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Why 49ers Super Bowl Shirts Won't Wind Up on eBay


According to industry insiders, these "collectibles" aren't really.

Now that the Baltimore Ravens have won Super Bowl XLVII, it's time to let needy people around the world know that San Francisco's 49ers have emerged victorious.

The NFL -- as well as retailers like Sports Authority and Dick's (NYSE:DKS) -- pre-print memorabilia for both teams, so the winners' gear is ready to wear as soon as the final second on the game clock ticks down. In the past, the NFL destroyed non-winning "winning" gear, to ensure misprints never entered the market. But in 1991, after US Customs officials at Los Angeles International Airport confiscated a shipment of counterfeit NFL goods and donated them to World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization which operates in over 100 countries (and does a lot more than distribute T-shirts), the league agreed to donate mismarked post-season apparel, as well.

This year's recipient countries have not yet been finalized, but when I spoke with Jeff Fields of World Vision after Super Bowl XLV in 2011, he was processing roughly $2 million worth of licensed NFL merchandise proclaiming the losing Pittsburgh Steelers as the victors for shipment to Zambia, Romania, Armenia, and Haiti.

Would the newly-minted Steelers fans know the difference?

"We're usually in pretty remote areas outside the capital cities, working with people who are focused on day-to-day survival," Fields told me. "So, they aren't really following US sports."

A Pittsburgh native, Fields assured me he wouldn't be taking so much as a cap for himself as a reminder of what could have been.

"With this particular product, with the NFL, we have to send it overseas," he said. "The league doesn't want it surfacing on eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) or something like that."

Still, the NFL feels obliged to take extraordinary measures, year after year, to ensure these items don't end up in any domestic fans' hands.

As Reebok vice president Eddie White once said, the gear is "protected as well as Elizabeth Taylor's diamonds."

Does it need to be?

Here's how far Boston Herald reporter -- and New York Giants supporter -- Aaron Kaplowitz went on a 2008 quest to find a "Patriots 19-0" shirt with which he could taunt his Tom Brady-loving buddies:

[W]ith a trip to Panama and Costa Rica already in the offing, Ilan, my roommate at Boston University, and I, both lifelong Giants fans, decided that dipping into Nicaragua for a few days to try and get our hands on the rare collectors' items was necessary addition to our itinerary. And a way for us to stick it one last time to our friends in Boston who were still crying over the Super Bowl.

Kaplowitz found his poly/cotton holy grail in the town of Diriamba. At the time, Expedia (NASDAQ:EXPE) had one-stop Delta (NYSE:DAL) flights to Managua on offer from $662.10. From Managua, one could rent a compact car from Budget (NYSE:CAR) for $12 or Hertz (NYSE:HTZ) for $20. At approximately $0.90/liter for fuel, the 33 kilometer drive to Diriamba would cost about six bucks, round trip. Excluding food, water, and incidentals, the shirt would carry an acquisition cost of roughly a thousand bucks.

As it turns out, misprinted NFL gear doesn't seem to command as much interest from collectors as the league may believe.

Brandon Steiner, founder and CEO of Steiner Sports, told me that there's "not really a market" for the items the NFL makes World Vision keep under lock and key.

"Sometimes people buy them here and there," Steiner said. "But there's not much value."

Richard Wiercinski of Huggins and Scott Auctions said, "There'd be very little value and very little interest."

And sports marketing executive Brett Sklar said, "You'd think they would be worth more, but if they were, the memorabilia guys would be all over it. If they can make money on something, they will. Remember, there's a losing team every year, so there are literally thousands of these out there."

This is good news for the NFL, which should be thrilled there's no market for misprints, except among those who may have never owned a piece of brand-new clothing in their lives and couldn't care less about how much they're worth.

In the words of World Vision executive John Yeager, "It staggers you to see the poverty in some parts of the world. It's just amazing to see the difference a simple T-shirt can make."
Follow Justin Rohrlich on Twitter: @chickenalaking
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