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The Wide World of NFL Merchandise


Partnerships with Home Depot, Hasbro has helped keep league recession-proof.

The game itself may not have been particularly competitive, but you can bet that the National Football League's corporate offices in New York were pleased with the result.

Shortly after last week's Monday Night Football broadcast on ESPN (DIS), reports were already coming in crowning the Minnesota Vikings' 30-23 victory over the Green Bay Packers the single most-watched program in cable history. Despite a financial climate that's hurt a seemingly recession-proof sports industry, it was just the latest example of the fact that -- while it might not be impervious to economic decline -- the NFL is undoubtedly the country's most coveted license.

"We truly are America's passion," says Leo Kane, the league's Vice President of Consumer Products and the individual who effectively oversees the league's licensing of everything from apparel to bobbleheads to video games. "We're also blessed our season peaks around the Christmas holiday, when retailers do 50% of their business. People can do everything from buy a t-shirt at the beginning of the season to buy things for their home for a party or buy tailgating items."

While the league has long been very secretive of the license's worth, figures have filtered out here and there. While the NFL's rabid fans bought $2.9 billion worth of league merchandise in 2002, the license took a hit last year, from $3.6 billion the year before to $3.2 billion according to do SportsOneSource, a leading information source in the sporting-goods industry. While the drop is expected, the NFL license remains a favorite among merchandisers and the league has adapted to the changing economy by growing even more protective of its brand.

"We're doing more with fewer partners," says Kane. "We have a little over 100 licensees. Going back 10 years, we probably had close to 300 licensees. We certainly turn down a lot more than we accept. One that was out there for a while was caskets you can bury yourself in with your team. We don't think it's appropriate. There's many that we do say no to."

Fortunately for the NFL, fans haven't been quite as particular, snapping up practically anything bearing an NFL logo. That includes its video game with Electronic Arts (ERTS) -- which has been one of its industry's top sellers, despite a drop in sales this year -- as well as the merchandise that's available through its partnerships with companies ranging from the Home Depot (HD) to Hasbro (HAS). With the league now tapping into a growing female market, further expansion could be coming. "We've seen very steady growth in apparel products for women," says Kane. "We're seeing growth among women, which makes sense. We believe 44% of our fans are female."
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