, and players most of whom have more or less local followings. So an uptick from, say, a team that hasn’t won a major title in some years or a player who achieves a record in his or her sport isn’t going to have as big an impact on the segment, nationally, as a whole.

All of which adds up to why sports licensing has essentially plateaued. For most leagues, teams and athletes, upsides are incremental and opportunistic. In the most extreme cases (a no-hitter, running record yardage in a single game, and so forth), the opportunism turns into a game of beating the pirates — lower case “p” intentional — who invariably seem able to be on the street with t-shirts before the game is over; this compares to licensees who will take days if not weeks to celebrate a sudden occasion.

Most of the upside activity in sports coalesces around a handful of trends we’ve seen over the past several years:

  • Personalization. Put your name on your favorite player’s team number and colors. Embroidery, heat transfers, and various types of instant printing are available in-store while you wait (not long) and online.
  • The Players Associations are becoming more aggressive. Many of their efforts center on marketing tie-ins that may or may not have licensing components. But even NFL and MLB Players Associations’ presence as exhibitors at Licensing Expo in Las Vegas this past June spoke to the higher profile they are seeking.
  • Co-branding players using both their pro team and college insignias; PGA co-branded college, NFL, MLB , NBA and NHL golf gear; cartoon characters and leagues, and so on.Screen Shot 2015-12-15 at 2.32.12 PM
  • International. American sports aren’t as developed internationally as are entertainment properties, but the NBA has been notable for its efforts at exposing kids in other countries to basketball. And the NBA, MLB and NHL all have some games being played in other countries as part of their efforts to increase overseas audiences and, ultimately, merchandise sales. Hockey merchandise sales continue to grow. Soccer is growing, albeit from a very small base; professional soccer has made slow but steady inroads in the U.S. but is invariably looked to as “the next big” whatever. (Some of us remember when global superstar player Pele was going to turn soccer into a mainstream American sport.)
  • Women. Alyssa Milano can’t be given enough credit for changing the attitude of the major leagues about what women will buy. It’s not about an oversized jersey women can wear as a nightshirt. And it’s not about pink. It’s about apparel designed and fitted for women, with a fashion-forward look that also appeals to the fan interest. Growth in the segment is slowing, but it still has substantial momentum. When it plateaus, it will be at a high level.
  • Growth in the stature of additional sports ranging from hockey and soccer to tennis and golf to lacrosse and jai-alai. (I recently heard of several schools offering bocce; I don’t see a big licensing opportunity there. Yet.)

Kids are the mystery ingredient for sports merchandising’s next growth spurt. For kids who play sports, the family budget is allotted to little league uniforms and gear. And its difficult to differentiate kid-oriented licensed sports merchandise in the way that women’s merchandise has achieved.

Ira’s Fearless Forecast: Barring any major catastrophes, labor stoppages, health issues or morals-based PR challenges, and thanks mostly to price increases, retail sales of licensed merchandise based on sports properties will continue modest growth of 2%-3% annually for 2015 and 2016.

Ira Mayer, former publisher and executive editor of The Licensing Letter, conducts competitive research and consults for companies in the licensing business; you can contact him by clicking on the “Contact” button above left.